By Bob Smietana
America may be facing problems, but a growing number of people say churches are of no help in solving them.
Four out of 10 (39 percent) say churches or other houses of worship offer “not much” or “nothing” toward solving society’s problems. That’s up from 23 percent in 2008, according to a new survey from Pew Research.
Six in 10 (58 percent) say churches and other houses of worship contribute “a great deal” or “some” to solving social problems. That’s down from 75 percent in 2008 and the lowest number since Pew began asking the question in 2001.
White evangelicals (70 percent) are most confident of the church’s positive role in society. Nones (38 percent) are far more skeptical.
But both groups have lost confidence in the role of churches in society.
In 2008, 86 percent of evangelicals and 56 percent of nones said houses of worship contribute “a great deal” or “some” to solving society’s problems. Both groups saw a decline of at least 15 percentage points in the latest poll.
The decline cut across religious and political lines.
In 2008, around three quarters of Mainline Christians (77 percent), Black Protestants (75 percent), and Catholics (79 percent) said churches contributed “a great deal” or “some.” In 2016, that dropped to around 6 in 10 among Mainline Christians (62 percent), Black Protestants (61 percent), and Catholics (61 percent).
Democrats (74 percent in 2008, 55 percent this year) and Republicans (80 percent down to 63 percent) saw similar declines.
While those who attend religious services weekly or more saw only a nine-point drop since 2008 (83 percent down to 74 percent), those who attend less often dropped 21 points. Now, less than half of non-weekly attenders (49 percent) believe houses of worship contribute even some to solving important social problems.
There were also differences in younger versus older Americans. Confidence among adults under 50 dropped more than 20 points since 2008, while those 50 and older fell around 15 points.
This isn’t the first time Americans have lost faith in the effectiveness of organized religion.
In 2001, three quarters of Americans said houses of worship help solve society’s problems. That dropped to 66 percent in July 2005, then rebounded to 75 percent in 2008.
One possible factor in that bounce back was the response of churches to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in August 2005.
The New York Times reported on the outpouring of disaster relief and other acts of kindness from religious groups that fall.
One of the principal advantages of churches in responding to a disaster is they are there, said Bryan Jackson, a spokesman for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, in a story entitled, “A New Meaning for ‘Organized Religion’: It Helps the Needy Quickly.”
“One of the things we have to remember and look at is that churches are in these communities that are being affected; they’re already there so they represent a focal point in the community where people can come together or they can marshal resources or marshal people,” he said.
Those good works, however, seem to have been forgotten by large portions of the country.
How can churches change that perception?
Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church Tallahassee, says the best ways for churches to serve their community rarely fit on your church calendar. It requires being consistently present in your community and meeting the needs you see. He also shared what it truly means to for a church to be for their city.
In our latest issue of Facts & Trends, Kate Riney gives helpful tips for churches on seeing and meeting the needs of the community.
BOB SMIETANA is senior writer for Facts & Trends.