Survey Says: Post-Christendom Christianity

There have been several studies and stories and statistical reports recently on the ongoing decline of Christianity as an organized religion in the U.S.:

At Our Sunday Visitor has a report on a new CARA survey of Catholics: “Young people are leaving the faith. Here’s why.” Multiple national surveys indicate that only about two-thirds or fewer millennials (those born in 1982 or later) who were raised Catholic remain Catholic as adults. Many youths and young adults who have left the Church point to their belief that there is a disconnect between science and religion

From Pew Research Center: “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship.” Quality of sermons, welcoming leaders and the style of worship services tend to be the key factors in why Americans overall choose the congregations they do, but for Catholics, nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish, reflecting the geographically based system by which Catholics typically associate with a local church.

The Atlantic has this article on the Pew study: “It’s Hard to Go to Church.” A new survey suggests the logistics of going to services can be the biggest barrier to participation—and Americans’ faith in religious institutions is declining.

From Pittsburgh: “‘We need to make our worship better,’ Pittsburgh Bishop Zubik says.” The number of active Catholics within the Pittsburgh diocese has declined from 914,000 in 1980 to 632,000 in 2015. Since 2000, weekly Mass attendance has dropped by 40 percent, and K-8 Catholic school enrollment fell by 50 percent. The number of active priests plummeted from 338 to 225.

All such surveys and studies point in the same direction: Christendom is dying. To be sure, it has been for several decades now. (Or several centuries, some would say.) “Christian” is less and less the default for the typical member of U.S. society. Those who engage in organized religion will increasingly have to make an intentional decision to do so. Or, if the vestiges of early cultural forces in some places continue to carry some people along, at the very least they will come to realize that their belief and practice makes them part of a minority.

This megatrend raises all sorts of questions for those of us involved in liturgical ministry and in the academic study of liturgy, but for today I’ll ask just one: What is the best attitude to take in the face of a shrinking church? How does one keep a hopeful attitude? How does one avoid becoming demoralized? How does one remain open to new possibilities in a rapidly changing church and world?

 

 

 

 

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33 comments

  1. Thanks fur these questions Fr. Ruff. In response to your first question, I think it is imperative that at an indivudual level, we all must work at what Pope Francis calls “coherence”, that is we must definitely walk our talk. We must lead lives that when people look at us the they ask how does this person do what they do? What makes them tick? We must begin to root out any judgmentalism and make it somehow known that we do not judge. This, I think, sets up a climate for dialogue. It is an evangelization using our own person, although I would not use that word out loud much! Personally, I keep a hopeful attitude by really taking into my soul the example of Pope Francis foremost, but of all the very good Christian people of all denominations I see around me. They give me the courage to stay hopeful. I also try to pray a lot, some days not so successfully. I also remain trustful that the Holy Spirit really is in charge and as PF says, time is greater than space and things somehow work towards the good. That does not mean I just sit back and let the HS take it forward. I think if we stay hopeful and remember that the HS is flying this ship we call church, we DO remain open to new possibilities. I think it is also good to look at our history. I think there were times when things were far worse but folks like Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and others came along to infuse new energy. It is not going to be easy but I am committed that there are so many good things in the church that the world needs and that should be treasured that I am willing to hang on, even if at times I feel like it is just by my fingernails. I can’t remember who said it but we sow the seeds we may never harvest.

  2. It seems we are–again–at a crisis point in which we must ask ourselves how much we must conform to new societal norms and how much we must resist them. I think that some of our doctrines (on sexuality and gender roles in particular) are not in line with current biological and psychological understandings of human nature. So we need to follow Aquinas in a thorough dialogue with the best science of our time. As he considered Aristotilianism, so must we consider advancements in biology, psychology, physics, phenomenology, feminist thinking, etc.

    1. @Steven Surrency:

      I think that some of our doctrines (on sexuality and gender roles in particular) are not in line with current biological and psychological understandings of human nature.

