This article originally appeared at Baptist News Global on July 21, 2023.
I haven’t attended church in almost four years and can’t imagine going back.
I don’t share this lightly. I was so dedicated to the church that I structured my entire career spanning two decades cleaning restrooms and floors in order to have the flexibility to volunteer many hours each week in church planting, worship leading, Bible studies and other ministries. And I did so out of gratitude for the gospel rather than to earn my standing with God.
Even as my theology deconstructed and after I eventually left, I went into tens of thousands of dollars of student debt pursuing a master’s degree in worship as part of my personal processing of what happened. And I don’t regret a single penny of it.
But now I’m part of the “never attenders.”
The “never attenders” go to church even less than what some call the “Chreasters” — those who attend only at Christmas and Easter. We simply never attend.
For many of my fellow “never attenders,” our decision to leave happened during the Trump presidency, despite many of us being members of churches that didn’t explicitly bend the knee to the former president.
“Did the election of Donald Trump drive people from the pews?”
So how widespread is this phenomenon of “never attenders”? How quickly is this trend growing? And is it really simply about politics? Or as Ryan Burge, a political scientist and Baptist pastor recently asked: “Did the election of Donald Trump drive people from the pews?”
Measuring the ‘never attenders’ by age
Burge studied data from the Cooperative Election Study and saw that every age group has trended toward an increase in those who never attend church.
“For folks born in the early 1950s, 16% were never attenders in 2008,” he noted. “That’s nearly doubled to 30% today.”
Additionally, among those who were born in the 1980s, 25% were “never attenders” in 2008, compared to 36% today.
The baseline percentage in 2008 goes up the younger people are as well. For example, 15% of those who were born in the late 1930s were “never attenders” in 2008, compared to 25% of those who were born in the early 1990s. So over time, it should be expected that these trends will increase even more.
Measuring the ‘never attenders’ by political affiliation
Across the age groups, Burge discovered Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans (42% to 21%) to report never attending church in 2020.
But what’s even more interesting is how the rate increase of people never attending church rose exponentially during the Trump administration compared to the rate increase during the Obama presidency.
“The rate increase of people never attending church rose exponentially during the Trump administration compared to the rate increase during the Obama presidency.”
“For those born between 1975 and 1979, the never attenders rose 3% between 2010 and 2016,” Burge explained. “The share of never attenders rose 16% between 2016 and 2022.”
Contrasting partisan differences
Focusing in on the potential Trump effect from 2016 to 2022, one of the most striking results is seeing how Republicans remained relatively static while Democrats increased dramatically in having no religious affiliation.
The only exception to this rule was Gen Z Republicans, who increased in non-religious status from 21% in 2016 to 28% in 2022. Other than that, Republican Millennials remained at 25% throughout that time frame, Gen X held steady at 20%, Boomers were consistent at 14%, and the Silent Generation increased slightly from 7% to 9%.
But in contrast to the steady consistency of Republicans across each of these generations, the Democrats who identified as non-religious increased between 4% to 11% from 2016 through 2022.
According to Burge, “Social behavior doesn’t just change that quickly, unless there is a methodological change or some kind of exogenous shock.”
“Social behavior doesn’t just change that quickly, unless there is a methodological change or some kind of exogenous shock.”
After ruling out a number of possibilities, Burge concludes, “The only other logical explanation in my mind is Donald Trump.”