White Christians are no longer U.S. majority; trend seen in Wichita too

St. Mary's Cathedral and the First United Methodist Church are near the corner of Broadway and Central. There are also three other churches blocks from there.
St. Mary's Cathedral and the First United Methodist Church are near the corner of Broadway and Central. There are also three other churches blocks from there. The Wichita Eagle

White Christians, long the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for less than half of all adults living in America, a just-released survey shows.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s residents identified as white and Christian 40 years ago, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. In contrast, the institute’s 2016 American Values Atlas indicated 43 percent of Americans identifying as white and Christian.

“The church is not the center of family life like it used to be,” said Daniel Myers associate pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Wichita. “We certainly see that and struggle with that all the time.”

The 2016 American Values Atlas is the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted, according to PRRI. It reflects “a dramatic transformation” in the American religious landscape.

The survey’s results are drawn from a sample of more than 101,000 Americans from all 50 states and includes information about their religious affiliation, denominational ties and political affiliation, as well as other demographic details. The survey was conducted by phone, including cell phones, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.4 percentage points.

Among the major findings:

Fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian, according to the survey. As recently as 2007, white Christian populations were the majority in 39 states.

White evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics have all seen declines in numbers, according to the survey.

Of those polled, 17 percent identified as white evangelical Protestants, 13 percent as white mainline Protestants and 11 percent as white Catholics.

“People just aren’t going to church,” said Paul Bammel, associate pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita. “It used to be, it wasn’t a matter of if you went to church, it was a matter of where you went to church.

“Now, it’s a matter of if you go to church.”

The Catholic Diocese of Wichita is defying national trends of average Mass attendance, however.

In 2016, average Mass attendance among U.S. Catholics was 22 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In Wichita, that number is 52 percent.

The national survey showed the Catholic Church is undergoing a significant demographic shift. Nearly nine in ten Catholics 25 years ago were white and non-Hispanic. Today, that figure is 55 percent.

“We’ve probably seen a little bit of that” trend, but it hasn’t been nearly as dramatic, said Matthew Vainer, director of communications for the Wichita diocese.

Yet diocesan officials recognize that Wichita is defying national trends in numerous ways, Vainer said.

While priest shortages are widespread around the nation, the Wichita diocese ordained 10 priests this year and will ordain another 10 next year.

Last April, the Catholic Advance, the diocesan newspaper, said the diocese had 58 seminarians — a ratio of one seminarian for every 1,845 Catholics, dwarfing the ratios in places like the archdioceses of Los Angeles or New York.

The Archdiocese of New York has a ratio of one seminarian for every 24,528 Catholics, according to the Advance, while the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has a ratio of one for every 46,667 Catholics.

“We are kind of our own little niche” in Wichita, Vainer said.

Nationwide, little more than one-third of Catholics under the age of 30 are white and non-Hispanic, while 52 percent are Hispanic.

The religious groups in America with the largest segment of followers under 30 are all non-Christian, according to the survey. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups.

At least one-third of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, as well as religiously unaffiliated Americans, are under the age of 30. In contrast, barely more than 10 percent of white Catholics, white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants are under 30.

Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics are at least 50 years old, along with nearly 60 percent of mainline Protestants.

Even as demographics shift, however, Christian denominations are still the dominant presence in America. Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus each constitute only 1 percent of the public.

Demographics aren’t the only things evolving, Bammel said. Definitions are, too.

Members used to have to go to church pretty much every week to be considered “active.” But people today consider themselves active church members even if they only go once or twice a month, he said.

Bammel conceded that he’s always skeptical of surveys, but the institute’s survey isn’t raising many flags for him.

“I would probably say it’s fairly accurate,” Bammel said. “There don’t seem to be as many people in church as there used to be, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

While those who were part of The Greatest Generation went to church in droves, Bammel said, “perhaps people went to church more as a social thing” then.

On the other hand, he said, far fewer millennials are coming to church.

“The millennials that are actively involved are very valuable to a church,” Bammel said. “They’re very serious about their faith.

“Maybe the quantity has declined, but the quality has increased significantly.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger