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U.S. church membership declining, but East Texas faith leaders not discouraged

Updated: Apr. 9, 2021 at 6:02 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - A new poll shows that church membership has fallen below fifty percent for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.

Last year, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s down from 50 percent in 2019, and 70 percent in 1999.

When Gallup first polled people in 1937, membership was at 73 percent.

So what do those numbers look like here in East Texas? Some area faith leaders filled us in.

The recent Gallup poll showed the biggest membership decline among Catholics, down 18 points from 76 percent to 58.

Bishop of Tyler Joseph Strickland is responsible for Catholics across East Texas. He says while polls like this are worth paying attention to, he believes they’re not worth an overreaction.

Bishop Strickland said, “I believe we’re better than that poll would suggest. In the 33 counties that make up the Diocese of Tyler, I believe we’ve seen even with the pandemic and everything, a real commitment to faith, and a desire to live that faith.”

He says despite national membership numbers falling, he believes things are different in East Texas. But he acknowledges that worldwide, belief in God and organized religion has diminished.

“We’re living in a time when many people are rejecting organized religion of any kind,” Strickland said.

He says a tremendous change he’s seen in recent years is a decline in trust among all institutions.

“The institutions of our world, not just religious, but all institutions, are less respected than they were when I was a kid,” he added.

At Green Acres Baptist Church, Teaching Pastor Michael Gosset says that despite the poll showing a nine-point drop in membership for Protestant churches, the numbers at GABC are up.

“The church is the only institution that is guarded by the Lord himself,” Gossett said.

He says their church saw growth even during the pandemic, with more than 1,000 new guests filling the pews in the past year.

“We’re seeing revival almost take place among conservative churches,” he said.

And while Gallup attributes the drop to reasons including more adults with no religious preference, they also note that population change, with older generations, likely to be church members, being replaced with younger generations who say they are less likely. Gossett says it isn’t necessarily the case at his church.

“We’re seeing firsthand here at GABC that our younger generations are making the majority of decisions when it comes to baptism, salvation, and even for church membership, as we would think of that in the traditional sense,” he said.

With the national poll numbers and our local numbers in mind, both faith leaders agree the future of church in America is in the hands of a higher power.

“Even in the midst of chaos, even in the midst of political turmoil, and racial tensions that we have walked through in the past year. Not to mention the pandemic. All of these things. All of these events are causing people to look for hope, and it’s here,” Gossett says.

Strickland says it’s no time to get discouraged.

“As has been pointed out to me, and I would encourage all Christians to not get discouraged. Christ is always telling his disciples, ‘do not be afraid.’ Don’t be worried. Trust in him. Trust in his love, trust in his life. I think we have to have that same attitude as Christians today and do our best to share that treasure,” he said.

Gallup says churches are only as strong as their membership because they’re dependent on their membership for financial support and service.

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