The expansion of congregations suggests that the drop in religious affiliation is not as dramatic as it seems, and that a stealthy revival might even be coming. The growth may not yet offset disaffiliation, but it is part of the American religious pattern. Early colonists included the highly religious Puritans. But their children and grandchildren strayed, even forcing churches to loosen qualifications if they were to keep members.
In the century that followed, Methodists and Baptists began spreading Christianity largely through small groups, or “bands,” as the Methodists called them. They used nontraditional gathering places, including open fields, to bring their message to the masses. By 1850, 34% of Americans were church members, and by 1900 half were, according to Mr. Stark. By the early 1990s, nearly two-thirds of Americans were members of a congregation.
Fewer new churches these days are going up with drywall and spackling, but members are probably still stacking chairs and warming coffee on Sunday morning.