Why Is It So Hard To Go To Church? – A Spiritual Reflection
During the Easter Season, many people will come through the doors of St. Monica. Some will be coming for the first time. Some will be returning after having been away for a while. The big question is. “If they come once, will they come back a second time…. or a third?” If so, what is bringing them back? What is bringing them here? The Holy Spirit – certainly. But is there something that St. Monica (more importantly, the people in St. Monica) is doing to attract and feed people so that they come and stay?
A corollary question is just as important: If they do not return, what we doing that needs to be improved or changed or jettisoned? Is there something that we are not doing that we should be?
An article in Atlantic magazine examined why people don’t attend church services. That’s a fair question. Archbishop Chaput recently shared that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is losing about 10,000 active parishioners each year. Many reasons are given: They stopped believing in the Church’s teachings (60%). Their family was never that religious when growing up (32%). Their personal experience of negative religious teachings about treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%). The clergy sexual-abuse scandal (19%). A traumatic event in their life (18%). Their congregation became too focused on politics (16%).
Studies have shown that people who leave a parish do not necessarily leave their religion, faith or spirituality. A significant number of people still say that they believe in God. Roughly 40% pray daily or weekly. The most significant shift has been in the way people “practice” their faith. The study mentioned that, “Americans, particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a particular religious group.” A recent Pew survey dove deeper into this phenomenon and examined the way people choose their congregations and attend services. Their findings were interesting and perhaps a bit more optimistic that many might believe. While Americans “on the whole” are still going to church and other worship services less than they used to, many are actually going more – and those who are skipping out aren’t necessarily doing it for reasons of belief.
The Pew survey found three interesting points within the data.
First, the country seems to be split in half in terms of how often people attend services. Roughly say they 49% said they “rarely or never” go to church or another worship service between once a month and multiple times per week. 51% of Americans said that they do go to church between once a month and multiple times per week. But within that 51 percent, more than half of people said they go more often than they used to—in other words, about quarter of Americans have gotten more active in their religious communities in recent years – not less.
On the other hand, less than half of the people who “rarely or never go to church” said that their decline in attendance has been in the last few years and a greater portion of that group said they’ve always stayed home on Sundays.
To summarize several important points. First – there’s more activity happening on the devout side of the spectrum than the drop-out side. The Pew study suggests that even in a time of religion’s public decline, some people are experiencing personal religious revival.
Second – a significant number of people who said they’re not part of any particular religion/faith/denomination/church expressed mistrust of religious institutions. This suggests that these organizations’ reputations have something to do with why people are dropping out of public religious participation.
Third (and this is a simple one) – Is it simply too hard to go to church? People who report going to worship services less frequently now than they used to, overwhelmingly say the logistics of getting there are the biggest obstacle. According to the survey, about one-fifth of Americans now go to religious services a few times a year, but say they used to go a lot more. Roughly half of this group stopped going as often because of what the researchers called “practical issues”: They are too busy, they have a crazy work schedule, or they describe themselves as “too lazy” to go. Others said they just don’t care about attending services as much as doing other things.
Atlantic Magazine comments that “while it’s easy to empathize with the hassle of trying to wake up and rally kids to go sit still for several hours every Sunday morning, this explanation is intriguing for a slightly different reason: It suggests that many people view religious services as optional in a way they might not have in the past. Fifty or sixty years ago, churches were a center of social and cultural life in America. For many people, that’s still the case, but the survey suggests that many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of (church) social connection altogether.”
The survey offers evidence that at least some Americans find worship services less relevant than other things they could be doing with their time, or perhaps church is too hard to make time for. But the biggest takeaway is the variety of religious experience in America. Just as some people are drifting away from religion, others are moving toward it—and no matter what they might do on Sunday mornings, many people seem to find religious thinking still relevant to their lives.
So, what must St. Monica “be” and what should St. Monica “do” to work with the Holy Spirit’s movement in people lives so that “getting out of bed” on Sunday’s is something desired? Perhaps St. Monica Parish, as the local representative of the greater Roman Catholic Church, needs to first apologize to people for something that was done (or not done) in their lives. Saying sorry is hard and we’ll examine that next week,