(Photo by Doug Thompson)

(Photo by Doug Thompson)

In polls over recent years, statistics on how many Americans go to church have ranged from 20-40 percent.

If you are a church goer, you are a minority in this country.

Church attendance, and giving to churches, is on a decline.

A recent study by Evangelical Covenant Church, which began collecting data on church attendance more than 30 years ago, said recent attendance is down to 17.7 percent.  The study looked at attendance in “orthodox Christian churches,” which include Catholic, mainline and evangelical.

“We know that over the past 30 to 40 years, denominations have reported a decline in their numbers,” says Penny Long Marier in The Journal for Scientific Study of Religion.

Pollsters like Gallup report that respondees say they are seeking alternative, non-traditional ways, of practicing religion — small group gatherings that meet in places like school libraries.

“About six million people meet weekly with a small group and never or rarely go to church,” says Ed Stetzer, director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  “This is a significant movement happening.”

Stetzer’s group released a study of spiritual behavior that found 24.5 percent of Americans now claim their primary form of “spiritual nourishment” is found in meetings of small groups of 20 or less people on a weekly basis.

I’ve talked to a number of people in Floyd County who abandoned churches in favor of small group meetings at someone’s home or other locations.

Most are reluctant to admit such activity publicly because of a fear of retaliation from a local religious community that they feel “looks down” and scorns those who do not practice religion in a traditional way.

“I left the church because my pastor felt he had to dominate how we felt and in what we had to believe,” said one.  “Organized religion approaches many social issues today with an attitude of exclusion, not inclusion.”

Another left a local Presbyterian congregation because that church sought to separate itself from the national Presbytery because it was becoming too “gay friendly.”

“What I was hearing from the pulpit was insulting to those of us who believe in love and tolerance,” she said. “I could not stay there.”

Some religious leaders say that while attendance and membership in organized religions are declining, it does not mean a drop in belief in a supreme being.

“An individual’s relationship with God is a personal one,” says Lutheran minister Roger Baxter. “Americans live in a country founded on the belief of individual choice and that choice includes religious freedom.  Acceptance of God is far more important than membership in any denomination.”