A Thought About the Decline of Religious Participation

In a story released two months ago, the Pew Research Center noted an acceleration in the trend of Americans declining to participate in any form of religion. Since 2009, the percent of people identifying as Protestant declined from 51 percent to 43 percent of the population, while Catholics declined from 23 percent to 20 percent. The “nones” — atheists, agnostics and the indifferent — rose from 17 percent to 26 percent.

The arguments advanced by the “nones” are a commonplace: that religion offers them nothing, that science can’t prove the existence of a supreme supernatural being or an afterlife, that organized religion does more harm than good, that an all-loving God couldn’t allow this degree of evil into the world, that the species has evolved beyond the need to mythologize about an elderly, bearded sky-god who grows angry when you masturbate.

The “nones” arguments aren’t very interesting, mostly because they’re too superficial to stand up to serious intellectual scrutiny. More compelling, I think, is an inquiry into why organized religion has been losing ground; the “nones” don’t come from thin air, after all. I think the failure of organized religion to offer serious and intellectually rigorous counter-arguments to the modern moment — with its attendant solipsism and scientism — constitutes a huge chunk of the reason. It’s too facile to suggest the culture has moved away from the Church when the Church hasn’t bothered to track the culture and to adjust its catechesis accordingly.

I was struck recently by a handful of thoughts that, collectively, changed my thinking about the much-heralded New Evangelization by highlighting its fragility. These stress factors, I think, undermine the legitimacy of religion from within, because no matter how superficial the “nones” arguments remain, the leaders of U.S. faith communities seem hell-bent (so to speak) on not responding to them.

So let’s explore some meta-trends.

The State of Homiletics Is Weak Because of an Over-Emphasis on Pastoral Paradigms

Go into an average place of Christian worship on any given Sunday, and you’re almost surely going to hear a sermon that’s little more than warmed-over moralistic therapeutic deism. MTD offers a five-fold set of beliefs: That there’s a God; that God wants people to be nice and good and fair; that the point of life is to be happy and have good self-esteem; that God need not be involved in daily life until God is needed for something; and that good people go to heaven when they die.

When was the last time you heard a homily that challenged you? That taught you something about your faith tradition that was genuinely new to you? That asserted that if you just tried and were a “good steward” then you’re on the right track? In most Christian houses of worship, the central message is the same: “Smile, God loves you. So try just a little bit harder to be nice. And don’t forget to tithe and to come to the multicultural potluck in the church hall on Tuesday.”

The cry of the martyrs, it ain’t.

Most Christian ministers are pastoral in their vocation. That is, they view their work as being shepherds of souls, keeping the sheep together at all costs — even at the expense of hard-to-swallow doctrines. But there’s more than one way to tend a flock, and the pastoral paradigm is merely one of several:

