This week I had a great opportunity to spend the day with pastoral leaders in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey (they’re a great group, by the way). One question that a number of people asked me in a variety of ways was, “Why are people leaving Church?” That’s a very good question and part of the answer is found in conditions and circumstances beyond our control like changes in our culture, the frenetic pace of modern life and communication, the radical secularization of society, the list could probably go on and on. That’s part of the answer, but only part. And I think for way too long, we who are in churchworld have given ourselves permission to do nothing and proceed with business as usual, because its not our fault and there is nothing we can do about it anyway. Right? Wrong.
There are things that you do or do not do as a parish leader that attract and keep people or send people away. Here’s my take on the top three.
1. The message of your church is irrelevant
The number one comment I hear from people who have stopped going to the Catholic Church is something along the lines, “its boring,” “there’s nothing there for me,” “I just felt like I wasn’t being fed.” Those are all variations of the same comment: you don’t have a message or the message you have is irrelevant.
2. Self-righteous parishioners
The second biggest reason people stay away from church or try it and give it up is the self-righteous attitudes of many people in churchworld. Church breeds self-righteousness, which in turn is judgmental of unchurch people as well as new comers. This in turn kills any sense of a welcoming community. People are hard-wired to want community and they just can’t find it in many churches.
Lots of times people just can’t see themselves growing and getting to know God in many churches. There’s no comprehensible discipleship path, no plan for the growth and development of members. They find themselves stuck as religious consumers, and they eventually consume enough and move on to consume other things that are frankly more interesting to them (think sports).
Church attendance is dropping everywhere, even in growing parts of the country, in every denomination. You are not alone, we’re all feeling it. But this not a circumstance where there’s nothing you can do.