      Perhaps this is because the “current biological and psychological understandings of human nature” are quite many and varied.

      Also, “being in dialogue with” and “consider advancements in” is not the same as “being in line with.”

      And I do not agree that the question to ask is “how much to conform or resist new societal norms” but how best to engage and evangelize the ever changing world.

  3. I think this (below) is the key to bringing Church growth… There are two parishes in our area that practice this direction from an early Pope Francis talk and they are busting at the seams with all kinds of young families. I observe that the overwhelming majority of Catholic parishes have put number three at the top with personnel, funding, and resources and their own hubris. If Catholicism was universally known as a people of mercy and warmth, then the catechesis would follow.

    1) Witness with mercy
    “use the language of mercy, made up of gestures and attitudes even before words.”

    2) Welcome with warmth
    “The Church is the house whose doors are always open not only so that everyone can find welcome and breathe love and hope, but also because we can go out and bring this love and this hope.”

    3) Catechesis
    “I would like to stress the importance of catechesis, as an instance of evangelization.”
    (Pope Francis October 14, 2013 Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization)

  4. Elisabeth,

    It’s true that contemporary scientific understandings are varied. Yet, as a group, they bear increasingly less in common with Aristotelian, Catholic anthropology. I saw a priest post an anti-evolution comment on Facebook just yesterday. Regarding evangelization, we always have to ask how much to conform and how much to resist. As Good Pope John said at the start of the council, we can learn from the outside world (i.e. Conform) while also bringing the unique message of Jesus (resist). For me, this is a process that entails dialogue.

    1. @Steven Surrency:

      Perhaps our differences may just be a matter of phrasing.

      I would never consider “learning from the outside world” the same as conforming to the world, nor would I ever equate “bringing the unique message of Jesus” to the world with resisting the world.

      That — conforming vs. resisting — is just the wrong way to frame the church’s mission, IMO.

      Otherwise, I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing.

  5. “What is the best attitude to take in the face of a shrinking church?”
    Not sure what the “best” is…whatever it is, it should flow from the Holy Spirit in one’s life and love of God and all creation. Regardless of “shrinking” (in one locality) or otherwise, I think enthusiasm, motivation, awe, and excitement are practical attitudes for these times.

    “How does one keep a hopeful attitude?” I suppose as a Millennial, for me “this” has been my entire lifetime. I don’t remember anything else. Yet in the academic study of theology, I’ve learned much of Christians throughout history, and honestly, things seem very good for us in the modern West. Very very good. Blessings overflow here, in this time/place in a way that was not so during other times in history and not so in other parts of the world, today. It would be hard not to be hopeful given the present blessings.

  6. I belong to the older end of the millennial generation, I suppose. I’d say many of my peers have left because the Church has failed at creating for them a meaningful relationship with God that involves a healthy life of prayer. Without that, then all the other stuff doesn’t really matter, since you can get warm community and good music in a lot of non Catholic and non-religious venues. It’s probably why the non-denominational churches are growing – because they emphasize that one needs to have a strong personal relationship with Jesus and that this forms the basis of creating a strong community. They lay out a clear plan for how to live the Gospel. As one former Catholic peer, who is now very involved in a nondenominational church, told me: “Catholicism is too concerned with being a religion (i.e. just a lot of rules and boring rituals) and isn’t concerned with forming a relationship with Christ.” Now one can rightly argue up and down that this isn’t true, but that is pretty much the message that my generation has been given. Polls often show that many people do not believe in the real presence in the Eucharist – which one would think is pretty much the ultimate personal relationship with Jesus – and I’d say that my generation doesn’t so much not believe it, as we’ve probably never had it instilled within us to begin with.

    A lot of people act like catechesis is just about teaching dry boring stuff, but it’s also about teaching people things like *how to pray* or that the rituals actually have meaning. It’s also about giving people concrete tools for how to live a Christian life. A common complaint among people my age who have remained Catholic is that we pretty much had to teach ourselves even the most basic things, like what a sacrament is, since those things aren’t obvious and typically were not reinforced in any meaningful way once they were briefly touched upon in CCD (if at all!).

    1. @Jack Wayne:
      Actually, the non-denominational/evangelical mega-churches are shrinking as well. They’ve drawn largely from mainline Protestantism and Catholicism, so as those sources dry up, so do they. (Also, the entertainment model doesn’t seem to having long-term sustainability.)
      It seems that, especially for their younger members, the attrition comes about because the church/congregation doesn’t really provide them with anything to do, experience, participate in, or receive that they can’t do, experience, participate in, or receive in another forum.

      1. @Alan Hommerding:
        Apropos your comment, I would suggest at least one area greviously lacking in typical American Catholic homiletics and pastoral praxis: a nearly utter failure to address incompletion, lack of consolations, spiritual dryness and dark nights of the soul and senses, and desolations generally.

        America is spiritually built on seeking consolations and, critically, by substituting lesser consolations for absent or lacking greater consolations. Spiritual tools can be instrumentalized into such lesser consolations, which is NOT necessarily a good thing over the long-term: Catholics used to do this with devotions and things like KofC, HN Society, sodalities – and mega-churches do this with bible study and other small groups as well as P&W worship. While the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have a wealth of wisdom to offer about desolations et al., such wisdom is typically merely nodded to at best in American Catholic life. A pastorally therapeutic approach tends to be strongly preferred instead. Until Catholics are taught now normal such experiences are, what they offer to the soul, and how to embrace them, without which the therapeutic approach will merely scratch the symptoms.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:

        a nearly utter failure to address incompletion, lack of consolations, spiritual dryness and dark nights of the soul and senses, and desolations generally.

        This reminded me of something Cardinal Bergoglio said that I read somewhere, so I looked it up:

        “… we take bitter note of the weakening of the faith, declining Mass attendance, and we compare today with the good old days… We forget that the Christian life is a continual battle against the seductive power of idols, against Satan and his effort to lead man to unbelief, to despair, to moral and physical suicide. We forget that the Christian road is measured not only by the distance traveled, but also by the magnitude of the battle, by the difficulties encountered, by the obstacles overcome, and by the ferocity of the assaults that have been repulsed.

        That is why arriving at a sober assessment of the faith in our day is so complicated. Sociological statistics are not sufficient. It is not enough to count the number of Christians, the number who practice, etc. One also has to consider the sometimes dramatic battles that Christians must wage every day in order to continue believing and acting according to the Gospel.”

        Have you seen this? It’s from his address to Spanish bishops in 2006, quoted in Austen Ivereigh’s Francis bio.

      3. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        No, I hadn’t, but thank you so much for sharing it.

        My remarks above, sympathetic to those of Abp Bergoglio, are merely based on years of personal observation of how assiduously Americans elide desolations in a variety of ways (not only merely ignoring them, but reducing them into projects of self-management/self-improvement or grist for melodramatization, for but a couple of examples).

  7. 2/3 of millennials remaining Roman Catholic is a bit of a stretch in my experience. Between my son’s high school RC friends and what I see at the major Roman Catholic university where he is now enrolled for year 3, if 2/3 of those baptized and “raised Catholic” remain so, that would be a boon.

    The most telling this is what Jack says above: “Polls often show that many people do not believe in the real presence in the Eucharist – which one would think is pretty much the ultimate personal relationship with Jesus – and I’d say that my generation doesn’t so much not believe it, as we’ve probably never had it instilled within us to begin with.” But this year, they’re getting “holy doors” and indulgences. That’ll help.

    1. @John Kohanski:
      I doubt most people in my age group could explain what an indulgence is.

      When I was in college I would sometimes talk to other Catholics in the history classes I took. These were history majors, so they knew what Purgatory was and how it worked, but most were quite convinced it was something the Church no longer taught or believed since it wasn’t until they took western history classes that they actually learned about it in the context of the Protestant Reformation. I would say that the history classes I took were a boon for learning about the faith since they had to really lay out Catholic beliefs in order to properly contrast it to reformers and put it into context.

