Newswise — While it’s not uncommon to find churches filled to capacity on religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, it’s also not uncommon to find plenty of empty pews on traditional church Sundays outside of those holidays. Recent studies have said as much, prompting questions about why fewer people are attending church regularly and if the United States is becoming less religious in general.

Charles H. Barfoot, an instructor at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, recently shared his thoughts on the subject. Barfoot, who teaches Religious Studies in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences says while there may be a growing shift from mainline churches to spiritual and non-denominational congregations, people are still finding religion in many ways.

Question: There are plenty of theories as to why fewer Americans are attending church weekly. What do you think is the primary reason why so many have drifted away from the church?

Answer:  A couple of possible answers.  There has been a lot of hurt inflicted on people by the institutional church, such as a lack of acceptance of LGBTQ, molestation of children, racism, fundamentalism.

And I think the secularization theory is still valid in many quarters.  Churches that are attractive to progressives are losing the most members.  Why?  With secular alternatives, why bother?  Churches with a more mystical appeal, such as the Episcopal Church or the Roman Catholic Church seemingly are in better shape than simply, purely rational ones.  The church has to stand out among a plethora of alternatives.  If it can't or won't--they quickly lose their influence. 

A famous sociological theory from the 1960s claimed that churches needed to provide both 'Comfort & Challenge.'  That requires a delicate balance--a kind of theological ballet.  A constant challenge w/little or no comfort goes stale very fast.  Churches that began hemorrhaging members in the 1960s still seem oblivious to the fact that comfort, too, is needed.  The Black Church, in my opinion, has had for years the right kind of balance between the two.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s authority came from the church -- the prophetic tradition -- the challenging part.  But the nurturing part has not been forgotten.  Many 'secular' performers got their start in church -- from a beloved community that was very supportive and nurturing.


Q: In the paradoxical reality of our world, while we're seeing an increasing shift toward spirituality, we're also seeing the rise of massive congregations in so-called mega churches. What is the appeal of the mega church?

A:  First, anonymity.  It is more like a theater.  You just show up and go in.  Much less threatening. Nobody knows who you are and you can stay that way if you so choose to do so.

Second, more money means more ministry.  Quality of everything can improve from music to architecture, from real estate to leadership.  Mom and pop stores have been replaced by big-box stores -- whether we like it or not.  It takes a certain number of people and dollars to buy land, put up buildings, make payroll, etc.  Many churches today cannot afford to build and if they do have buildings can no longer afford their upkeep.  And I think the days of 'passing the plate' are long gone.  There has to be built in profit centers such as, weddings, schools, day-care, senior-care – even among non-profits.  They not only need to be self-sustaining, they also need to contribute to the general budget.

You can read more of Charles Barfoot's thoughts on the relevance of religion in today's world here. Barfoot is also available to speak on the following topics: 

  • His book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890-1926.
  • The role of women in the church.
  • The shift of the immigrant population, particularly among Latinos, away from traditional religions.


About Charles H. Barfoot

Barfoot has expert knowledge in the Sociology of Religion, New Religious Movements, American Religious History, Women and Religion and Pentecostalism in the Global South. He received his education at Princeton Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley and the University of Birmingham (UK). An author and speaker, Barfoot wrote the book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890-1926. He teaches ethics, philosophy, religious studies and sociology at Arizona State University.

To schedule an interview, contact Suzanne Wilson at ASU Media Relations: | (480) 965-9681


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