The State of Religion & Church Life in America, 2021 (Pt. 2)

This week I’d like to focus on a couple things – the demographics and the faith practices of the United Church of Christ. To do this, I’d like to compare the UCC to a similarly sized denomination that is distinctly Evangelical in nature as well as distinctive altogether, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church of America (SDA). One reason why it is distinctive altogether is the fact that it’s Sabbath and day for Worship is Saturday. Another distinctive feature of the SDA is that most of its adherents practice vegetarianism.

According to the 2015 American Religious Landscape Survey, the SDA, along with non-denominationalists and Pentecostals, were the only 3 Christian groups that saw growth between 2007 and 2014. So, the SDA is doing something right.

That said, juxtaposing the UCC next to the SDA helps us have a helpful frame of reference. This is, as mentioned especially so when UCC and SDA are similar in size.


I’d like to begin by considering the age range of the SDA and UCC. SDA is in green and UCC in blue. The following date are from the 2015 Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Research Foundation.

Age distribution among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who are ages

Generational cohorts among 
Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who are

The UCC is an aging denomination. The largest cohort is from the Baby-Boomer generation and ranges between 57 and 75 years-old. The SDA whose largest cohort is from Gen-X (ages 41-56 years-old). While both denominations are not seeing as many Millennials either join or remain as members, UCC struggles more. We see this in the data looking at retention rates, the rates at which denominations keep their young within the fold as they become adults.

SDA, here listed as Adventists, retain 51% of their young with 21% leaving for other Protestant denominations and 21% becoming unaffiliated when it comes to religious life. UCC, here listed as Congregationalists, retain 31% of its young with 33% leaving for other Protestant denominations and 28% leaving affiliation-based religious involvement.

The SDA is also much more diverse compared to the UCC:

Racial and Ethnic Composition among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who identify as

Looking more deeply at the interior lives of the two denominations, we note that compared to the SDA, the UCC’s level of religious belief and practice varies.

Importance of religion in one’s life among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who say religion is…

Belief in God among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who say they...

Attendance at religious services among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who attend religious services…

Frequency of prayer among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who pray...

Frequency of reading scripture among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who read scripture…

Frequency of participation in prayer, scripture study, or religious education groups among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who attend prayer group…

Put frankly, religious faith touches the daily lives of SDA members more than it does UCC members. The higher levels of faith and practice among SDA members seems to correlate with a greater sense of spiritual peace and well-being among SDA members.

Frequency of feeling spiritual peace and well-being among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who feel a sense of spiritual peace and well-being...

A significant question is this: are heightened levels of belief and participation correlated with denominational growth? This is very difficult to answer. Yet I think we can confidently answer yes. Evangelical Protestant groups, like the SDA, see greater attendance on average and more participation in spiritual practices (prayer, scripture reading, etc.). And Evangelical Protestant groups, like SDA (as well as nondenominational and Pentecostal traditions), are either growing or declining at a slower rate as Mainline Protestant denominations.

Another consideration is SDA’s unique elements and practices. It shares with Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, all religious groups experiencing growth in the U.S., two things – non-Sunday gatherings for worship and dietary restrictions. Could key uniqueness in approach (e.g., Sabbath on Saturday or Friday prayer) and standard practices among the faithful (e.g., vegetarianism or kosher rules) correlate to denominational growth? Does this kind of buy-in translate into not only growth but retention? Maybe so.

What is clear to me is this: religious groups that have high levels of attendance, participation, and/or engagement in spiritual practices among the faithful are far more likely to experience growth.

The State of Religion & Church Life in America, 2021 (Part 1)

Covid-19 – it changed everything. Or did it? In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.

To see the similarities and differences between pre-Covid and amid-Covid church life, we must first go back to the years before Covid. What were sociologists, researchers, and church-people telling us?

A couple huge surveys measuring religion in America painted a grave picture of church life in the few years before Covid. All in all, things were not looking so good for institutional churches. The Religious Landscape Survey put out by Pew Research Center in 2014 and the American Values Atlas put out by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in 2016 both agreed that religion in America had shifted in major ways.

The number of Christians in America was steeply declining. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans was steeply rising.

