Charting America's decline in church attendance

By Martin E. Marty
29 Sep 2010

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed grave concern over the decline of church participation in Western Europe. His trip to the UK last week provided opportunities for him to address it. Most commentators in religious and secular communications found almost nothing that he said or did which might help reverse the downward trends.

The fact that large crowds appeared at several of his appearances did not impress them: throngs line up for popes as celebrities. I’ve asked after each of Pope John Paul’s travels, which often drew masses of young people: did his Pope-mobiled words and gestures, eloquent though they be, lead any young man to enter the seminary ranks with intention to become ordained? Did mass attendance swell a month or a year later? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s hard to find evidence.

Observation of the North American scene and data gathered by many polling agencies provide a cause for separating this continent’s milder declines from the plot which defines Europe today. So sudden have been the marked trends showing disaffection that leaders have not internalised the evidence.

Exceptions? Yes, for now, Latino/a Roman Catholics sign up enough to keep the Catholic rolls deceptively high, if only relatively. For now, some astute, market-oriented mega-churches keep prospering, though even among them, opinion-pollers and people-counters see signs which prompt concern.

Those who do care and who set out to address the issue of decline, begin in a state of alarm. I was recently on a panel with an official who knew all about weapons of mass destruction, from nukes to germ-warfare capsules. Someone asked, “Knowing all that, how do you sleep?” He answered, “I sleep like a baby—for fifteen minutes, and then I wake up crying.” But sleeping or crying does not help and will not help people who seek to address the issues signified in the trends.

Some graphs and paragraphs in Lovett H. Weems, Jr’s recent Christian Century article (see reference below) show that from 1994 to 2000, two of four studied mainline Protestant church bodies showed modest gains and two others saw only modest losses.

But from 2001 to 2008 the “growing” United Methodist Church saw the greatest plunge (-17.86 per cent), and its losses were almost matched in the other three.

Disconcerting to church-growth experts was Weems’s note that in the earlier decade, greatest growth was among the largest local churches—but that in the more recent decade, the largest among them suffered most decline.

Some readers may wonder why in columns like this, which are to be about 'public religion', we talk about church and synagogue (etc.) attendance and participation - aren’t their institutions part of 'private religion'? Emphatically no. They are the bearers of traditions, the living expositors of sacred texts, the tellers of stories, the troop-suppliers for voluntary activities, the shapers of values fought over in the political realms.

Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters.

Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences.

Reference:

Lovett H. Weems, Jr. 'No Shows: The Decline in Worship Attendance,' in The Christian Century, 22 September 2010.

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(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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