January 28, 2017

The most striking religious trend in the United States today is the growing percentage of adults who no longer identify with any religious group. When asked about church membership, they reply that they belong to “none.”  According to the Pew Research Center, these “nones” now make up more than 23% of the U.S. adult population. They are about on a par with evangelical Christians (25.4%); and they have moved ahead of Roman Catholics (now about 20.8%) and mainline Protestants (14.7%). The ecclesiastical exodus is strongest in Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism.  

Millennials make up a large part of the “nones.” Millennials are generally much less interested in organized religion — and also, contrary to what one often reads, less interested in spirituality in general. This is a sobering reality when one realizes that Millennials have now surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, and the Millennial generation continues to expand as young immigrants join its ranks. 

Certainly part of the decline in church engagement is due to a growing sense of individualism and a break-down in primary group relationships in American culture. Churches are becoming less and less close communities of faith where people know each other well. I find this particularly true in the Roman Catholic Church where due to parish closings, consolidation of parishes, and the shortage of ordained ministers, people find themselves becoming anonymous participants in services often led by rotating or foreign priests. The American political scientist Robert Putnam called attention to this trend over ten years ago in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam pointed out that Americans were becoming less likely to participate in associations— like joining bowling leagues – and were more often “bowling alone.” According to the National Conference on Citizenship, the trend continues today. In a recent report, they highlight the fact that today only a third of Americans are involved in any kinds of formal organizations. 

Examining surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Barna Group, as well as reviewing my own studies and interviews, I see five more reasons why Americans are dropping out of church. 

(1) Boredom: Increasingly many people, in all age groups, find their church experiences impersonal, shallow, and uninviting. Many long for a supportive Christian community where people know each other face to face. Many long as well for what one of my students called a “taste of the Divine.” Too often church leaders miss this point. A couple years ago a neighboring parish held a concert of sacred music on the Saturday before Pentecost. The church was packed. The music was powerful and deeply moving. When the concert finished, the congregation sat there in silence for a good ten minutes. People had been deeply touched and were lost in concentration. Then a rather nervous pastor stood up, looked at his watch and told people it was his bed time and he asked them to leave. The next morning, Pentecost, I was attended liturgy in that same church. There were only about twenty people present. Most looked disengaged. Without looking at us, the pastor read the same sermon he had given the year before. On my way out of church, I greeted the pastor as he stood at the church door. I chuckled and said that he had had a full house on Saturday night. “Yes,” he replied, “those were the heathens.” I looked at him and simply said “I think you are terribly mistaken. We should talk about this.” 

(2) Reality: Another reason why people are dropping out of church membership is because far too often they find the message of church leaders out of sync with reality. They often find church leaders more concerned about questions that very few people are really asking. And they ignore the questions that really perplex and bother people today. A friend in California wrote me about a young priest who, two weeks before Christmas, launched into a fifteen minute Sunday tirade about the evils of contraception. He told his congregation of mostly retired people that people practicing birth control should not be coming up for communion. He warned them as well about the evils of masturbation and pre-marital sex. He said nothing about where one can find signs of the Sacred in contemporary society, nothing about the questions older people have about life and death, nor how Christian faith can be an anchor and a source of stability in troubled times. 

(3) Sex: One of the big problems for the ongoing church exodus, especially in my Christian tradition, is the great ignorance about human sexuality that is still broadly demonstrated by church leadership. As I have said before, our leaders need remedial sex education. They don’t understand or don’t want to understand that since the 1950s, we have learned a lot about ourselves as sexual beings. Issues of gender and sexual identity must be seen more broadly. Biblical teaching and ecclesiastical pronouncements about sexuality must be understood in an historical critical context. Human identity, we are realizing, is far richer, more varied, and more complex than people realized fifty years ago. Nevertheless, far too often church leadership understands human sexuality as simply a matter of genitalia and procreation. They denigrate BGBTQ people as innately disordered, discriminate against them; and they fire them from parish ministry or from teaching in parochial schools. 

(4) Pro-life: Watching and reading reports about the recent March for Life in Washington DC, I thought about yet another reason people are leaving the churches: right to life single-issue barrel vision and the short-sighted political engagement of religious leaders. I am anti-abortion. I am also pro-life. What I miss in much of the anti-abortion rhetoric is a strong pro-life agenda. Right now, today, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, is denouncing President Donald Trump’s critics for displaying what he says is an unprecedented opposition to the new president. Chaput strongly supports the new president because he and the new vice-president are (reportedly) strongly anti-abortion. Over the past year, Christian leaders have loudly and enthusiastically supported political candidates whose rhetoric has been strongly anti-abortion. They have been unusually silent however about those same political candidates who are avowedly racist and sexist (in often crude and violent ways) and unwilling to admit that pro-life means pro-child care, pro-health care, pro-housing for the homeless, pro-criminal justice reform, and pro-a-wide-range of humanitarian causes. Why the silence? Why the narrow vision? One Roman Catholic bishop, whom I know, rejoiced the day after the recent presidential inauguration: “I thank almighty God that we no longer have a president who is anti-life and a baby-killer.” 

(5) Cheap grace: Too many church leaders, and too many Christians, I fear, have sold out to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer was a young Lutheran theologian in Germany, as Hitler came to power. In 1937 he published his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was appalled when he saw how Protestant and Catholic church leaders supported Adolf Hitler very openly, enthusiastically, and with little restraint. He said they had sold out to cheap grace. “Cheap grace,” he said “was preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Cheap grace asserts that the purpose of Christianity is to selfishly protect people’s own self-interests instead of sacrificially serving others. Cheap grace is comfortable and easy, because it offers no challenge. Cheap grace does not demand Christian Discipleship. “Costly grace” on the other hand, Bonhoeffer stressed, is being a disciple of Jesus and implementing the Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer worried that in his day church leaders had cheapened the Gospel and that obedience to the living Christ was gradually being camouflaged beneath pleasant sounding formulas and attractive rituals. (Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo; and then executed by hanging on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.) 

In summary: Christianity’s contemporary American challenge is the challenge to us, church members, and to church leadership to accept the cost of discipleship. A church that lives in the spirit of Jesus and follows his teaching and example is a church that promotes community, compassion, and the charity of Christ for all. It is a church that grows in understanding and welcomes those who question. It is a church that seeks and celebrates “a taste of the Divine.” It is a church that proclaims there is no place in the human family for parading falsehood as the truth, and no place for denigrating and punishing people because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual identity. It is a church that will have no fears about losing members. 

2 thoughts on “Christianity’s American Challenge

  1. You write: “participants in services often led by rotating or foreign priests”…to your point(s)…all ordained priests serving full-time in Ocala, Fl, are from the foreign countries (zero U.S.) of Ireland, Mexico, Poland…all appear credible & fully engaged, BUT, dialects render homilies as mostly unintelligible, thus, zero impact. Just saying!

    Jack, you offer doable propositions. Too bad the message lands on deaf ears. To be sure, though, your excellent dialogue is a good part of the glue that keeps me coming back to the pew.

  2. A well-thought-out and to-the-point summation of what ails our Christian churches today. Unfortunately, as Jim Bennett commented, “the message falls on deaf ears” and so, the “nones” increase. I wait in anticipation for the renewal which incorporates your ideas.

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