PRRI indicated that in 2016, 69% of Americans were affiliated with some form of Christianity. In 1976, it was 87%. What made up the difference, mostly those who claimed no religious affiliation.


Pew’s 2014 survey mirrored PRRI’s 2016 survey. Pew indicated 70% claimed affiliation with some form of Christianity, a 8% decrease since just 7 years prior in 2007. Pew showed that nearly 23% were unaffiliated, a rise of nearly 7% since 2007. Again, Christians declining in number. Nones – those who answer “none” when asked for religious affiliation – are rising in number.

Pew in 2019, supplemented their large 2014 survey with fresh data that showed a commensurate decline in the proportion of Christians to unaffiliated with the former decreasing to 65% and the latter increasing to 26%


As for non-Christian religions, i.e., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, here is the general status: while these non-Christian religions are all small religious groups, making up to 1.5% of the population or smaller, they are increasing in membership across the board. They are certainly not increasing anywhere near the rate of the Unaffiliated. Nevertheless, unlike Christianity, they are at least growing.    


Let’s go a bit more granural, shall we? Yes, let us look a little closer to home.

PRRI’s 2016 survey looked at each state and the Top 3 Religious Groups. Here is what they found in Connecticut:


In Connecticut, one is far more likely to be either Catholic or Unaffiliated. Only 12% were White Mainline Protestant. And of course, Methodists, Epicopals, Lutherans, UCC, etc. share that 12% pie.

As a denomination, UCC does well in Connecticut. Connecticut makes up 4.7% of UCC churches in the country, but we have 6.9% of UCC members, which is the 5th highest state in America when it comes to percentage of UCC members from each state.`


Here’s the thing though – UCC is seeing deep declines in its membership numbers. Yes, this is a trend every mainline denomination has been seeing, but we are not at all immune.


Another thing about mainline Christian churches that is noteworthy. It was newsworthy, actually, a few months ago. PRRI’s latest American Values Atlas was released in July 2021, based on surveys done in the year 2020 amid the Pandemic. The results were surprising and a bit hopeful for mainline Christianity. The number of mainline Christian has ticked up!


Whether this surprising uptick is an anomaly, a Pandemic blip, or a discrepancy, 
its hard to say. But we will come down on the side of the positive. We need to take the good news where we can get it!


I will end here for now. Next week I will home in on church demographics (age), attendance (worship), and other data focused on the meaning we attach to religion and church. The following week I will delve into the younger generation’s disconnect from religion and church. I’ll three Wednesdays from now with some possible ways to encounter our changed religious landscape. 

Our Daily Bread

I want to begin with a quote from the book we’ve been reading for Wednesday’s Bible Study, A More Christlike Word. The author Bradley Jersak begins the book with he calls, a reliable one-liner. Here it goes: “The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard.”

This quote gets at the heart of the book’s thesis – that we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus, which the Bible itself declares to be the Word of God. Christ and his Spirit, the primary Word of God, are the reading glasses we need to read the Bible and get to the heart of the Bible’s truths. The Bible points to Jesus and so he is the lens through which we decipher each text.

This morning I want to give a working example of reading scripture through the lens of Christ as we focus on our reading from the Old Testament, also known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible.

Our story from I Kings 17 is a wonderful one. It resonates on its own, doesn’t it?

The context of the story is that a severe drought is happening and effecting a famine. The people of Yahweh understand this to be of divine consequence, as the karmic effect of King Ahab’s horrible, calloused leadership of Israel. The Prophet Elijah is not hesitant to declare this to be the case. Nonetheless, everyone is suffering amid the famine.

Our reading this morning is a vignette that shows this suffering and how God provides somehow.  

The vignette involves two people. Our heroic prophet Elijah and a widowed young mother in the town of Sidon. The widowed mother is a Gentile with a son who are starving amid the famine. Elijah comes into town, and there at the gates of Sidon, he sits thirsty and hungry just like everyone else is. He sees the woman, the young widowed mother. She is picking up sticks. He asks her first for a recepticle of water.

