Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Bigger than nearly all other denominations...
According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% now describe themselves as Catholic. Read the study (PDF).
That means about 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination they would be bigger than Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. The total U.S. Catholic population has remained at about 24%, as immigrants have filled the pews the ex-Catholics have left behind.
Truth to be told, they are not a formal working group and some of them, perhaps many of them, are attending other churches. But the numbers show a sizable number of folks who have cut up their membership cards, become strangers to the Mass, and left behind the church culture of their youth. They are not alone. Add up the numbers of Lutherans who have departed the Lutheran Church for no other formal address and you could come up with a pretty big group there as well. It is true of all churches. Speaking institutionally, we spread the Gospel because if we did not bring in new people we would decline into nothingness sooner or later.
Jesus Himself predicted that many would fall away. One of the marks of faithfulness is endurance and, as much as we don't like to admit it, many do not endure. They are not driven away by angry priests/pastors, not alienated by narrow doctrinal orthodoxy, not turned off by religious fluff that lacks substance, not weary of worship that seems rooted in ancient times or burned out on worship that is as fresh as the moment... though all these things are true of the churches in one form or another. They fall away. They lose faith. They lose sight of the goal. They give into temptation. They choose to believe something incompatible with Christian faith. You name it.
It happens in Clarksville, Tennessee, and it happens everywhere. We in the Church wring our hands over what we did or did not do for these lapsed Christians. Probably there is little we did or did not do. They just fell away. Once while a newbie Pastor, I was told by a longtime and faithful member, "Pastor, don't spend all your time trying to bring back the church of the past." He was reacting to the efforts I was putting forth on those who had been inactive for a very long time. He was trying to tell me that there is a limit to what you can do to reclaim these once found, now lost. Years pass and I found myself privy to some very different advice. "Pastor, don't spend all your time on new people because it's the old folks (those who have been here a while) who keep the Church going." She was reacting to what she thought was a choice between the existing folks and those brand new to our congregation. All she was saying is not to forget her and the folks like her who had been there through thick and thin. Both words were/are true. It is not a choice.
Yet I must admit to carrying a ton of water for those who fall away -- taking it almost personally. And sometimes we have to admit that it was not what we did or did not do... it was them. They fell away. Jesus was not much more successful; He lost 1 out of 12. That is not meant to be flip or to suggest we should be indifferent to those who fall away. All I am trying to say is that the one Jesus lost exchanged his faith for demon and it is still happening. All the churches are shells of their statistical selves. What would we look like on Sunday morning if only those who claimed to be members showed up week after week? What would we look like if those who admitted to being Christian on the poll actually sat in the pew on Sunday morning? It is the same problem we have always wrestled with and the answer is not always and mostly never that we failed them. They fell away. They may blame something we said or did, or did not say and did not do, but it was not the cause -- just the convenient blame to shuffle the burden off the shoulders of the lapsed and back on to the Church (and, ultimately, God).
We should not be indifferent to those who fall away. We should not be consumed by them. We meet them where we meet the world -- in the call to repentance and faith that comes through the faithful preaching of the Word of God... in season and out.