      1. @Jack Wayne:
        “I doubt most people in my age group could explain what an indulgence is.”

        Precisely, which is why the notion of this holy year, which boils down to walking through a door and getting an indulgence, is so lame. There were great possibilities for it, but they were passed over, it seems.

      2. @John Kohanski:
        “There were great possibilities for it, but they were passed over, it seems.”
        I don’t believe this sense of a lost opportunity is due to a lack of catechesis on the part of Pope Francis. He has had concrete teachings and given clear examples as to living out the year of mercy. My experience on a diocesan level has not been as inspirational. They provided banners we could purchase and prayer cards we could distribute. Outside of music selection, not much has been explored liturgically. I know it sounds like “the good old days” but as I remember, the Great Jubilee of 2000 was much more engaging on every level. It had a three year build up and well developed catechesis everyone was teaching. Have we become so lazy in 16 years? The catechesis is there, we are just not using it to our benefit. The opportunities for personal engagement are there, we are not playing them out. Watch the news. Every day there are new situations where Catholics could immerse themselves in acts of mercy. I would be interested in knowing how many diocese or parishes have made it a point to provide opportunities to live out the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy or to organize, on a larger scale, challenges to injustice in our culture. Where has there been a “stand up and be counted” moment? Is the Year of Mercy lame or are we lame for not taking personal responsibility throughout the Year of Mercy. If we were doing it right, society would be saying, “See how they love one another.”

      3. @John Kohanski:
        In my diocese, holy doors and indulgences weren’t stressed, but there was more of a focus on mercy expressed in many ways. Just to name ones I’ve heard about, participated in, or witnessed – catechetical sessions with parents on the mercy parables, study sessions on Cardinal Kasper’s book, personal reflections on the experience of mercy by a different author each week in the diocesan newspaper. As a staff member at a parish, I’ve fielded a number of hesitant, cautious calls or visited with several walk-ins of women who have had abortions and who have read about the ability of priests to absolve them during this Holy Year. These examples are not earth-shattering events, but are worthy of recognizing as being valuable, at least to those who took advantage of them. You may be underestimating the worth of this year.

  8. I think my question would be whether a current trend is also a permanent movement in one direction. Is the abandonment of organized religion in general, and Catholicism specifically, a movement toward extinction? I have heard someone who has studied the topic fairly extensively say that statistically the trend is so strong as to suggest that it cannot be reversed. It is certainly a dismaying thought, and it certainly doesn’t comport with our belief that the Spirit will sustain the Church.
    Have God’s people managed to derail God’s plan for bringing about the Kingdom? Or do we, in our human finitude, not recognize that somehow what is happening right now will ultimately bring us closer to the Reign of God?

    1. Mary Anne-replying to comment 14

      I am not persuaded by the statistical arguments as they don’t speak in terms of causal processes. Many sorts of changes happen rapidly then stop. Planes plummet toward the ground then the engines start back up. The giant condor population dropped to 27 in 1987 and at last word was back up to 435.

      One of the challenges here is a failure of imagination. When we can’t see what might make the change we anticipate the change cannot happen. Walk on the moon? Make massively tiny computers? Won’t happen….till it does.

      @Mary Anne Bressler:

  9. Jack Wayne’s comments above ring true to my experience as a Catholic priest in high school and parish ministry from 1984 until now. Nothing substitutes for a real, felt, and palpable EXPERIENCE of Christ or the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Still, one must be “disposed” to receive such a gift. And the only way to obtain the gift is to ask for it in all humility and repent of one’s sins, as one knows them.

