At Night There Are Tears, but Joy Comes with Dawn: Lord’s Day Reflections on a Shrinking Church

As we gathered today around Word and Table to keep the Lord’s Day, many of us will have noticed, as we increasingly do, that the congregation was small and the church rather empty. And those who did come were largely over 50 or 60 years old. Yes, some younger people, and some parents with children, but not a lot. High schoolers? Young adults? Hardly.

It’s shocking. And depressing. And fear-inducing. Where will we be in 10 years if this continues?

Then we regularly see headlines such as

  • “Denomination X membership has declined by 20% in only Y years”;
  • “Diocese X” is closing 75 parishes”;
  • “Fewer than X% of Gen-Z Post-Millennials have a favorable image of church”;

and so forth, and on and on.

Where’s the hope? Where’s the joy? Where’s the reason to trust in God’s providence?

The place to start, I believe, is not with reassuring Happy-Talk, but with sadness.

It hurts to see so much decline and decay. It’s painful to contrast the present with our memories of 10 or 25 or 50 years ago. There is even bitterness. (When one diocese called its plan “Making All Things New,” I heard of someone calling it “Making All Things Disappear.”) We want to lament in the words of Psalm 42:5, “How I would lead the rejoicing crowd into the house of God, amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving, the throng wild with joy.” The crowds are gone now, the throngs are a distant memory.

The psalms are our friend in these struggles. The psalter is highly attuned to painful human emotions, and it does not shy away from expressing raw feelings of sadness, fear, and anger.

It is a fundamental dynamic of the psalter, over and over, that God moves us from sadness to joy, from fear to trust, from hardship to wellbeing. “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.” (Psalm 30:6)

But we have to go through the night, long though it be. There are tears, and we have to cry them.

It is a basic human insight that we have to mourn and grieve in order to let go of what is gone. We have to feel the sadness in order to move toward acceptance.

In my experience – and I admit I’m not very good at crying or feeling sadness – it is only after a period of tearful letting go that I can accept painful reality. (St. Benedict refers to “prayer with tears of compunction” so readily in the Rule, it makes me wonder whether maybe 6th-century Mediterranean males weren’t more comfortable with emotions than Minnesota farm boys. Who knows?) After I’ve cried through the sadness – and this always comes as a surprise – I discover new joys in the unexpected future that begins to shape up before my eyes.

New joys? Really?

  • Maybe a smaller community offers deepened experiences of fellowship and mutual support.
  • Maybe the acoustics are less difficult in a smaller worship space, and you only need 3 singers to have great-sounding chant. (And a smaller group is easier to coordinate.)
  • Maybe a smaller congregation can better sing unaccompanied in parts at times – with a little help from a few strong singers – and the experience is delightfully inspiring.
  • Maybe it now becomes possible to have home-baked eucharistic bread and wine for all, and the communal experience is deepened of being drawn into the Lord’s self-giving sacrifice.
  • Maybe the “other” becomes non-believers, rather than Christians of other traditions, and one comes to the ecumenical realization that “those Prots” or “those RCs” are really my allies.
  • Maybe the realization that church-going Christians are a minority deepens one’s sense of Christian discipleship.

One way to avoid the tears – and also miss out on the new joys – is to stay stuck in simplistic blaming masquerading as analysis. Optionally, mix in some anger and sarcasm. When you’re angry, you feel so powerfully in charge … and you’re able to keep at bay the tears of sadness.

  • “It’s vernacular Mass facing the people that drove them away.”
  • “If we hadn’t given up the King James and the old hymnal, we would have kept our identity and staying power.”
  • “They shut down the glory days of 1980s progressivism, and that explains our difficulties.”
  • “The crisis of the church is at root a crisis of liturgy.”

Yeah right. Longing for a forever-gone past is so often a coping strategy of staying in one’s head, or perhaps in one’s anger, in order to avoid sadness. But it comes at a costly price. It prevents us from moving forward. (Constructive, fact-based analysis is another thing.)

“At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.”

The Christian name for the movement from tears to joy is, of course, Death and Resurrection. Christian faith tells us that, precisely in the midst of church closings and a vocation shortage and denominational shrinkage , the Resurrected Lord is powerfully at work in unexpected ways.

Believe the promise. Accept the tears. Be open to new joys.





    1. As well, thank you for this moving and candid reflection. This is my experience as the second of eleven children of devoted Catholic parents. Most are now “nones.” Yet all of them hold in deep esteem and affection a marvelous aunt, a Daughter of Charity, who died at sixty-nine in 1995. And also a priest friend of the family, who from 1947 till his death at ninety in 2010, was like a cherished uncle. Baptisms, weddings, funerals. Now of twenty-one grandchildren, fifteen are also “nones.” Liturgical changes in ceremonial or texts, they wouldn’t know what you are talking about.

  1. Perhaps a part of the problem is this…
    This is our parish’s “mission statement” featured prominently on our website and elsewhere.


    I’m certain that if I use Vineyard, or UCC or Community of ___ Church, or any other church name, the mission statement would be just as viable.

    Perhaps this lack of differentiation, this rush toward others- rather than celebrating and emphasizing what sets Catholicism apart- is also contributing to the decline in parishes.

  2. Oh, teaching Catholics that we share the mission of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church with all who acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ is the reason so many stop associating with the church? I don’t think so.

    1. No, but failing to communicate what the Catholic Church has to offer contributes to the decline. Many in my generation who grew up in the Church of the 80s and 90s where given a faith so vague and shallow that we were totally ill equipped to be Catholic adults once faced with the slightest bit of difficulty or doubt.

  3. Part of the answer might be to realise that when we say “the Church” must do more to invite people in what we really mean is “We/I must do more.”
    Jesus won disciples because attracted people to himself.
    Do we?

  4. We are called to be Christians not churchians. For centuries the hierarchy devoted great resources and energy calling attention not to Christ and his mission but to THE CHURCH and its prerogatives. For quite some time, dioceses and parishes were described canonically as benefices for priests and bishops, not as vibrant faith communities led by servant leaders. There are lots of good reasons why people, many of whom never enjoyed a close relationship with Christ, identify themselves as nones. If we seek to live as Christians who invite The Lord to transform us by word and sacrament, people will be drawn to us. Come, Lord Jesus, and rebuild your church. Inspired by your Mother and ours, let your Holy Spirit make us attractive bearers of your saving word.

    1. Jack

      I have been praying on this topic for a while now, watching my small congregation shrink further and have moved to the next step, preaching on the topic, incorporating it in sermons as best I can, such as this past Sunday’s general theme of discipleship.

      While I really have limited use for Pope Francis’ pontificate, there is one thing which the man said which resonates in my head again and again: We cannot live life as if an endless Lent. There has to be Easter joy too.

      WHO would like to imitate the vast majority of our congregants? Long faces, dejected attitudes, leaving Mass perhaps the same or worse than they were when they arrived.

      I believe we need preach simple sermons, challenging people, equipping them to rise to the occasion because it is the right thing to do….and to do so joyfully, upbeat, positive, and with the realization that their only thanks for their effort may come in eternal life.

      Our parishes are shrinking, but, to quote Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank, we may still “Pull up…Pull up” before we hit the mountain and go to zero.

      In addition, I have stepped up advertising and some personal evangelizing…..sometimes it only takes a personal invitation for some unchurched or lapsed to return.

      1. “joyfully, upbeat, positive”

        One of these things is unlike the others…joy (and hope) are virtues. They don’t always manifest as upbeat or positive, which are more contemporary values. Hope in fact is premised on things now not feeling or seeming great.

  5. Take it from someone who has done this, but it is really true that giving birth hurts like hell. You think nothing is ever going to stop the pain and you can’t possibly push that kid out into the world and then it happens. And nothing else matters. I think what we are witnessing is the birth pangs of a new life in the church. Life, birth has a way of just sometimes happening and you can only just go along with the labor pains it takes to get it on its way. I am convinced that the life and light that Jesus brought into the world in his labor pains on the cross will not be put out. And just as the child is not an exact DNA replica of his or her parents, the church of the future where the light and life of Jesus WILL come to birth will not be a replica of its forebears and it shouldn’t be. We are groaning in labor pains so take a deep breath and push.

  6. Thank you for this article Fr. Ruff, some good insights. That said, I don’t want talk of “silver linings” lead us into complacency with the problems our Church faces, though to be fair I don’t think this was your intent with this article.

    At some point we need to realize that our current problems exist not because of pastoral evolution, but because of our individual and collective failure to catechize our youth, promote faithful lifestyles, support our institutions, and most tragically our failure to protect our children from sexual abuse. Our churchs are increasingly empty primarily because of all these things, which is why I struggle with apparent attempts to romanticize a shrinking Church. I don’t mean to be a downer here, but our churches weren’t built to be empty; they were built to be full to bursting with people on fire with the Gospel of Jesus, without exception. As a church, we can’t accept our demographic crisis as the new normal, lest we forget that churches that are shrinking today will be gone tomorrow in the form of mergers. If we love our Church, as I suspect all PT regulars do, we need to learn to “go forth and make of all disciples” as Christ commands.

