U.S. Trends in Religion

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe current U.S. trends including megachurches and secularization


A megachurch is a Christian church that has a very large congregation averaging more than 2,000 people who attend regular weekly services. As of 2016, the largest megachurches in the United States were the Lakewood Church in Houston Texas, with an average weekly attendance of more than 43,500, and Life.Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, with up to 53,000 weekly attendees. Megachurches have existed in other parts of the world, especially South Korea, Brazil, and several African countries, but the rise of the megachurch in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon that has developed primarily in California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

Since 1970 the number of megachurches in the United States has grown from about fifty to more than 1,000, most of which are affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination (Bogan 2009). Approximately six million people are members of these churches (Bird and Thumma 2011). The architecture of these church buildings often resembles a sports arena or concert hall more than it does a traditional site of religious worship. The church may include jumbotrons (large-screen televisions typically used in sports arenas to show close-ups of an event). Worship services may feature contemporary music with drums and electric guitars and use state-of-the-art sound equipment. The buildings sometimes include food courts, sports and recreation facilities, and bookstores. Services such as child care and mental health counseling are often offered.

Typically, a single charismatic pastor leads the megachurch; at present, all are male. Some megachurches and their celebrity preachers have a wide-ranging television presence, and viewers all around the country watch and respond to their performances and frequent fundraising drives.

Chart titled "Changing U.S. Religious Landscape" showing from 2007 to 2014, a 0.9% decline in Evangelical Protestantism, a 3.1% decline in Catholicism, a 3.4% decline in mainline Protestantism, a 1.2% rise in non-Christian faiths, and a 6.7% rise in unaffiliated.
Figure 1. Christianity is declining in the United States, while those claiming to be unaffiliated or in non-Christian faiths is rising.

Besides size, U.S. megachurches share other traits, including conservative theology, evangelism, use of technology and social networking (Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs), charismatic leaders, successful fundraising, multiple sites, and a predominantly white membership. They list their main focuses as youth activities, community service, and study of Scripture (Hartford Institute for Religion Research b).

Critics of megachurches believe they are too large to promote close relationships among fellow church members or with the pastor, such as those that might occur in smaller houses of worship. Supporters note that, in addition to the large worship services, congregations may also meet in small groups, and some megachurches have informal events throughout the week to allow for community-building (Hartford Institute for Religion Research a).


August Comte, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx predicted that in modern society, positivism (Comte’s term), rationality (Weber’s term), and science would displace the religious perspectives from earlier societies. Weber believed membership in distinguished clubs would outpace membership in Protestant sects as a way for people to gain authority or respect, but this has not come to fruition. In our modern, scientific world, traditional religious values still play an important role, sometimes conflicting with scientific views and other times adjusting because of them, or supporting them. Some of the high-profile confrontations between leaders of religious and scientific communities over issues such as embryonic stem cells, genetic modification, and family planning illustrate that science has not simply replaced religion in the modern world [1]

Secularization is the decline in the social and cultural importance of religion. As discussed in previous sections, secularization has also been imposed in some areas of the world, as in China following its communist takeover in 1949. Some people suggest secularization is a root cause of many social problems, such as divorce, drug use, and educational downturn. One-time presidential contender Michele Bachmann even linked Hurricane Irene and the 2011 earthquake felt in Washington D.C. to politicians’ failure to listen to God (Ward 2011).

While some scholars see the United States becoming increasingly secular, others observe a rise in fundamentalism, which is defined as belief in the unquestionable authority of sacred texts and/or religious leaders. Christian fundamentalists, for example, often claim that the events and descriptions in the Bible are true in a literal and material sense. Secularization interests social observers because it entails a pattern of change in a fundamental social institution. Compared to other democratic, industrialized countries, the United States is generally perceived to be a fairly religious nation. Whereas 65 percent of U.S. adults in a 2009 Gallup survey said religion was an important part of their daily lives, the numbers were lower in Spain (49 percent), Canada (42 percent), France (30 percent), the United Kingdom (27 percent), and Sweden (17 percent) (Crabtree and Pelham 2009). These numbers do seem to be declining as secularization or non-religious affiliation increases.

Watch It

Watch this video of sociologist Peter Kivisto as he explains the sociology of religion, and particularly how religion is changing through secularization. He reviews some of the ideas from key theorists and examines how and why secularization has not happened as much as some early sociologists predicted.

Link to Learning

Check out the 20 most religious countries in the world and the 20 least religious countries in the world. Are you surprised by any of the rankings? Why?

Thank God for that Touchdown: Separation of Church and State

Imagine three public universities with football games scheduled on Saturday. At University A, a group of students in the stands who share the same faith decide to form a circle amid the spectators to pray for the team. For fifteen minutes, people in the circle share their prayers aloud among their group. At University B, the team ahead at halftime decides to join together in prayer, giving thanks and seeking support from God. This lasts for the first ten minutes of halftime on the sidelines of the field while spectators watch. At University C, the game program includes, among its opening moments, two minutes set aside for the team captain to share a prayer of his choosing with the spectators.

In the tricky area of separation of church and state, which of these actions is allowed and which is forbidden? In our three fictional scenarios, the last example is against the law while the first two situations are perfectly acceptable.

In the United States, a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom (many settlers were escaping religious persecution in Europe), how stringently do we adhere to this ideal? How well do we respect people’s right to practice any belief system of their choosing? The answer just might depend on what religion you practice.

In 2003, for example, a lawsuit escalated in Alabama regarding a monument to the Ten Commandments in a public building. This led to a 2018 state amendment that voters passed which explicitly allows for the display of the Ten Commandments in public places. The Arkansas American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in 2018, seeking to have a Ten Commandments monument removed from the Arkansas State Capitol. The plaintiffs in these cases argue that any state-sanctioned recognition of religion suggests endorsement of one belief system at the expense of all others—contradictory to the idea of freedom of religion. A similar case in New Mexico resulted in the City of Bloomfield relocating its Ten Commandments monument from the front lawn of City Hall to a private property at a nearby church.  

So what violates separation of church and state and what is acceptable? When it comes to Ten Commandment monuments on government property, it seems that if there are other monuments representing beliefs and values, it is not a violation of the First Amendment; however, if the monument stands on its own and is reasonably assumed to show preference or endorsement for one particular religious view, it is unconstitutional.

WAtch It

Watch the short video clip below and think about what sociological variables can influence religiosity in the U.S. and around the world.

Think It Over

  • Do you believe the United States is becoming more secularized or more fundamentalist?
  • Comparing your generation to that of your parents or grandparents, what differences do you see in the relationship between religion and society
  • What would popular media have you believe is the state of religion in the United States today?

Try It


[glossary-definition]a Christian church that has a very large congregation averaging more than 2,000 people who attend regular weekly services[/glossary-definition]
[glossary-definition]the historical decline in the and social and cultural importance of religion, religiosity, and sacred practices and beliefs[/glossary-definition]

<a style="margin-left: 16px;" target="_blank" href="https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vy-T6DtTF-BbMfpVEI7VP_R7w2A4anzYZLXR8Pk4Fu4"

  1. Evans 2010; Nelkin 2004 as quoted in "Traditional, Modern, and Post-Secular Perspectives on Science and Religion in the United States" by Timothy L. O'Brien and Shiri Roy in The American Sociological Review, 2015. http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/journals/ASR/Feb15ASRFeature2.pdf


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