Presbyterians of the Past

Was George Gallup Right?

Recently, while taking on the daunting task of cleaning out my many files, paper ones not digital, I ran across a tanned and deteriorating clipping that I had glued right in the middle of a bright white sheet of typing paper and inserted in a folder titled, “Church Statistics.” The title of the brief piece is, “Gallup: More Believers Skip Church Membership.” It was published in New England Church Life, May 1989. The author, Lloyd R. Thompson, reported that George Gallup, Jr., who has since died at the age of 81 in 2011, had concluded that the number of “unchurched ‘believers’ in the U. S.” increased in the decade of the nineteen eighties while those described as “belongers” (those professing Christianity who were members of local churches) had dropped slightly in number. Gallup, who Thompson described as “a devout Episcopalian,” presented his findings during a lecture at Hartford Seminary, which was an environment that may have reminded him of his own interest earlier in life in becoming a minister.

Mr. Gallup went on to tell his listeners that he believed the nineteen nineties would be shaped by “the people in the pews” and it would be the decade of “people’s religion.” The churches would increasingly have “bottom up” rather than “top down” organization and leadership. The lay would enjoy greater participation in leadership. But Gallup added that there was a considerable problem with increasing the involvement of the people in the pews in church leadership because their knowledge of the Bible was continuing to decline. One statistic he presented from his surveys noted that eighty percent of Americans claimed to be Christians, but only four out of ten of those professing to follow Christ knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus, it is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7). Further, that under half of those professing to follow the teaching and gospel message of Jesus knew the names of the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which are the books particularly dedicated to the record of the Son of God’s life and atoning ministry.

So, twenty-seven years after Mr. Gallup’s comments, was he right?


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