Sprinkled throughout the first two rows of sand-colored seating in Conrad Hall, the Michigan State University Gospel Choir rehearsed its rendition of Kirk Franklin’s “Brighter Day.” The five-minute song was practiced in complete A capella, with some members swaying to instrumentals they played in their heads and others using their hands to mimic the song’s thunderous beat. In harmony, the choir bellowed the chorus, sounding much louder than its size.
The second largest religious or non-religious group in the U.S. is non-religious. Close to one in four Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.
At MSU, the size of its Gospel Choir, a Christian organization founded in 1971 reflects the trend of decreased religious participation. In 2013, the organization boasted a membership of more than 115 students. As of October 2017, roughly 25 members belong to the choir, more than a 78 percent decrease in four years.
Alexis Wright, the choir’s student director and international studies in social sciences major, said the decrease is a result of multiple factors. She claims the transition from home to college accounts for most of the decrease in religious participation.
“A lot of students come in and their parents aren’t around, they don’t have anyone to tell them they have to go to church,” Wright said. “So they kind of just steer away from whatever religious things they were doing before.”
Wright said she experienced the same rocky transition when she entered college and used the choir as a tool to stay connected.
“In my case, I was never spiritually connected within the church, it was kind of a process,” Wright said. “Like, ‘oh, I know I have to go to church today.’ When I came to college, I was still wanting to be engaged and everything, but I think I joined MSU’s Gospel Choir as my way of still staying connected with God.”
Wright belonged to the gospel choir for three years and became its director during her fourth year at MSU. Her efforts to increase membership have included immersing the organization in everyday campus life and collaborating with other organizations, religious or not. According to Wright, it is imperative that students realize religion can fit into their busy schedules.
Wright also made efforts to dispel the stigma of judgment in the church, something she says has plagued the choir.
“My org in the past, we’ve always had judgmental people, like on our E-boards and different things, and it has steered away people,” Wright said. “What I’ve tried to do this year is just get out the word about my organization and that you can come as you are. We won’t steer away anybody. If you need help, you can get help.”
Michigan State’s Q-Cross is another organization that counters religious judgment. The gay Christian organization provides a haven for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning community to express and learn about Christianity. The organization exists despite claims that nearly half of LGBTQQ Americans are religiously unaffiliated.
Q-Cross caters to the dwindling audience by hosting weekly themed Bible studies. Taboo topics, such as sexual health and queer theology, are explored and held with facilitated discussions.
Both informative and encouraging of diversity, Q-Cross is reflective of the learning and individualism promoted on college campuses nationwide. However, while Q-Cross uses its characteristics to promote Christianity within the LGBTQQ community, colleges have been accused of promoting a secular agenda.
In front of a crowd of about 2,000 people, Donald Trump Jr. led a fervent condemnation of the nation’s higher education institutions. At the Oct. 6 benefit dinner at Faulkner University, Trump claimed the political left had corrupted the country’s universities, leaving its students to “hate their religion” and reject moral principles. His criticisms were met with applause, reaffirming widespread beliefs that higher learning resulted in lost religion.
The critique that colleges influence religious followers to abandon their beliefs is not a new one. For decades, religious leaders and conservative politicians have accused higher education institutions of having a liberal tilt and promoting a secular agenda. The most complete study on the subject, published more than 10 years ago, reported that more than two-thirds of college professors identify as liberal.
The abandonment of religion is not exclusive to college campuses, however. According to a study published in August, America’s religious landscape is experiencing a significant shift. White Christians, who once accounted for the majority of religious followers, now account for fewer than half of adults living in the country. The study found non-Christian groups are growing, but still account for less than one in 10 of Americans combined.
At Michigan State, Religious Studies Assistant Professor Morgan Shipley stresses the correlation between the decline in American religiosity and college enrollment does not exist. Shipley said shifts in American culture account for the shift in religious affiliation.
“The reality is that as a nation, we are becoming more secular, so I think there’s a general shift away,” Shipley said. “In 2017, studies show that adults claim that they are religious around 54 percent, which is down 11 percent since 2012 and that’s among adults. If you just think about that and the similarity to the shift that shows it’s down 11 to 33 percent among college students, I think it’s actually echoed. You can’t do a direct correlation.”
Engineering Student Reynaldo Montalvo, like others of his generation, lost touch with his religion in college. The Kalamazoo, Mich. native attended church services with his family as a young child. As he grew older, however, his family attended less and when he was left to make the decision to follow structured religion on his own, he decided to stay home.
“I stopped attending church years before college,” Montalvo said. “If anything, I’d say I stopped attending because it’s no longer taboo in America to not identify with a church. Years ago, to be non-religious would be frowned upon, but now if you feel no strong pull to a church, there’s no societal pressure to stay.”
Projections for religion in American shows that the landscape will continue to rapidly change. The Pew Research Center reports that by 2035, Christian births will be outnumbered by the number of babies born to Muslim mothers.