    Archbishop George, deceased bishop of Chicago, said it well: “Yes, all are welcome in the Church, but on Christ’s terms and not their own.”
    I must add that people in recovery from addictions “get it” and know, more than most, that their lives are not their own, but God’s. They are some of the most refreshing people on the planet, and humble too. So, what sustains us is an ongoing conversion of heart. I am suspicious of American-izing or therapeutic-izing or psychologizing the gospel. It has been the temptation of our race in all cultures.

    1. @Fr. Mike Lydon:

      Archbishop George, deceased bishop of Chicago, said it well: “Yes, all are welcome in the Church, but on Christ’s terms and not their own.”
      I must add that people in recovery from addictions “get it” and know, more than most, that their lives are not their own, but God’s.

      And there you have the problem with Archbishop George, as well as many others. He viewed the Church, and particularly the priest, as a gatekeeper, who can grant access or deny it.

      That, I think, is not Pope Francis’s attitude. He wants to open the gates as wide as possible, so that people will feel welcome, no matter who they are or what they have done. Yes, some folk may “be unworthy”, but that probably applies to most of us.

      People in recovery from addictions certainly realize that their lives are not their own. But they also realize that there is a God of infinite mercy who does not require them to sign on the dotted line before joining the train of mercy and forgiveness but who will accept them as they are and then work with them.

  10. Since few of us influence matters on a diocesan, let alone a universal level, staying focused on our own faith community seems the most hopeful to me.

    That said, the Notre Dame survey of the 80s pointed out what is most important: preaching, music, and hospitality. The new Roman Missal addressed none of these. Likewise Summorum. Or the culturewar. My sense is that the darkness is pleased to see us emphasizing very holy things, to the exclusion of what really draws people and keeps people.

    Some of us might think that architecture, rite, better catechesis, polished videos, orthodoxy, or social gospel might pack ’em in. The truth is that people have been telling us different at least since the 80s. Where the Church is dying, the leaders aren’t listening. Not only must we listen, but after that, discern.

    We liturgists could draw more inspiration from one of the Evangelii documents–Nuntiandi or Gaudium. Then put on our thinking caps to make the connection to worship.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      The only movement I can think of that really emphasizes any of those things from the ND study would be the movement that is perhaps the most criticized here: The Reform of the Reform Movement. I’d say the hallmark of the ROTR is quality in all areas of liturgy. One may not like all of the things they advocate, or their emphasis on traditional music and ceremony, but they still fit the bill.

      I’d also argue that SP indirectly addresses preaching and music – that is to say, there is an emphasis on those things anywhere it has been taken up.

      1. @Jack Wayne:
        lol … On the ground, the exclusive emphasis on chant, sometimes poorly done, tends to alienate a wide swath of people outside the hardcore. Preaching isn’t black or red, so not promoted on any websites I’ve seen. The stress seems to be more on consigning the “popular” kids to hellfire and you-know-what. And welcome, well …

        A few efforts do emphasize these things and in more effective ways. Rebuilt comes to mind.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:
        A rather unfair, uninformed characterization. Regardless, it is a movement that at least tries to emphasize some of what you brought up, which is far more than can be said about many other movements.

        If there are other movements that also emphasize those things, then let them flourish too. I’m not going to complain because not everyone is attending EF and ROTR Masses.

        Also, it was the unwelcoming atmosphere of my old OF parish that ultimately led me away from it and towards exclusively attending the EF, where surprisingly people didn’t seem quite so judgmental and rude.

      3. @Jack Wayne:
        I’m not sure what movements you have in mind that don’t emphasize music, preaching, and welcome. Non-liturgical ones, maybe. CCHD perhaps. I accept your comment about my caricature being unfair; I have only what I read online these days. I confess I’ve never seen an emphasis on preaching coming from the reform2 movement. I’m sure people appreciate good preaching when they get it.

        NPM, for example, has certainly emphasized quality music. And if they have little to nothing to say about preaching, I suppose we can accept they’ve chosen their expertise and stick with it.