    1. I hear you. But I’m not sure I agree.

      In my analysis, organized religions is shrinking in the west for a whole host of reasons, most of them huge trends (cultural, intellectual, economic, etc.etc.) that have been in the making for centuries now. There is a *certain* kind of inevitability, or at least nearly irresistible energy, to this. I’ll put it overly bluntly: most people are just plain outgrowing much of what we do and believe in.

      I’m ALL in favor of better catechesis, preaching, music, art, etc. I believe some of this will make a difference and help some places newly flourish. But let’s not kid ourselves: our best hope, in the the face of all the evidence that has been accumulating for centuries now, is that our efforts will lead to a few places flourishing while many or most probably die.

      I’ve given my life to what you advocate – working hard to make it better. My hope is for a few great places and some good places, and accepting that most of it shrivels away. That’s nobody’s fault, that’s just the way it is. I believe it’s best to be honest about this. Maybe some people will do better at their hard ministerial work if they have the illusion that things can come back large-scale! The point of my post is that it can’t.

      I hope history proves me wrong. It could – but that looks very, very unlikely to me.


      1. Oh, I’m not sure I have a full-blown explanation. I’m attempting to express my observation of society in general in Europe and the US, and people I know in both place, who have moved beyond Christianity. These are people who once bought the whole thing, or perhaps their parents or grandparents did, but with increasing education, increasing disposable income, increasing world travel, increasing awareness of a complex world, these people have found Christianity to be … fill in the blanks with lots of answers: a fairy tale, a myth, a product of another era, a means of hurting people from which I’m liberated, something in my/our past when we didn’t know better, a worldview made obsolete by modern science or by the sexual revolution… etc.

        It’s hard to state in a commbox something that would have to be a long article, or a whole book, which I haven’t written! I hope these few vague impressions and images give you a sense of what I observe seems to be happening for lots of people in modern societies.


      2. Father, I definitely echo your observation that our particular moment in history is important, and we can’t deny that culture plays a big role in problems the Church currently faces, as you point out. But when I look at the long course of Church history, I have doubts that this is truly the end of the road for the large, institutional Church that we’ve recently known.

        The Church has been through some serious rough patches, namely the Fall of Rome, the reformation, and the Enlightenment; where the explosion of scientific inquiry, philisophical intrigue, and socio-political unrest, all conspired to where many lost faith in the Church. I read a statistic where the U.S. had by far the lowest rate of Christian observance not in 21st century, but right after the founding of the country! (look up Jefferson Bible)

        Maybe I’m young and naive, but I’m not yet convinced that the decline of the Church as we know it is inevitable. I very much believe that there are things we can do individually and communally to make the Church great again (sorry for the euphemism, couldn’t resist); I don’t think I’d be a good Christian (especially a catechist) if I didn’t believe that.

      3. Father,

        I understand your sentiments on “outgrowing.” However, if that is your heartfelt feeling on the state of the church and probably Christianity as a whole….essentially in a slow death dive with small pockets surviving….why do you continue?

      4. Because Christianity is true! And because it is a way to find deep joy (not always superficial happiness) living according to God’s will. And because the state of the world or church is not up to me, it is up to God. Who knows where we will be in 500 or 5,000 years? Who knows how much insight, painful though its acquisition be, might come from a couple centuries on the margins? And because the call of the church is to faithfulness, not numerical success. (I read a great deal of Stanley Hauerwas and remain influenced by him in what I write here, though I’ve moved away from much of his project as a whole.)

        To clear up a possible misunderstanding: By “outgrow” I don’t mean “good progress,” or any such judgment. I mean it simply as a sociological observation. Maybe there is another word I should use.

        I repeat: acceptance is painful. (See tears, above.) But with acceptance comes joy, greater joy than one ever had before – that’s what God has in store for us. I really believe that.


    2. Patrick Freese stated “At some point we need to realize that our current problems exist not because of pastoral evolution, but because of our individual and collective failure to catechize our youth, promote faithful lifestyles, support our institutions, and most tragically our failure to protect our children from sexual abuse.”

      This quote, and Fr Anthony’s valid reply about the many issues that have contributed to the decline is very much what I was touching upon when I said my generation was left ill equipped to be Catholic adults. Common themes I’ve seen, even from peers who attended Mass weekly growing up or who attended Catholic school include: a lack of knowledge of basic Catholic teaching, little to no sense that Catholicism is a religion with depth that has a rationale behind its beliefs and an inner logic, little sense of the wide and varied modes of prayer and devotional practices that can allow people to connect with God outside of Mass, little to no sense of Catholicism being a religion with spirituality and mystery, and little to no sense of the vast and amazing liturgical and musical patrimony of the Church. Yet having little knowledge is supposed to translate to loving and having a meaningful relationship with Jesus? With having a meaningful experience of Mass? Falling in love with someone you don’t really know rarely happens in real life. It’s no surprise that, when faced with a woefully inadequate response to questions about faith vs. science, difficult teachings about sex and homosexuality that often cast the Church in a negative light on the news and social media, and the massive failures that led to the sexual abuse scandal, that many looked back and saw little there to make them want to stay. Of course there are major trends contributing to the decline that have nothing to do with catechesis or liturgy – but the failures of catechesis and liturgy certainly make it even easier for younger generations to decide they have “outgrown” religion.

