The Unchurched American


Some 81 million American adults are not members of any church or religious institution. Moreover, many churches are experiencing continuing decline in membership. What can local congregations do to encourage the “unchurched’ – many of whom are apparently strong believers – to become part of the community of active worshippers? To gain insight into the basic factors underlying churchlessness and to suggest ways of dealing with these factors, a major study was recently conducted by the Gallup Organization, Inc., and The Princeton Religious Research Center. That study is summarized by Mr. George Gallup, Jr. in the following pages.

This study was the first major investigation into the values, interests and backgrounds of the unchurched in America. It covered a wide range of factors related to churchlessness, including basic matters of beliefs, life-styles, upbringing, training and social/interpersonal relations. Are people unchurched by choice or do they feel excluded? Are some people just “unreachable”? What are the best ways to reach them?

For the purpose of our study, the working definition of the “unchurched” was a person who is not a member of a church or synagogue, or who has not attended church or synagogue in the last six months, apart from weddings, funerals or special holidays.

It should be pointed out that persons who are unchurched, while not meeting the criteria for the “churched” in this study, may include deeply religious people who do not happen to be drawn to the institutional church or who, for some reason, are unable to attend church regularly.


The results of this survey show nationwide acceptance of traditional values.

While the 1960s and 1970s have sometimes been labeled decades of revolt and disillusionment, the 1980s may well come to be regarded as a “return to normalcy” period.

Results for the total sample (including both churched and unchurched) show the following:

9 in 10 (91 percent) would welcome more emphasis on traditional family ties;

A similar proportion (89 percent) say they would welcome more respect for authority in the coming years;

7 in 10 (69 percent) say they would welcome more emphasis on working hard;

3 out of every 4 (74 percent) would not like to see more acceptance of marijuana usage; and

6 in 10 (62 percent) would be opposed to more acceptance of sexual freedom.


When churched and unchurched views are compared, the differences are dramatic: 80 percent of churched people express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Church, but only 38 percent of the unchurched do so.

Organized religion is widely criticized by the unchurched as having lost “the real spiritual part of religion” and for being “too concerned with organizational as opposed to theological or spiritual issues.”

Large majorities of the unchurched agree (strongly or moderately) that “most churches are not effective in helping people find meaning in life.”

Significantly, these criticisms are shared by large proportions of the churched, as well.

6 in 10 among the unchurched, and as many as one-half of the churched, agree (strongly or moderately) with the statement, “most churches have lost the real spiritual part of religion.”

56 percent of the unchurched say, “most churches today are too concerned with organizational as opposed to theological or spiritual issues,” and 47 percent of the churched agree.

49 percent of the unchurched, and 39 percent of the churched, agree with the statement, “most churches today are not effective in helping people find meaning in life. ”

Significant and comparable proportions of both unchurched (36 percent) and churched (28 percent) are critical of churches as “not warm and accepting of outsiders. ”

The churched are much more likely than are the unchurched to say they have, “discovered clear cut goals and a satisfying life purpose,” and to say “facing my daily tasks is a source of pleasure and satisfaction.”

Among the churched, 70 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives, while the proportion is considerably lower, 30 percent, among the unchurched.


The proportion of believers has remained constant over the last quarter century.

Today, as in 1965 and 1952, about 8 Americans in 10 believe that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God. Thirteen percent in the current survey believe Jesus was “another leader like Mohammed,” almost exactly matching theproportions recorded in the earlier surveys. As in the earlier surveys, 1 percent believe Jesus never actually existed.

Concerning belief in life after death, little change has occurred over the past 25 years. Today, as earlier, about 7 in 10 say they believe in life after death.

The proportion of Americans who say they pray to God is currently
about 9 in 10, the same proportion as recorded in 1965 and 1952. A decline in
frequency of prayer, however, is noted.

The unchurched, as defined in this study, appear to be remarkably religious in certain basic respects. That is, many say they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and a relatively high proportion have had a religious or a “born again” experience.

A total of 93 percent of the churched, and 68 percent of the unchurched say they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

9 in 10 (89 percent) of the churched and 64 percent of the unchurched believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God. Six percent of the churched group believe Jesus was another religious leader like Mohammed or Buddha, while 21 percent of the unchurched hold this view. Fewer than 1 percent of the churched (2 percent of the unchurched) think Jesus Christ never actually existed.

4 out of 5 churched say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, compared to 2 in 5 among the unchurched.

More than 8 in 10 (83 percent) of the churched and 6 in 10 (57 percent) of the unchurched believe in a life after death.

The churched are about equally divided between those who believe the Bible to be the “actual word of God” and those who believe it is the “inspired word of God.” Three percent of the churched, but 20 percent of the unchurched believe the Bible to be an “ancient book of fables.”

When asked if they “ever pray to God.” 98 percent of the churched group reply in the affirmative, but 76 percent of the unchurched do so, as well.

Of the total sample of churched, 74 percent indicate that they pray frequently (that is, once a day or more), while 45 percent of the unchurched do so.

About 4 in 10 of the churched group (43 percent) say they have had a religious experience – that is, a particularly powerful religious insight or awakening – compared to 24 percent of the unchurched.


Most of the presently unchurched have had a traditionally religious background – in fact, to nearly the same extent as the churched.

About 9 in 10 (88 percent) among the churched have received religious training of some sort as a child, compared to 77 percent of the unchurched.

The sharpest difference found between the churched and the unchurched in terms of the kind of training is “instruction by your parents at home,” cited by the churched considerably more often than by the unchurched.

As for preparation for confirmation or for full membership in the church, 54 percent of the churched say they have had such training, in contrast to 40 percent among the unchurched.

