If you go to almost any ministry conference or listen to Catholic media, you will probably hear that the future of the church in the United States does not look good. We’re told that Sunday Mass participation, especially among millennials, is in steep decline. Sometimes the experts will speculate that we need to become a more relevant church, offering more pop-style music, late-evening coffee gatherings, or exotic mission trips.
Very seldom, however, are any of these opinions backed up by hard data. Well, here are some actual facts to consider. The Pew Research Center asked 4,729 people why they do or don’t go to church. This is what they found out.
Why do people go to church?
The number-one reason people said they go to church (81%) is to feel closer to God. Rounding out the top five, other reasons people go to church include:
- So their children will have a moral foundation. (69%)
- To become a better person. (68%)
- For comfort in times of trouble or sorrow. (66%)
- They find the sermons valuable. (59%)
The good news here is these last four are all things parishes can influence. For example, if your parish — or even just your RCIA team — set a goal to get just a little better at doing each of these last four things, you will begin to see an increase in people seeking out your parish.
Why do people choose to not go to church?
What is even more instructive, however, are the reasons people gave for not going to church. The number-one reason people gave for not going to church (37%) is that they practice their faith “in other ways.” This turns out to often be untrue. Most of the people who gave that response are not actually involved in any faith activities. But, that does not mean they are unbelievers. By looking at some of the other reasons people gave for not going to church, we can get some clues about how to attract them.
I want of focus on just a few of the reasons given. You can click over to the Pew study if you want to dive deeper. For RCIA teams, I think these reasons people gave for not going to church are most relevant:
- No reason is “very important.” (26%)
- They haven’t found a house of worship they like. (23%)
- They don’t feel welcome. (14%)
- Poor health or mobility. (9%)
About one-fourth of those surveyed said they don’t really have a reason for not going to church. I wrote about this in a previous post. People are looking for reasons to come to church and reasons to stay. If we could give those 26% percent who said they don’t have a “very important” reason for not going to church a good reason to come to church, we would see a significant increase in numbers.
One easy solution, and one that will take some planning
The next two reasons are basically the same reason. When people say that they haven’t found a church they like, they mostly mean they don’t feel welcome. If that’s true and we combine both groups, 37% of people who don’t come to church are not coming because we don’t smile enough, shake hands enough, engage enough with strangers on Sunday. You don’t need a budget to improve this. You don’t need the pastor’s permission. You don’t need a workshop or more skills. You and your team just need to show up on Sunday and be hospitable to strangers.
The final reason, health and mobility issues, might need a budget. Many Protestant parishes invest in vans or school busses to pick up people who cannot drive to church. We could do the same thing, but it will take some planning and fundraising. Until then, you and your team could offer to drive less-mobile neighbors to church. If each of you got a friend or family member to also offer to share rides, you would be able to transport at least as many people as a single van could.
They key take-away here is that many, many people are not avoiding church because they lack faith. There are other reasons, and we can very easily solve those objections if we adopt a solution attitude.
Stopping the decline in church attendance really comes to down to asking ourselves if we are willing to be more hospitable and maybe buy a van.
What steps is your parish taking to welcome seekers? How are you helping those who have physical difficulty attending? Share your thoughts in the comments below.