(RNS) — As Holy Week began this year, a Gallup Poll found that church membership in the United States had declined to less than half of the population for the first time. The headline grabbed attention, but it’s mostly unsurprising: In a country where 90% of the 350,000 congregations in the U.S. have a profile older than the general population, time brings an inevitable decline.Christians have also suffered self-inflicted damage: Surveys show that the identification of many white evangelicals with former President Donald Trump drove many millennials away, as did the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church over the previous decades. “Nones” — those claiming no religious affiliation — are growing, now roughly equaling the number of evangelicals or of Catholics in the U.S.
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That all makes for nice sound bites, but it’s not the whole story, and there are realities behind Gallup’s numbers that deserve exploration.
What’s dramatically declining in the U.S. is white Christianity. People of color are actually preventing a more precipitous drop in overall church participation. The Assemblies of God, one of the few denominations showing growth, saw its white membership decrease in the 10 years between 2004 and 2014, but nonwhite members increased by 43%, reflecting trends continuing today. One-third of U.S. Catholics are now Hispanic. Without its growing nonwhite members, the Catholic Church would be in free fall instead of remaining at about 22% of the U.S. population.
The nones who enjoy lattes at downtown coffee shops on Sunday mornings instead of singing in church are largely young, hip and white. But the country’s demographic future as a whole is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and this will impact the religious landscape.