An overwhelming majority of those in the churched category (95 percent) would want a child of theirs to receive religious instruction. However, as many as 74 percent of the unchurched give the same response.

In addition. the churched are more likely to say their children are currently receiving religious training – 72 percent compared to 43 percent among the unchurched.

In terms of the total sample, a decline is found in the percentage of Americans who say they have received religious training as a child, from 94 percent in 1952 to 91 percent in 1965 to 83 percent today. It is interesting to note that this downtrend (in religious training) parallels the downtrend in the percentage of Americans who say religion is “very important” in their lives.

The basic reason why the churched joined the church was because they were brought up in the congregation. Nearly half of the responses fall into this category.

Friends, good preaching, and a good program of religious education are also cited as reasons for being drawn to a particular church. Significantly, one of the reasons given is, “I was invited to this church by a member, and I liked the people.”

Factors which led returnees (churched, unchurched and rechurched) to resume attending, include (1) self need; (2) so that children could have religious instruction; (3) a matter of faith and (4) a personal religious experience.

A significant proportion (1 in 4) of the presently churched indicate there was a period of two years or more when they were among the unchurched – that is, they did not attend church.

Those survey respondents (both churched and unchurched) who indicated there was a period of two years or more when they did not attend church were asked for reasons for not doing so. The churched group are most likely to say, “I moved to a different community and never got involved in a new church” or “I found other interests and activities which led me to spend less and less time on church-related activities.”

The unchurched, on the other hand, are most likely to say, “When I grew up and started making decisions on my own, I stopped going to church.”

Many of the unchurched-while not drawn to organized religion – nevertheless have positive inclinations toward organized religion and feel that “religion is a good thing.” For example, the overwhelming majority of the unchurched would like to have their children receive religious training.

At least half of the unchurched (52 percent or approximately 20 million adults) say they could see a situation where they could become a “fairly active member of a church now” and would be open to an invitation from the church community.


The job of encouraging and persuading the unchurched to become part of the community of active worshipers will not be an easy one. Clearly, organized religion is not playing a central role in the religious lives of a sizable proportion of the unchurched. Many feel they can “go it alone.”

In addition, many outside the church – and inside as well – are critical of churches. For example, organized religion is, as previously noted, widely criticized by the unchurched as having lost the “real spiritual part of religion” and for being “too concerned with organizational as opposed to theological or spiritual issues.” Large majorities of the unchurched also believe that “most churches are not effective in helping people find meaning in life.”

Bringing unchurched Americans to a realization of the spiritual rewards of being part of the community of active believers will be a difficult task. Yet, certain of the findings from the study justify optimism.

The Reverend Alvin A. Illig, C.S.P., Executive Director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Evangelization had this to say:

“I am greatly encouraged with the programs of outreach we will be designing as a result of this study.

“Fifty-two percent of the unchurched Americans see a situation where they could become active members of a church today! Almost 4 out of 5 of the unchurched want their children to have some religious education. Obviously, there is a tremendous reservoir of good will with which we have to work. Some two-thirds of the unchurched today pray, believe in God, believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, believe in an afterlife. We are dealing with a people who have deep religious roots; roots that when watered with kindness and compassion will once more grow.

“Perhaps the most significant discovery for me, as in ordained priest with many years of theological study behind me, is that the reasons why people attend church are not the profound theological questions we debated in the seminary-important though they are. Most of the reasons for leaving as well as returning deal with human factors which are often manageable if we are sensitive to the bruises, the needs, the yearnings, the inadequacies of the churchless. ”


Develop an active program of evangelism. Clergymen should perhaps do more to encourage church members to feel that evangelism and witnessing are a key part of religious commitment.

Our study indicates that while much evangelism is being undertaken – particularly by members of the more evangelical churches – great deal more could be done. Indeed, one of the key reasons given by those who joined a church is that someone invited them to do so.

In each community of worshipers there undoubtedly are certain people who are particularly effective in reaching others. And the style of evangelism, of course, should be adapted to the particular situation.

Evangelism often fails. not only because the evangelizer occasionally “comes on too strong” but because he or she has not addressed particular needs of a given person. In this respect. churches would do well to experiment with numerous approaches to see which works best for their situation.

Those involved in evangelism should indicate how church involvement could help those presently unchurched to:

Deal with the problems of life. Surveys have frequently shown that the religiously involved are often more able to cope with life’s many problems than are those who are not religiously involved.

Strengthen the religious and moral development of their children. Most parents put a high premium on the religious development of their children.

Understand the meaning of life. Many people today – in what has been called the “Me Decade” – appear to be searching for a deeper dimension to their lives.

Enrich their own spiritual lives. Many of the unchurched have active spiritual lives and pray regularly. Those involved in evangelization could point out how this prayer life could be nourished in a church context, through prayer meetings, discussion groups and the like.

Reach out to new people in a community. Sometimes all people need is an invitation. The study indicates that many people have never been asked to try a new church, but would do so if they received an invitation.

The present potential for new members may be even better than in the past, since many people apparently are spiritually restless. In addition, denominational lines are not as strong as they have been.

Close contact with churches in other communities would make the task of locating new people that much easier. And for those who cannot find a church of their preferred denomination at a convenient distance from home, perhaps new approaches should be considered, including home worship services.

If efforts to reach the unchurched meet with success, what will this mean for the churches of the United States?

Predictions are risky, of course, but the fact may be that the unchurched – many of whom are deeply religious and perhaps in some ways more creative in their spiritual lives – could, if brought back into the community of active worshipers, do as much to revitalize the churches of our nation as the churched themselves.