Paradigm Description Pro Con Rainbow Flag
Moralistic Heavy on thou-shalt and thou-shalt-not constructs. Fire-and-brimstone sermons brimming with certitude. Very few shades of grey, and deep advocacy for the existence of a very specific instantiation of God. Rarely shies away from the tough parts of doctrine. Tends to challenge the congregation to think harder about sin and redemption. Sets a high bar for individual conduct and holds people accountable when the bar isn’t met. Little room for questioning — focus is compliance, not love, even when love is invoked to justify the compliance. Often, creates an environment where only people who are “saved” are truly welcome. High risk of clericalism and theological bullying. Burns it.
Mystical Literary approach that emphasizes pious sacramental practices and direct encounters with the divine. The most phenomenological of the paradigms. Emotive, charismatic style engages the true believer. Employs a variety of traditional cultural practices (like the rosary) to deepen the daily faith commitment. Emphasizes a direct, person-to-person encounter with God, Jesus, Mary, the saints and angels, etc. Prayers tend to feature praise and highly emotional/subjective language. Integrates sacramental practices into daily life, including activities like daily family prayers. Over-reliance on metaphor leads to circular reasoning and expressions of faith that cannot be meaningfully unpacked. (E.g., “cloak yourself in the righteousness of Christ” — meaning what, exactly?) Tends to fetishize the irrelevant, like tracking the latest alleged Marian apparitions on Facebook. Actually likes Taizé and the CEV Bible, or conversely, the “traditional Latin Mass” and the Douay-Rheims. Often holier-than-thou. Suffers it.
Pastoral Offers gentle exhortation toward incremental improvement along one’s faith journey. Welcoming approach that encourages community. Aims to help people where they are, and to keep them in the flock by reserving Judgment Day to God and not to the minister. Takes a one-day-at-a-time approach to becoming a better person, through small steps along a lifelong path. Generally affirming. Avoids old formalities that “get in the way.” Implicitly endorses cafeteria-style Christianity, even if explicitly condemning it. No meaningful challenges or sacrifices required. Preaching is uniformly insipid; MTD themes pervade and only the puns and personal anecdotes change. “All are welcome” even when individuals explicitly repudiate essential doctrines, for “who are we to judge?” Flies it.
Scholastic Focused on teaching the history and doctrines of the faith tradition, with an emphasis on applying those lessons to everyday life. Offers a rich banquet of history and doctrine, diving fearlessly into subjects like medieval heresies. Translates the history of the church into a great “why” through which today’s parishioners take active part. Holds to doctrine but accepts moral weakness and offers a reasonable but not-superficial pathway to redemption. Often, more intellectual than spiritual, leading to a sort of emotional dryness. Holds fast to doctrinal norms and proves welcomes people who don’t repudiate them. Endorses a grey-zone orthodoxy less stark than the moralists but tougher than the pastors, leading to a poor fit with people seeking MTD affirmation and superficial “community.” Ignores it.

In most churches I’ve visited — and thanks to my former volunteering with the diocesan worship office, I’ve had a lot of experience with very many Catholic priests in the Diocese of Grand Rapids — most priests take a primarily pastoral approach. Indeed, seminaries train as such. I’ve only encountered two mystics (Fr. J.R. at St. Anthony, many years ago, and Fr. Ron, now at Sacred Heart) and perhaps two or three scholastics (Fr. Peter at St. Anthony, and Frs. Ed and Robert at Sacred Heart). The closest moralist priest I’ve met may have been Fr. Ray at St. Anthony, although I never really knew him in his prime. All the other priests I’ve met or heard homilies from, at the cathedral or St. Mary in Marne or St. Robert of Newminster or St. Isidore or St. Anthony, were uniformly pastoral. The bishops I’ve served with — Bps. Rose and Hurley, primarily — evidenced strongly pastoral tendencies, too.

In the abstract, pastoral sensitivity isn’t a vice. But when most ministers speak with this voice, without countervailing voices to moderate it, weaknesses of this approach metastasize. So sermons by and large become exercises in navel-gazing, filled with jokes and gentle exhortations devoid of serious demands of sacrifice. You see an emphasis on “community” and “stewardship” that emphasizes inclusivity, non-judgmentalism and attainment of your spiritual goals by dropping your check into the collection basket each week. In short, a dominant pastoral approach almost necessarily leads to cafeteria-style Christianity that becomes more cultural and social than spiritual.

Is it any wonder that first the mainline Protestants, and now Evangelicals and Catholics, witness a flight from the pews? People who hunger for a meaningful spiritual challenge, or a deeper understanding of the faith tradition, or a more intimate encounter with the divine through deliberate liturgical orthopraxis, are left clawing in the shadows. So they either leave to find a church that meets these needs (in effect, following a weak form of the Benedict Option), or they leave organized Christianity altogether. I think a huge part of the story of the decline of organized religion draws from the sharp turn toward the pastoral since the 1960s, thus making the emptying of the pews something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But this trend is only part of the story.

The State of Dogma is Weak Because It Speaks to the Lowest Common Denominator

One of the best aspects of Christianity in the Western Tradition is that it speaks to literally everyone regardless of their intellect and education. This point cannot be under-stated, because alternative approaches to all-encompassing worldviews (e.g., Marxism-Leninism, modern scientism) gear themselves toward people at the higher end of the IQ distribution, such that when Stalin average-to-low-IQ people assume positions of absolute power within those worldviews, the blood tends to flow freely. 


