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Is organized religion reaching its expiration date?

People are making a habit, you might say, out of having no religious affiliation at all. The trend is seen across all age groups, among immigrants and native-born, and especially among those under 30.

photo of inside of cathedral
People of faith are the fuel that powers our engines – without them, our efforts to help create opportunity in St. Paul will certainly stall.

“If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left.”

Bill Brady
That blunt headline in the Washington Post on April 28, 2017, put into stark focus what has been becoming increasingly apparent in religious circles: Given current trend lines, mainline Protestantism will be closing up shop by 2039. The numbers keep dwindling in both those who attend a “mainline” church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination.

“Among the so-called mainline churches, we are having a particularly bad half-century,” veteran journalist and Episcopalian leader Ray Suarez put it dryly. The Protestants aren’t alone. Data from the most recent Pew Trust Study shows a similar decline for Roman Catholicism, mitigated only somewhat by the impact of Latino immigration. Even evangelicals dropped in the last 10 years, albeit modestly. Beyond the Christian realm, the proportion of Jews who say they are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, not religion, is growing rapidly.

In fact, the fastest-growing religious identity in the United States today is the “nones.” People are making a habit, you might say, out of having no religious affiliation at all. The trend is seen across all age groups, among immigrants as much as among native-born, and especially among those under 30 years of age.  

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Implications beyond the pews

So, who cares about these trends? As a coalition of communities of faith, Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul certainly does. Interfaith Action harnesses volunteers from our member faith communities and creates pathways for them to live out that common directive of all of humanity’s important faiths – to love our neighbors. We employ an interfaith, multiracial, inter-generational approach to relieving poverty and addressing its root causes. Among other things, we operate emergency shelters for homeless families, offer culturally relevant food and education support for the often-overlooked urban American Indian community, and send dozens of tutors into the community to be job coaches and to help children in danger of falling behind.

People of faith are the fuel that powers our engines – without them, our efforts to help create opportunity in St. Paul will certainly stall. That is why we care deeply about the health of our faith community.

On May 30, the aforementioned Ray Suarez will speak to Interfaith Action’s Annual Assembly to help us address the issue head-on. He is the author of “The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America” and many other books; we have asked him here to discuss, “Who Will Be in the Pews in 2040?”

Suarez brings two important perspectives

As a member of the leadership team at Washington National Cathedral as well as a veteran reporter for NPR, PBS and other media outlets, Suarez brings two important perspectives to the table. He has a journalist’s broad and deep knowledge of current events, and he is of a leader in our nation’s religious community who is deeply interested in the trends we see in our pews.

“Years of challenge are ahead for the country and for people of faith,” Suarez says. “Will we limp into that next America, into 2044, or will we sprint? The answer depends on many factors, but I am by nature an optimist and by nature a patriot, and that gives me hope for what is in store.”

We invite you to join us to hear more words of challenge and hope from  Suarez on Thursday, May 30, at Saint Paul College. Here is a link where you can secure your spot in the audience. 

Bill Brady, a retired Twin Cities public relations professional, serves on the board of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul.

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