Have you stopped going to church? It shouldn’t mean losing your community

With the decline of religious practice in American society, we risk losing one of the great organizational structures we share with our ancestors, and with it the positives of being part of a greater whole.


A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. The perceived importance of religion has also declined. Ten years ago, 63% of Americans called religion the most or one of the most important things in their lives; now that number stands at 52%.

However, this decline is not random. Those most likely to leave religion are white, formerly Christian-affiliated Americans. The majority say they no longer believe in the religion’s teachings as their main reason for leaving.

But significant numbers are also leaving because they believe religion has become too politicized. Furthermore, the growing proportion of ‘nonverts’ (those previously but not currently affiliated with a religion) amid a rise in what scholar Stephen Bullivant calls ‘cradle nones’ (those whose parents claimed no religious affiliation), means that everyone Every year, fewer Americans are connected to places of worship.

As professors of sociology and religious studies, we know that declining religious affiliation can have negative consequences for our society; however, the answer is broader than simply, “Go (back) to church.”

Religion helps shape community bonds

Religion has several functions: strengthening and nourishing one’s identity, shaping community values ​​and establishing bonds of trust with others. With the decline of religious practice in American society, we risk losing one of the great organizational structures we share with our ancestors, and with it the positives of being part of a greater whole.

The disconnection from our neighbors, the fostering of distrust and the lack of connection further endangers our society.

Our churches are dying. To reach Gen Z, faith leaders must go back to basics.

Encouragingly, recent data suggests that those who attend religious services at least a few times a year have deeper civic engagement, allowing for real change in our society. In contrast, those who never attend religious services tend to engage in the most superficial forms of community involvement, such as posting on social media or signing a petition, rather than more involved activities – such as volunteering for a campaign or contact their government officials for change.

Given that faith, community and civic engagement seem inextricably linked, what is the way forward?

We think that appealing to mainstream nonverts and cradle nones would help reconnect the broken parts of our public space. Moderate voices are of utmost importance at this time in history because mainstream religious beliefs and actions based on those beliefs have a stabilizing effect on society.

Yet research shows that moderates caught in the political crossfire of extreme positions have retreated into private religious beliefs rather than communal disagreements.

Can they be blamed?

If you see religion as a refuge from a volatile world, the whole participatory event becomes exhausting.

Americans are increasingly separated from each other

It is not just religious organizations that have declined. In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam coined the term “bowling alone” to lament the demise of community support systems such as bowling leagues and the Elks Lodge.

Such recreational and voluntary associations served largely the same purposes as houses of worship. As a result of this decline, there was a huge decline in ‘social capital’ in the second half of the 20th century.

Why am I lonely? Lack of social connections is harming Americans’ mental health.

So are we saying that individuals should become more religious? No.

We advocate community in many forms. Some may argue that an ultramarathon club or chamber of commerce should not be considered equivalent to religious services. While social connections do not necessarily form identities and provide a way to think through life’s big questions, they do offer the benefit of personal comfort and communal trust in our neighbors.

One of the responsibilities of citizenship is to leave your community a better place than you found it. Participating in a house of worship can be a way to promote social change and connection. But joining a book group or garden club can also be a way to achieve many of the same social goals.

But beyond simply joining a group in the hope that this can restore your faith in your fellow human beings or even your own faith, we would like to ask you to go a step further. Social institutions are human-made, which means they can also be changed by us. The broken pieces can be lifted together and reassembled.

To reclaim our social capital, you need to get genuinely involved in something that allows you to make personal connections with a large part of humanity. And to reclaim our lost communities, you must ensure that these institutions are inviting and hospitable places for others. Doing so will restore trust in our neighbors and community – a foundation of American society.

Amanda Jayne Miller is a professor of sociology and co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Indianapolis. James Willis III is an assistant professor of the practice of religion at the University of Indianapolis.

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