  • Average IQ ranges from 85 to 115. Roughly 68 percent of all people fall into this bucket.
  • An additional 13.5 percent of all people have IQs between 85 and 70. For this cohort, comprising roughly three people out of every 22 picked at random, their cognitive ability is such that they generally require special/easy work and (at the lower end) intense supervision. Reading comprehension and ability to understand abstract ideas is significantly curtailed, and associated social isolation significantly increases the relative risk that this population will turn violent.
  • An additional 2 percent of the population — one person in 50! — has an IQ below 70, which significantly limits their independence and employment prospects. They can generally use appliances, fill out basic forms, read simplified bus schedules, and the like, but they’re incapable of more cognitively demanding tasks.

The genius of the Christian tradition is that even the people at the very low end of the IQ spectrum can understand the Ten Commandments. And think of the great medieval churches, whose stained glass and architecture spoke to illiterate peasants in a way that no book ever could. Many of the pious devotions that seem so simple-minded are simple because they include people who otherwise would struggle to understand more complex formulations. Thus, a lot of the language of liturgy and much of the current state of homilitics is premised on the notion that the best sermon cannot out-think the slowest congregant. For centuries, this formula worked. Farmers who had no formal schooling, and who — if they could read at all — read only the Bible, would never grasp, say, the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Yet they can grasp “thou shalt not lie” without having to struggle with the Principle of the Double Effect, and they can pray the rosary and the Nicene Creed without having to understand the philosophical minutiae of transubstantiation or the mechanism of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They can engage in days of fast and abstinence and “offer it up” as a personal sacrifice without a deep Christological understanding of the crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice.

So the tradition operates on many levels, in harmony: Ordinary people enjoyed a moral and cultural framework centered around their local church, with digestible practices that mirrored the concepts that most of them were not prepared to engage on a deep cognitive level. Even (or especially?) for people with low IQs and a propensity to violence, the strictures of the Church offered context and restraint that the local social order, on its own, could never engender. And there’s a lot to be said for this practice. Marx and others decried religion as the opiate of the masses, but would you rather have the masses on their knees in the church or with their pitchforks and torches on the town square? Religion is responsible for much bloodshed and suffering, but how much bloodshed and suffering has been avoided because the discipline of the Church kept the peace when no other institution could?

But the challenge of today is that the modern world cares much more about the why, so the pious practices of the past — structured to include people with little or no formal education and potentially limited cognitive ability — don’t cut it for people with college educations and high IQs. A framework for catechesis and apologetics that assumes a low degree of education and low-to-average cognitive ability will never look like a framework for catechesis and apologetics geared to a modern, highly educated professional. And, for reasons rooted in institutional inertia as much as anything, organized faith communities have proven vexingly slow to adapt. Thus, religion appears to be a den of superstitious moralizing justified by flowery metaphors that only resonate with people already on the inside.

This rhetorical misalignment is, in a nutshell, the problem with an overwhelmingly pastoral paradigm: Ministers cannot rebut the “nones” because they’re speaking different languages, and when people raised in a faith tradition begin to question that tradition in light of Enlightenment values, the ministers either adapt to the Enlightenment at the expense of the faith tradition (how many churches now fly the rainbow flag?) or face the widespread desertion of their pews because stock pastoral answers cannot rise to the level of Enlightenment thinking. These pastors cannot but do otherwise. The arguments, the language and the structures that worked for churches a century or two ago are wholly inadequate to the present moment.

Churches Rarely Perform Field Surgery on Broken People and Families

Relatedly: When “church” is what you do for an hour on Sunday, it’s by definition not a part of your daily life.

In a country presently bedeviled by opioid addiction, diseases of despair, racism, massive structural changes to the economy and the collapse of the traditional family, what’s your church doing about it? Thoughts and prayers are necessary, but not within a country mile of being sufficient. Does your church actively engage in ministry to the disaffected? Do you, personally, engage in such ministry? Have you ever visited hospitals or prisons? Have you counseled someone? Have you delivered meals to shut-ins, trained a displaced worker or counseled a family in distress?