  11. Church participation is declining for many reasons among which is that since the time of the council it has been made clear that being a Catholic is more than just a label or a brand that results from being baptized by a priest. Most significantly it means choosing to follow Christ as a disciple and living that out according to the practices, teachings, and traditions of the Catholic Church. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is very challenging and not something attractive to most people living in a culture which so highly esteems instant gratification and creature comforts.
    When us senior citizens were growing up we were told that we “had” to be Catholic or risk being cast into hell. We “had” to go to confession and to Mass. We “had” to obey all the teachings proposed to us by the clergy. Millenials and many older persons as well don’t cotton well to being told what they have to do by churchmen unwilling to make a persuasive case for their teachings rather than just stating them apodictically. Americans argue easily and often about what it means to follow the constitution, just as they engage in arguments about what it means to follow Jesus, or to be an integral part of a particular faith tradition. To assert that good Catholics must accept and affirm all that is proposed as true by the leaders of the Church flies in the face of how people live and learn in this post-modern age. Believing that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist does not automatically lead to the kind of personal relationship with Jesus that characterized the life of the first disciples. They were drawn to him in the first place because of his mighty, loving, and merciful deeds. Later they would come with some difficulty to internalize his teachings, especially the harder ones. If we are only seeking to retain or attract members, the numbers will decline further. If we wish to actually follow Christ with intention and invite him to live in and through us, some will be attracted and others wont. This is complex, not simple.

  12. Let the Church (and the churches) shrink!

    Surveys, or comparisons with evangelical Protestant communities, or even secular trends, are not worth very much. The parish church should model itself on the abbey or monastery in this way. The local church should be a place of refuge in the microcosmic. That is, the local church is a place to live within the entire vision of the ex nihilo creator and his sacrifice (both bloody and unbloody). People will come at certain times and be away for even years on end. People will be shriven over and over again. More still will experience piercing doubt at some points and exuberant faith at others. The church is the place of movement in and out of the sacrificial space. Let it be a fluid zone of connection.

  13. I was struck by the bit about reconciling faith and science. Too often, I think we (and by we I mean Christians in general) have let the New Atheists like Dawkins et al dictate the terms of the debate unchallenged. The New Atheist assumes God is The Great Beard in the Sky and Jesus is the wish granting genie, and proceed to destroy both straw men. With few exceptions, like David Hart, Christians don’t have good answers and don’t immediately call them out on their nonsense.

    God is not in conflict with science — nay, rather, God is the source and sustainer of all that is, the reason science and mathematics consistently work, rather than us living in an arbitrary and capricious universe. Teenagers, a cohort I left not THAT long ago, get to college, and they don’t know how to deal with a Dawkins type, or even just a friendly atheist who doesn’t recognize our sources of authority.

    It tears at my heart to hear that someone now in their 30s (or 40s, 50s, 60s) set a course away from the church because of a specious argument from a secular authority, or because of not getting a good answer for some theological question for which there are ample good answers.

  14. How do I keep from being demoralized?

    ““As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts….

    so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
    but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

    Faith in the Holy Spirit, and that in an impossible situation the tomb was empty. I do not know how the Church grows, but I have faith it will.

    I also avoid being demoralized by grace of the witness of friends and folks like Francis who demonstrate such….grace.

    Were I to speculate about *why* I should not be demoralized, I would reflect on what seems to me a growing realization that fulfillment in life does not come from having the most toys. When people try many things to make themselves happy only to find they do not work they will often try something new and some will stumble on Love, which strikes me as the only place folks will find rest. And my bet is that the Catholicism that arises from that dynamic will have a welcoming beauty to it that will draw people in.

    We don’t know why the numbers are dropping, though folks (including I) will present explanations that fit their ideologies. But what if part of the drop is because many Catholics were not practicing intentionally? What if, were you to ask them back in the fifties if they really wanted to be at Mass, many would say ‘no’? If so, the declines that the polls catch might might be in things that do not matter so much, and these declines might mask increases in, say, intentional Catholicism that are more important?

    We plant seeds. We may not be on this earth to see the harvest.

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