A heroic sage-prophet coming into town and at a central location of that town asking for a drink of water from a woman down on her luck… familiar story. Think Jesus at Jacob’s Well and a Samaritan woman whom Jesus asks for a drink of water, a story told in John 10. Anyway, we’ll get to that later.

So, Elijah doesn’t stop with water. He asks for bread as well. In fact, he pleads for the young woman to make him bread. Don’t forget, Elijah is starving along with everyone else.

The widowed mother is in a bind. She only has a bit of flour and a bit of oil left, enough for just one more small loaf for herself and her son, after which, she fears, they’ll likely starve to death. That’s what she tells Elijah as she says, I can’t.

Elijah insists, promising her that if she takes that leap of faith in making and giving him some bread, she will not run out of flour and oil through the drought, until it ends and rain comes.

And this is what happens, the famous miracle of an evergiving bowl of flour and jar of oil amid a vicious drought.

What does this lovely vignette tell us?

Yes, there is the easily ascertained lesson that we can trust God to provide for all we need and that showing good faith and being hospitable are things that God rewards.

But there’s something deeper going on when we put on those reading glasses of Christ as the Word of God.

We have water which Elijah first asks for. Hmm… in the story I mentioned from the gospel of John, the one with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Remember that story. Well, Jesus in that vignette declares himself to Living Water, ever-giving water which will never allow us to go thirsty, spiritually speaking of course.

I I Kings 17, we also have bread. The gospel of John also has Jesus saying something else profound. John 6 shows Jesus declaring himself to be the Bread of Life.

We see metaphors for Christ in our story.

Here’s another example. Our story from I Kings begins with verse 8, “the word of the Lord came to Elijah. It ends in verse 16 with these words: according to the the Word of the Lord which spoke through Elijah.” Jesus is the Word, John 1 says.

Jesus is that word of the Lord, present and speaking in our story.

Let’s look a little closer at the bread, which is a key part of our story.

It is simple bread of three ingredients – flour, water, and oil. This is where it gets interesting.

Who is Jesus? The Christ, the Anointed One, the One anointed with oil to be the new Messiah.

That bread, even the bread of life, requires the anointing of oil is no coincidence to our understanding here.

Oil, cooking oil… we shoudn’t read past this. In the Jewish tradition, oil is a symbol, a metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

When oil is infused into water and flour and warmed with a kindled fire of sticks – a fiery bush if you will – bread is the result.

My final point relates to the source of our reading from I Kings, the Bible.

Too often we Christians read the Bible like a text book, using our right side of the brain primarily, the discursive side, the logical side. And Christians who sort of don’t take the Bible too seriously, who don’t really delve into it, too often see it as a kind of lifeless textbook that can be rather boring and hard to understand.

In this case, we are reading the Bible as flour alone. Indeed, what good is flour without water and oil?

When Corey was maybe 5 years-old, he somehow got a hold of flour and decided to play with it in the guest bedroom of the parsonage. It made a complete mess, a mess that is probably still faintly evidenced in that room to this day. Reading the Bible as just flour, as just words void of the oil of the Spirit, indeed can make a mess of a lot of things. See holy wars, inquisitions, witch burnings, racial violence… the list goes on and on.

When we read the Bible infused by the the Spirit of Love and Christ who embodied love, we avoid these messes.

Flour infused with oil and water and heated by fire means bread. The Bible infused with the Holy Spirit and Christ and baked in the fire of God’s love means Christ.

What does this mean? What does this mean for us as we come to a close?

The life-sustaining bread in I Kings points to the Bread of Life that is Christ. Likewise, the Bible, the word of God, points to Jesus, the living and breathing word of God. The heart, the heartbeat of what we call the word of God is the ultimate Word of God, Christ himself!

And this bread is something we are met to ingest and nourish us!

So, let us see and take-in the Bible as not just a lifeless textbook. Instead let us see and internalize its  heartbeat and the life that heartbeat sustains! Let us add the Holy Spirit’s presence and compassion into the mix. Let us and internalize into our minds and hearts the life of Christ and the Spirit of Christ still with us. And in taking in the story of Jesus into our own spirits may we have our spiritual hunger fulfilled. Amen.