Some churches do these things … occasionally, and with great self-congratulation. Some, obviously, excel at this work—but they’re depressingly uncommon.

It’s not obvious why people should care about a faith community, when the Most Holy and Sacred Trinity of Stewardship (time, talent and treasure) seem to flow in one direction only. Why should an average person, beset by spiritual crisis, care about an institution that mostly takes and rarely gives? And when it does give, it comes with uncomfortable and ill-timed strings attached, or a clear overtone of “look at us, we’re doing charity work” that simultaneously manages to humiliate the beneficiary while offering a false sense of moral superiority to the perpetrator?

Jolting the New Evangelization into Effectiveness

To arrest the decline in religious participation, I think churches must do something hard: They must reform from within, because from within is where the rot sources that drives this decline.

To wit:

  1. Mitigate the worst tendencies of pastoral sensitivity by training clerics in other ministerial paradigms. Despite the reduction in numbers of ordained ministers, the Church needs fewer pastors and more teachers and apologists who understand history and doctrine and preach it with vigor. An all-are-welcome logic has not been checked with appropriate bumper guards, such that the core of the faith has slowly eroded. Why pick from the church cafeteria when you could dine in sumptuous luxury at the secular steakhouse down the road? More time spent teaching and explaining where the boundary lines are (instead of apologizing for them!) will go a long way toward checking the MTD trend in contemporary homiletics that’s the root of so much of the present distress. Plus, people welcome a meaningful spiritual challenge every now and then. 
  2. Sharpen the message to speak to children of the Enlightenment. Too often, questions by high-IQ or highly educated people get dismissed with a 18th-century response to “pray about it.” Tough questions are met with appeals to authority or quasi-mystical metaphorical language that obscures more than it illuminates. Modern philosophy, anthropology and evolutionary psychology offer myriad justifications for religious faith — nothing definitively factual, but much that overlays with varying arguments and degrees of plausibility, like an argumentative tapestry that wins by the weight of the rope and not the strength of any strand within it. (See my Religion page for a lengthy essay about my journey back to the Church, for example.) You can’t use the inside-baseball language of catechisms and doctrines on people who don’t accept those catechisms and doctrines; first, you must get them to a spot where they’re willing to consider them. The New Atheist movement has done much to suggest that the game is irrelevant, to which various faith communities respond by citing the game’s rulebook. It’s the wrong approach; you cannot justify a game qua game merely by asserting its own rules. The New Evangelization must confront the charge of irrelevancy using the language of modern philosophy, psychology and science — not with the language of medieval mystics. Not since the Scholastics of the late Middle Ages has the Church spoken forcefully to intellectuals. That gap must heal, and fast.
  3. Get into the community in a big and not-splashy way. No one likes a hypocrite. If your faith emphasizes sacrifice and supporting the least of one’s brothers and sisters … shouldn’t there be some sort of non-trivial sign that you’re actually doing it?
  4. Rethink the Vatican II ecclesiology. I’ve lately been attending Mass in the Extraordinary Form at Sacred Heart. I’ve never had a theological or cultural bias for it; I was born long after Paul VI promulgated the revised Missal. But one thing that strikes me about the EF versus the Ordinary Form is that the EF doesn’t compel fake communitarianism. In the EF, you’re welcome to pray as you like, follow along in your hand Missal (or not), attend Confession, or pray the rosary. You aren’t expected to act like boot-camp recruits who respond snappily and in unison to every word coming out of the priest’s mouth. Although I’m a product of the OF, and I’m aware of the ways the OF improves upon the EF, the OF isn’t without its drawbacks, either. A rebalancing—more Latin, ad orientum, less congregational singing and rote responding, a sense of slower and more sacred movement, less flippancy in lay ministerial roles—would prove helpful.

Anyway, some thoughts. Merry Christmas.

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