An Associated Press story this past week reported that U.S. adult membership in a church or other religious institution has tumbled 20 percentage points over the last 20 years. It reached a low of 50% last year, according to a Gallup poll.
North Dakota still ranks among the top states for the percentage of church-going population. A 2001 survey showed 35% of North Dakota's population was Lutheran and 30% was Catholic. Other religious groups represented were Methodists (7%), Baptists (6%), the Assemblies of God (3%), Presbyterians (1.27%) and Jehovah's Witnesses (1%). But the state hasn’t been immune from the national trend, seeing a drop in church membership.
It’s disturbing news for those whose faith plays an integral role in their lives. The declining membership reflects a cultural shift across the nation. Professor Scott Thumma, who teaches sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, told the Associated Press there are likely several factors behind the decline. Thumma noted that religious young adults are delaying marriage, postponing having children, and, when they do, having fewer children. There’s also less social pressure to formally join organizations.
“I’ve encountered many persons in churches that have attended for several years but did not officially join or become a member,” he said by email. “This is also evident in persons switching from one congregation to another without joining any.”
So while membership may be declining it may not be a case of people rejecting religion. They may be finding different ways to express their faith by visiting different churches, observing the Sabbath at home or watching services on TV. It makes sense that changing lifestyles would influence how we practice religion.
The Legislature voted this session to remove the remaining blue laws. Supporters of the laws feel the change will force more people to work on Sunday and reduce the amount of family time available. The Tribune Editorial Board doesn’t agree with this argument. We feel the laws were unfair because they picked a few businesses that weren’t allowed to open before noon on Sunday. Churches have adjusted over the years, adding services on Saturday and other days to accommodate their congregations.
The Tribune doesn’t see the Gallup poll as an indication of waning faith, but as a reflection of how we practice our faith differently. On Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994, the Tribune’s editorial focused on a changing society. We think it's still timely and it’s reprinted below.
“One of the unnamed virtues of living in northern climates is the great parallel between Easter and new life that dawns on us at this time of year. Budding trees and a resurrecting Earth become visual aids, flashcards to help us grasp the reality of Easter lessons.
“Even today in the midst of pealing brass instruments and lilies that seem to trumpet truth, we're not sure how to make the resurrection part of our lives. In our search, we forget that the Passion story is a week of gritty earthiness; of blood, loneliness, abandonment and salty tears.
“Maybe that tells us that Easter lives are meant to be lived surrounded by gritty issues; in recycling valuable resources, right now, at home and at work. Maybe it means that we are to stand out as the dissenting voice, in the places where we socialize, against racial slurs, however harmless they seem to be. Maybe it means we are to be committed to consuming less and sharing, really sharing, our wealth. Maybe it means that we humble ourselves enough to listen, without comeback or snide remark, to the people we haven't wanted to hear.
“Easter's glory seems so magnificent that we may not know how it includes us unless we have a personal stake in human triumph.”