Construction spending is one indicator of what a society values. According to the Census Bureau, construction of houses of worship plunged in the United States over the past twenty years while building boomed in most categories. The 66% decline in religious structures, from $9 billion in 2003 to $3 billion in 2021, is a record low. While entertainment and recreation venues experienced a huge building increase during the same period, churches and shopping centers declined. It doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer people are shopping, but it does reveal that our method of shopping is different in our modern virtual society. Maybe the same is true for online worship and faith development.
In 1937, three out of four Americans belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, according to Gallup polling. That statistic remained steady until the turn of the century; over the past twenty years, however, church membership has declined and, last year, it dipped below 50% for the first time in history. Bishop Bob Barron of Los Angeles estimates that 82% of Catholics are drifting from our religion (11% are so far gone they will never return and just 7% remain faithfully engaged). Some conclude that, as organized religion fades in our nation, we are simultaneously abandoning key values of connectivity: community, fellowship, and general empathy toward, or encouragement of, others. The top reasons for people leaving are that they stop believing in church teachings—specifically named were birth control, homosexuality, treatment of women, and divorce/remarriage—and because their general spiritual needs are not being met, particularly mentioned was dissatisfaction with worship services.
In spite of all this, there are several things that the Catholic Church does incredibly well. Foremost among them, I think, is education of children and youth and offering a strong moral foundation upon which families can build. This goes way beyond parish elementary schools to include high schools and colleges run by religious communities where numerous building blocks are added. Other things that the Catholic Church does well include outreach to those in need through social services and spiritual development to those who desire it and are willing to give the time and energy it takes to advance along the journey of faith. Though these offerings may not make up for uninspiring liturgies, judgmental attitudes, and condemnatory teachings, they do encourage us to nourish what touches and inspires the human spirit.
Most people want a relationship with God and most people want better relationships with others. Most people also want a solid moral anchor for their household. They know that religion in general—and the Catholic religion in particular—can provide that for them. With strong roots in faith through classical virtues and godly characteristics, they will not sway with the changing cultural winds but grow sturdy and branch out in hearty, healthy, holy, happy, and wholesome ways. With a deep anchor that unites them with the mysteries of creation and the majesty of our Creator, they can fly to new heights of wisdom, understanding, and love to impact their surroundings in positive and meaningful ways. What the church does well is to remind us that we are participants in a mystery beyond our comprehension, that we are here on earth for a limited time, and that we are entrusted with divine graces that help us to be happy with God both in this world and in the world that awaits us. What the church does well is that it gives us a moral compass by which to navigate the journey of life.
Though reliable statistics tell us that religion is on the decline, especially during recent decades, spirituality may not be diminishing alongside it. As the SNR (spiritual-not-religious) label grew, we uncovered lots of church-going people over the past hundred years who attended church with minimal faith and were not very spiritual (RNS). Let us pray that those who are drifting from religion are not also drifting from the Lord. Let us continue to help young families build upon a firm foundation of faith. Let us be beacons of inspiration for those who’re NSNR (neither spiritual nor religious). Let us reinforce what the church does well; and let us continue to seek ways to connect people to God and one another for the sake of a better world here and for heaven’s reward beyond.