A Church that Repels Instead of Attracts: The Latest Pew Research Findings


The Pew Research Center just released its latest study on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The subtitle tells the story: “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.”

For our purposes, I want to focus on the Catholic numbers.

Anyone who has been paying attention, either to these studies or at the local parish, will not be surprised by the results of the report. It is an unavoidable fact that the Catholic Church in America is in decline. I wrote about this a few months back (“How Great We Aren’t: The Catholic Church in America Today”), and this report only further confirms that decline. Let’s look at a few important findings from the report (although I encourage you to read it in its entirety).

Catholics declined from 23.9% of the American population to 20.8% between 2007-2014, and in that time “unaffiliateds” (i.e. those who do not affiliate with any religious group) increased from 16.1% of the population to 22.8%. According to the report, that means that there are roughly 3 million fewer Catholics today than less than a decade ago, even factoring in immigration and births.

The really interesting data comes when we look more closely at “religious switchers.” These are the people who grew up in one faith tradition (or perhaps no faith tradition), but then later in life left that tradition for another. Although, historically, changing one’s faith is rare, in modern America it is not uncommon. Here are the top-level results:

In a nutshell, Americans are leaving mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church in droves, and most are becoming “unaffiliated.” Specifically, 31.7% of Americans grew up Catholic, but only 20.8% are Catholic now – the trickle of people entering the Church is overwhelmed by the tsunami of those leaving it.

Or, to put it another way: for every 1 person who left the ranks of the “unaffiliateds,” another 4.2 people joined. However, for every 1 person who joined the Catholic Church, 6.5 people left. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see where those numbers are trending and what the end result will be.

What Does This Mean?

The first, and most important, take-away should be this: what we are currently doing isn’t working. I realize this might come across as blindingly obvious, but for many Catholic leaders it doesn’t appear to be. If you attend a typical Catholic event today, most of the talk will be about how great everything is: our schools, our parishes, our youth groups, etc. Nary any mention of the reality that our pews are emptying.

Another take-away should also be clear: this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. Millions upon millions of people are leaving the Catholic Church, and to assume it is for one reason alone would be terribly naïve and simplistic. Any attempt to stem the tide of fallen-away Catholics will need to be multi-faceted and address problems in every aspect of Catholic life.

What Can We Do?

The complexity of the problem doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and give up. I think there is something buried in the Pew numbers that is revealing, and points to a possible solution. When you look at the “religious switchers,” it is clear that the mainline Protestants and Catholics are the worst at attracting new members, and the best at repelling existing members. Yet look at other faith traditions, such as Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Muslims: you see that they were able to maintain their numbers in an era of religious decline– the Evangelicals actually added more members than they lost.

Is there anything they hold in common, as opposed to mainline Protestants and Catholics?

I would argue that they take their faith seriously. There are no felt banners, content-free catechesis, or silly songs to endure. More importantly, there are no apologies given for what they believe: they are robust in their practice of the faith, or to use the politically-incorrect term, manly. Such cannot be said of the typical mainline Protestant congregation or Catholic parish.

Until we take our Faith seriously, no one else will either, and many will realize it is better to just leave instead of waste their time with people who, for all intents and purposes, appear to be just going through the motions. This applies across the board: liturgically, doctrinally, and socially. Once Catholics decide that the Faith of Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Therese of Avila and Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a Faith worth living – and a Faith worth dying for – then perhaps it will again become the attractive force it has been for centuries.

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