Growth and decline in the churches: research findings

Growth and decline in the churches: research findings

Frank Mobbs

When you join one particular church congregation you will be required to do a nine-month introductory course on the Bible. You will also be asked to follow a theology course twice a week for twenty-seven weeks. You will not be alone because 3,000 other members have already met these requirements.

You have already guessed this is not a Catholic congregation. It is an Evangelical Protestant mega-church established by Rick Warren, the well-known founder and pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California.

Warren enunciates principles garnered from his experience: "A church is only as strong as the number of its people in the pews." And he has 23,000 in the pews every Sunday. "Money spent on evangelism [converting] is never an expense, it's always an investment."

A similar church sends a youth minister to a high school who leads a service of song and prayer lasting from 6.30am-7.15am.

These are some of the findings of Pierre Hegy, author of Wake Up, Lazarus, Professor of Sociology at Adelphi University, New York and Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Paris. He exhibits a deep knowledge of the teachings and history and practices of the Catholic Church.

Sociological analysis

Hegy's work is characterised by its reliance on facts drawn from widespread sociological analysis. It abounds in statistics simply reported.

He begins by reporting trends in religious practice throughout the world, while focussing on the Catholic Church in the USA. As we know, the future is generally bleak with the numbers of adherents in Europe, North America, Australia, and elsewhere dropping precipitously. We all know of the low figures for Mass attendance, especially amongst youth (the Church's future).

In the USA, 43 per cent of those of "No religion" are former Catholics. 30 million Catholics have left the Church, half of them converting to Protestantism, mostly to Evangelical Churches. Worse, many of these were formerly the most ardent Catholics who report that their spiritual needs were not being met in the Church.

Hispanic Catholics have been converted in considerable numbers with 90% reporting that they wanted a more personal relationship with God, not because they rejected the Church's teachings.

Hegy analyses the data and reports the factors which have led to this decline: general factors which have led to a decline in both Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches and ones specific to Catholic decline. I mention only a few of the latter:

• A widespread conviction amongst Catholics that they have no obligation to attend Mass or receive any sacraments. 95% 0f 18 to 26-year-olds hold this view. Many say they want to be religious without joining in the activities of any church; but research shows that those who fail to attend a church have only a smear of religion.

• Catholic 'outsiders', that is, merely nominal Catholics, are 70% of Catholics and their weight of numbers gives them much more influence over 'insiders' than that of Church leaders (e.g., bishops).

• Most Catholics reject the claim that Church teachings are objectively true.

• Liturgy tends to be performed too ritualistically, whereas many attenders seek more personal prayerfulness.

• The Catholic Church is perceived to be a power organisation, not a source of spirituality.

These trends are displayed in two important chapters, one on a successful Evangelical church and one on a successful Catholic parish, both successful in that they have large numbers of attendees and are very vigorous.

"Bayville" is a non-denominational Evangelical church where about 2,700 attend on Sundays. It attracts and caters mainly for the unchurched and religious dropouts, mostly former Catholics. Services last 90 minutes, sermons 30-40 minutes with the pastor each Thursday spending all day preparing the sermon. The Bible is central to all activities while music receives close attention with a choir of 80, orchestra of 40, and a band of seven. The choir memorises the songs. It is never louder than the assembly, so people sing. Praying is intense, unscripted, with strong appeals to the Holy Spirit. About 90 members serve in different ministries and there is a very strong community spirit.

Notable is the emphasis given to prayer, which is usually long and intense and precedes almost all organised activities. Prayer is emotional. Hegy comments: "Emotions are central to spirituality, because religious memory, intelligence, and will-power are heightened by emotions." Emotions are so aroused at Sunday services that people are slow to leave the church. The Men's Fellowship meets for prayer at 6.00am when men are going to work.

This church rates missionary work as of the highest importance, believing that a congregation which is not growing is dying. It continually recruits and also sends missionaries within the US and abroad.

"St Mary's" is a Catholic parish in which around 3,000 attend Mass. Hegy describes the parish as "a community of communities", whose model is the Small Christian Communities of Latin America. The priests seem to be exceptionally gifted while reception of the sacraments involves long preparation. Music is highly organised, suiting the young and Mass lasts up to 90 minutes. There are 140 ministries, all coordinated. Parishioners are wealthy, so weekly collections average $42,500. Despite all this vigour, attendance is declining because the parish, unlike "Bayville", does little to recruit.

Wake Up, Lazarus! demands reading by all leaders in the Church. Yes, some of the theology is wobbly. But we must find a way to stop an apparently terminal decline. Hegy can inspire us to wake Lazarus.

Pierre Hegy, Wake Up, Lazarus! On Catholic Renewal (iUniverse Inc, 2011, 316pp. Can be ordered on the Internet)

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