Religious bodies across the board—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, you name it—are losing members in record numbers. But there are a few exceptions, and at the top of the list are the Amish. Fully 90% of those who grow up Amish remain Amish. Any Catholic bishop worth his salt would give his miter for retention rates even close to that.
What’s amazing about the Amish’s ability to keep their members is that their religion is one of the most demanding in the world today. Modern religious conventional wisdom argues that religions must “meet people where they’re at” and most importantly not demand much from their members. Doing so would drive people away, according to this logic. Yet the witness of the Amish shows that the opposite is true—demanding religions retain their members.
Why? Because people yearn for deeper meaning and structure in their lives, and full religious participation—not just checking the box each Sunday—provides that. And if that’s true of the Amish, how much more must it be true of the one true faith?
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Recognizing our desire for deeper meaning puts a different spin on the question, “Why are so many people leaving the Church?” Many Catholics assume that people leave the Church for “big reasons,” such as the abuse crisis, teachings on birth control or abortion, or the relentless propaganda of atheist evangelists. While all these may be factors, studies have shown (and my own experience working in diocesan evangelization efforts confirms) that most people leave the Church not due to one big issue, but instead as a gradual process. In fact, they never even consciously decide to stop practicing the faith, they just wake up one morning and realize that they no longer practice and no longer desire to practice Catholicism. It’s just not worth it anymore.
This gradual leavetaking demonstrates that churchgoing isn’t really integral to modern life. For many Church leaders, this means we need to try to adapt even more to our culture and our world. We need to find ways to fit into people’s busy schedules. However, the problem is that modern life actually is incompatible with fully living as a Christian, so instead of trying to fit into modern life, churches should demand their members change their lives to fit into a robust Christianity.
That’s the thesis of two Protestant pastors in their new book, The Great Dechurching. This book takes a deep dive into the troubling phenomenon of the exodus from Christian churches. While the book is focused on Protestant denominations, the problem they outline is just as true of Catholic parishes. The difficulty of reaching Catholics immersed in modern life is a problem Catholics should take seriously if they want to stop the hemorrhaging and bring people back to church.
As The Great Dechurching details, people often stop practicing their faith in their 20s because it simply doesn’t fit their lifestyle. They likely work long hours (often with extended commutes as well), and fill in their non-working, non-sleeping time with leisure and entertainment. Their lives are full, even if they are not fulfilling. Some activities—with church attendance high on the list—are no longer worth the effort, as they see no obvious benefit from them. So they are dropped.
Perhaps one Saturday night a couple is up late with friends or with their new baby. The next morning they sleep in and miss Mass. There might be a slight pang of guilt, but when something happens two Saturdays later, they do it again. And again. Until eventually they just stop going.
There is no major epiphany that “We no longer believe.” In fact, if asked, they might still consider themselves Catholic. But they no longer practice and don’t see a pressing reason to do so. They have enough on their plates already.
Many parishes respond to this widespread phenomenon by trying to make church attendance more convenient, less strenuous. Shorter Masses, later Masses, affirming homilies, few demands of commitment: these are all ways parishes hope that they can fit the modern sensibility.
The exact opposite should be done. Parishes should demand more, not less, from their members. Pastors need to tell their flocks that a true practice of Catholicism simply cannot fit into the modern lifestyle—it demands a completely different way of living. But that Catholic lifestyle, when fully practiced, is far more fulfilling than anything the world can offer. The Catholic Church can offer a life of true meaning, but it requires hopping off the modern train to nihilism and entering the barque that leads to heaven. Pastors need to tell their flocks that a true practice of Catholicism simply cannot fit into the modern lifestyle—it demands a completely different way of living.Tweet This
So parishes need to urge, even demand, that their parishioners radically reconfigure their lifestyles. Are you a two-income family with each parent working 50-70 hours a week? Do you spend hours and hours each week taking your kids to and from sports events (even on Sundays)? Do you spend time together as a family, especially at dinner time, or are family members ships passing in the night? Is your core community made up of fellow parishioners who encourage and support your living the Catholic faith?
Parishes are not supposed to be fast food establishments offering services on the go to busy people. Instead they must demand more from their members, for them to slow down, and adapt their lives around their faith and their parish (and not the other way around). Note I’m not saying that parishes should just be demanding more volunteers and more “activity” in the parish. The reconfiguration first and foremost would come in the home and in the communities that support the parish. It’s not a matter of being more involved in the parish; it’s a whole new way of living in which home life is centered around the parish’s sacramental and devotional life.
While there’s sure to be some members who recoil at such demands and leave, parishes that take this approach will find that many more will be attracted to a whole different—and wholly Catholic—way of living. If the Amish can retain their members with only part of the Gospel, surely a Catholic parish that demands its members seek first Christ’s kingdom and his righteousness will find a similar if not greater response from its parishioners.