      I’ve often thought that the Church has failed in giving people something to love. People will tolerate something they fear or are indifferent to for as long they have to, but they will endure struggle and even die for something they love.

      1. But as Pope Francis says….and he says he is quoting Benedict here….the church does not grow by proselytizing but by our lived examples. I think that engaging in “going forth and making of all disciples” is achieved by the kind of person we are. That is also why the pope talks a lot about the conversion of hearts. I think this becomes especially true when we are around young people. They do not like active proselytizing but they certainly look at how others live and can see through phoniness a mile away. I think the hypocrisy among members of all denominations is what is destroying engagement with religion.

      2. Lived examples are very important for children, but don’t you agree that, at some point, you need to give them at least some direct instruction, resouces, and the opportunity to discover and have their own experiences? I could read to a child and get them interested in reading, but at some point I need to teach them the alphabet and give them the tools they need to read for themselves.

      3. Both of you are right Reyanna and Jack, and I wish I’d included “living witness to love of Jesus” in my earlier comment. It’s all a mix of column A and column B, but I still might argue that lack of effective witness to the Gospel is THE root cause to most of the Church’s self inflicted wounds, and that all other problems, such as weak catechesis, flows from that. Simply put, people who don’t believe in the Gospel enough to make a serious attempt to live by it will have an impossibly hard time communicating it effectively.

      4. As an Anglo Catholic in a very small parish I know all too well the experience of shrinking congregations. The discussion you are all contributing to is interesting but much of it misses the unavoidable reality that things must change – in the right way ! There is no path back to the glory days of the past. We have to be willing to let some things go – isn’t that a basic fact of getting older ? And in that journey we have to keep trusting in God.
        I think a lot of people who used to attend churches did so because it was ‘the done thing’ – it was the norm. Now it isn’t. They were ‘fair-weather friends’ of Christ, you could say.
        Don’t place all the blame on those who are left, for not being great evangelists. As Jack said, most were not trained to be or given enough teaching to even form a clear understanding of the Faith. And I thought his last point was very telling – if you love something enough, you are willing to do so much more to save it. And in that way, Jesus is our example yet again.
        But I do think the institutional Church has let many of us down. Not just in the obvious way, but in many small failures.

      5. It just happens that the Office of Readings 2-year cycle has Athanasius “against the Arians” today within which he quotes “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this. (KJV Ecclesiastes 7:10) “

  7. I’d like to just add a note of experience that may be a bit different from others, but no less valid. When I think about the Catholic past as I experienced it in the supposed time of flourishing (when there were a lot of people populating church institutions), it wasn’t always rosy. There was a lot of emphasis on discipline but not so much on justice. People lied a lot to prop up the systems they inhabited. There was considerable tribalism among Catholics, and a good bit of ethnic clannishness that was cloaked in Catholicism but did not result in a whole lot of charity, beyond care for me and mine. There was scrupulosity, and a sense that the worst sins were sexual. I got a fine education in Catholic schools, but the number of my classmates who were there just to avoid the public schools’ problems and not for any religious loyalty, were many. Scoffers abounded within these groups. We had big institutions, but frequently the individuals moving through those institutions got an experience not of grace but of harshness. That’s why people left. I think that all this contributed to people falling away, and ultimately to the failure of the system. And this is quite apart from the scandalous sex abuse crisis which emerged to shock and drive even more people away. There were genuine, caring, faith filled people in the mix, but there was a lot of other stuff going on. My sense is that the faithful minority is still around. So I wonder if what we mourn in losing the big institutions is a cultural clout which is no longer ours to command, and yet, look around: there is probably as much grace and blessing for our time, only it is taking different forms.

  8. We are called to proclaim the Good News, in and out of season. Maybe, at present, it is out of season. But we can’t stop our proclamation. If all we accomplish in that endeavor is scattering some seeds, a few of which may not grow and blossom until years after we’re gone, then so be it. But I’m confident that we’ll accomplish more than that. We may not sustain all of the existing parish communities and schools that previous generations bequeathed to us. But if all we do is watch them die and mourn the last, we’re failing our commission. Or so it seems to me.

