Is "Just Friends" the Future of the Church?

A new survey has implications for how Christians do community. Or not.

Is "Just Friends" the Future of the Church?
Friendship Stock photos by Vecteezy

I wrote last week about a PRRI study of religious changes in the United States, and what it could tell us about Donald Trump's hardcore supporters. But the study also had significant non-political implications for mainline churches.

Here's the good news from the study:

  • As in 2022, there are slightly more Non-evangelical Protestants (14.3% of the population) than evangelicals (13.7%).

And here's the bad news:

  • White and Hispanic evangelicals are growing, a little. Every other brand of Christian faith is declining.
  • White mainliners lost 4.4 percentage points,1 a rate of decline second only to White Catholics.
  • This reflects an overall decline in faith and practice. The fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. is the unaffiliated. Fewer Americans say they attend church, or that religion is important in their lives.
  • The people "lost" to the church are unlikely to return. Only three percent of Americans who grew up without a religious tradition later joined one. And just nine percent of the unaffiliated said they were looking for a new spiritual home. In fact, only 40% of the unaffiliated would even describe themselves as "spiritual."


In short, the U.S. is well into an uneven process of secularization. White evangelicals (40%) and Black Protestants (37%), for example, are much more likely than White mainliners (6%) to say religion is very important.

Still, the perceived importance of faith declined across all demographics. Paradoxically, the traditions valuing faith the most showed some of the biggest drops. And no tradition has a majority of adherents saying religion is very important to them.

Meanwhile, older Americans showed greater declines in religiosity than younger generations. So did those with lower levels of education.2 This contradicts some of the popular stereotypes of America's religious base.

There is not a winning combination of worship, ministry and community that can stem the tide of Americans' rising disinterest in faith.

Republicans are twice as likely to say that faith is important to them and almost as much more likely to attend worship. This may reflect a "circling of the wagons" in the Trump era as Americans increasingly choose their political parties by religious belief — and vice versa.

Taken as a whole, the PRRI study suggests that there is realistically little mainline Protestant churches can do to avoid decline. What's happening is a social sea change. There is not a winning combination of worship, ministry and community that can stem the tide of Americans' rising disinterest in faith.

The situation is grim, but not serious

I say that not to discourage church members and leaders, but to get churches to stop blaming themselves. Evangelical churches are retaining more members than Catholics or mainline traditions. But only because they have built high walls between their communities and the outside world, including along political lines. Mainline churches wouldn't want to do the same, even if they could.

And though the data may look grim, there is no reason to collapse into apathy here. There are ways to respond to this situation with creativity and faith. I want to look at two possibilities: One that's currently happening, and one more general suggestion.

The already

Almost half of the people who left a religious tradition cited negative teachings about the LGBTQ community. Members of that community are over-represented in the ranks of the unaffiliated compared to the size of the population. They are also the most likely to say they left their childhood faith because it was bad for their mental health.

At the same time, many LGBTQ people have experienced acceptance and welcome in mainline churches. It may be good for mainliners to lean into this practice even more than they currently do. Not as a way of increasing membership, but because it's the right thing to do. Especially with people facing increasing threats to their freedoms and their lives. Promoting an alternative to the current stereotype of Christians as narrow-minded and bigoted would be a side benefit.

It's important to stress that creating a welcoming church cannot be done with an expectation of return on investment. Because, as outlined above, the vast majority of the religiously unaffiliated are not looking for a new spiritual home. I've spoken to many secular people who have told me in one way or another that they agree with the values of a generous, socially-engaged faith. They just don't think it's necessary to believe in God to share those values.

The not yet

So the unaffiliated aren't looking for God. They may not even be looking for community: Americans are spending less and less time together. Though it might be a losing battle, it may be worth investigating how the church can provide an alternative to the ever-present cell phone.

But if the unaffiliated aren't looking for a community, they may be looking for a connection. To put it another way, they don't want to be members of a formal body. They want to be friends.

It would be an enormous challenge to get congregations to embrace a paradigm of friendship as the center of their work. Too many are set on maintaining their unique identities, and the buildings that go with them. Honestly, I don't have a good model for what this would look like.

As it stands, I suspect that we'll wind up with something resembling the European church: Fewer, smaller congregations made up of the most dedicated members. Still, I can't help wondering what effect a church built on a distributed network of solidarity, acceptance, and mutuality with no fixed endpoints or borders might have on the faith as a whole. I'll flesh that out next week.


1That is, 18.7% of Americans said they grew up in a mainline tradition, but only 14.3% said they were currently affiliated with one. 

2Older Americans are still more likely to have a religious affiliation, however.