The statistics from the National Council of Churches seem pretty clear: Americans are leaving churches at an alarming rate. Here are the losses by denomination from 2000 to 2013, as reported in The Lutheran magazine:
° Presbyterian Church USA: -30.3%
° United Church of Christ: -28.9%
° Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: -24.8%
° Episcopal Church: -17.5%
° United Methodist Church: -11.4%
° Southern Baptist Convention: - 1.4%
In the ELCA, churches with an average worship attendance of 50 or fewer increased 66% since 1990. Churches are getting smaller with fewer donations to support their work and their very existence. We are witnessing the secularization of America, a nation in which attending church on a regular basis is no longer a normative practice.
More is at stake here than the fiscal health of congregations or the number of bodies in the pews on a Sunday. Churches have been guiding organizations throughout this nation's history. Look at the number of colleges and universities, going back to Harvard, the first college in the American colonies, founded by religious organizations and, originally at least, dedicated to the education of clergy. Other social institutions — the abolitionist movement, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the YMCA — were based in Christian principles and came to influence all of American society.
Some may welcome the decline of church influence. Sunday "blue laws," which kept retailers' doors closed on Sunday, were such an inconvenience to shoppers. Churches and church-influenced organizations have found themselves in the minority on a number of "moral issues" of the past century, including alcoholic beverages, gambling (state lotteries and casinos), and gay marriage.
Churches are beginning to be seen as irrelevant to a growing majority of Americans, for whom Sunday is a day for golf or for sleeping in or even just another day of work. If religious faith is on the wane, as it appears, that bodes ill for society as a whole. Religion has provided the moral guidance and ethical principles for society, churched or unchurched. It is religion that dictates that people are responsible for other people, that caring for those in need is a virtue, and that good character is built on kindness, sympathy, generosity, truthfulness and honor.
Without those standards, American society becomes a very different culture, one that is less caring, less respectful of others, less generous and honorable and more self-centered and unkind. It's a change that even those who never "darken the church doors" might notice.