  9. “St. Benedict refers to “prayer with tears of compunction” so readily in the Rule, it makes me wonder whether maybe 6th-century Mediterranean males weren’t more comfortable with emotions than Minnesota farm boys”

    Ulysses is often crying in the Odyssey. Back in those days at least Mediterranean males, even proud fighters, were not ashamed of crying when they felt sad.

    1. Different cultures have different attitudes about male display of tears.

      If memory serves, Samuel Champlain was stunned to discover how the aboriginal Americans of eastern Canada placed highest importance on the ability to maintain composure when, if taken captive, one were to be flayed alive, so as not to shame one’s people and ancestors. Even the residue of stoicism (in the more conventional, less technical, sense) in European culture couldn’t hold a candle to that cultural standard of impassivity.

  10. Three years ago there were over 60 youth in our confirmation class. Last year there were only 20! Our bishop was unperturbed, said in his homily: “You are not very many. That is fine.” and proceeded to give a moving meditation on the presence of Christ in our lives. I think he is right: if we keep calm and carry on, and do our work, the rest will take care of itself, somehow. We are only asked to do and become the best we can. I do very much wish for certain specific people to be Christian together with me, but as to people in general, it’s in the hands of God: no worry!

    1. Claire – I do worry. I admire your faith, but I also think we need to take care to not let it lapse into a sort of passive or defeatist, “Oh well, the decline is what it is, there is nothing we can do about it.” I disagree; I think that probably there is much more we can do about it than, as a whole, we are doing now.

      It’s a hopeful sign that the problem seems to be widely recognized. But the much harder part is figuring out what to do about it, and then having the desire, imagination, energy and resources to actually do what must be done. I fear that in some ways we’re an old dog not well-positioned to learn new tricks: for example, our pastors tend to be elderly, and tend not to be well-formed in the art of evangelizing (which surely is a critical part of whatever program of reform we should adopt).

      1. Jim,

        Things continued to climb (in the North East anyway) just into the 1970’s and then the decline began, slow at first and when the clerical abuse scandals began, fell off the cliff, and never really recovered. I am told that Law was removed not because of the abuse scandal, but because the money almost completely died in Boston and O’Malley had experience in Fall River and to a lesser degree in Florida.

        Coincidentally, other things also began to change in the 70’s. Parish census slowly ended….no more knocking on the doors, touching base with parishioners at home, speaking with them one on one and trying to address their individual issues and sacramental needs. Clergy were beginning to “age out” and got tired…less new ones to replace them and people became more mobile, moving and church shopping began. Finally, I really think a lot of the faithful became disillusioned with what they saw. Soon enough, the big open door on Sunday morning was simply not enough to get them to come….more decline.

        I do not have all the answers about turning it around but to be sure, what we are doing now ain’t working, so the “box needs a shake.” It has now been 25 plus years since the beginning “turned off” people first started staying home and BOY it is hard changing that habit after decades. It means hard work in parish leadership, making the individual feel important to the whole, encouraging participation and decent preaching….and even then, the numbers are small….and perhaps they will grow?

        The great commission in Matthew has to be renewed daily. It is hard work.

      2. Roger

        I grew up on suburban Long Island in the 1960s and 1970s. If I had ever heard of a priest stopping by a house for anything other than a deathbed visit, it would have been astonishing (movie depictions of such visits struck me was, well, quaint or strange). The new dense suburban parishes were not nearly as compact and walkable as old urban Catholic enclaves, and my impression was that priests used the parochial school staff as their eyes and ears with parish families. But, after the bishops let up on requiring parents with means to enroll their children in parochial schools, the efficacy of using the schools that way declined. I was the first in my family (5th out of 6 children) to be schooled K-12 entirely in public school (our public schools were much higher in quality than the parochial school, and my parents were eager for me to benefit from that), but that eventually became more typical than it formerly was.

        And then canon law was changed (in 1983) to permit church hopping – not just by congregants but also pastors, who no longer had assurance of life tenure.

  11. Fr. Anthony, I am obviously catching up late in the game. Your post reminds me of the conversation we had about attrition in the churches this past Fall. I really appreciate your thoughts here. I know I’m on an island among my Orthodox friends, but I think the Churches will do best to serve whomever is in their local neighborhood. In our time of polarization, much good could come from renewed ecumenical mission – and more shared liturgy. Fr. Alexander Men believed that the Church is still in its infancy, in the very earliest stages of its mission in the world (assuming the period ends with Christ’s second coming). If someone as courageous as Fr. Men could express such an opinion, there is always hope.

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