June 20, 2008

Churches Face Declining Membership

Both Catholic and many Protestant denominations are facing declining membership. While the Catholics are coping through consolidation, many Protestant churches are continuing with tiny congregations. Evidently, some are able to do so because of their large endowments. But the real good news is that the combination of declining numbers and advancing age of the remaining members is leading to reduced evangelism. Still, I think that celebration would be a bit premature at this point. We have seen trends like this before, and they have been fairly short-lived.

It is certainly tempting to see the rise of atheism and declining churches as evidence that our neighbors were beginning to come to their senses. There may even be a kernel of truth in such an interpretation but probably not much more than that.

The truth is that there are many reasons for declining church attendance that have little to do with changes in underlying religious belief. When asked about the reasons for the decline of his church for the Boston Globe article, Donald Nass, 87, of Southbridge said,
It's a different world today. The young people have so much going on. Men and women are both working. And you've got television today. But we really believe in God, and we really believe coming to church is the thing to do.
He's certainly right about it being a different world than the pre-WWII era in which he grew up. He's probably also correct to suggest that social and cultural changes are at least partially driving down church attendance. The real test is going to be how churches respond to these changes.

The history of religion in the United States suggests that while religious practices such as church attendance may now be waning, they will likely return again with renewed vigor. Perhaps they will even return in a very different form.

I'm not sure the data support more than small shifts in belief. Perhaps it is better for us to think more about religious practices changing rather than a meaningful declines in belief. Not that I am not hoping for meaningful declines in belief - I am, but I'm not sure we are quite there yet. Besides, I tend to be far less concerned with what believers do at their churches than what they have been doing politically.

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