01 April 2023

The Church in Transition and Change

"It has never stopped being under construction."

--Mylène Pardoen, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris

(C) Cathedral of Notre Dame Bureau Bas Smets

A trip with family to France in the summer of 1987 included the first of several visits over the years to Notre Dame de Paris, one of the great marvels of French Gothic architecture. With 13 million tourists annually, the Cathedral is more popular than the Eiffel Tower, 15 minutes away.  

So there was shock and sadness worldwide when news broke on 15 April 2019 about a massive fire engulfing one of France's most famous landmarks. The Cathedral's underlying oak tree frame, carved in AD 1163, was a source of vulnerability. 

The 850-year-old Gothic building's spire and roof collapsed, but the main structure, including the two bell towers, was saved. Thankfully, no one was killed, and no firefighter lost their lives in putting out the blaze. Observers noted that despite the long road ahead, there's reason for optimism.

The Associated Press recently reported that the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral is going fast enough to allow its reopening to visitors and faithful at the end of 2024, less than six years after the fire destroyed the roof.

Tracking historical trends

The earliest archeologically identified Christian church is a house church (domus ecclesiae), the Dura-Europos church, founded between 233 and 256. (Graydon F. Snyder, 2003, Ante Pacem, Mercer University Press. p. 128.)  Since then, church properties worldwide--Byzantine and Romanesque, pointed arches and vaulted ceilings, thatched roofs and no roofs, homes, and storefronts, some even carved out of rocks--have become a place of assembling set aside for Christian worship.

Nearly one-third, or 31.2% of the world's eight billion population, is considered Christian. The term Christian encompasses a broad range of denominations, with Roman Catholicism comprising the largest group with around 1.36 billion adherents. Protestants, Evangelicals, Orthodox, Anglicans, and many other sub-denominations are included in the count. (learnreligions.com; Institute for Advance Catholic Studies at USC; Pew Research Center)

According to an average of all 2021 Gallup polling, about three in four Americans said they identify with a specific religious faith. By far the largest proportion, 69%, identify with a Christian religion, including 35% who are Protestant, 22% Catholic, and 12% who identify with another Christian religion or simply as a "Christian."

Twenty-one percent of Americans said they have no religious preference, and 3% did not answer the question.

Fifty years ago, in 1971, 90% of U.S. adults identified with a Christian religion, 6% were non-Christian or another religion, and 4% did not have a religious preference. Thus, much of the change in the U.S. has been a shift from Christian religions to no religion. 1

A precipice? 

Suppose you only read the news headlines about organized religion, not the stories themselves. In that case, it's possible to conclude that the church, especially in first-world areas like America, is a slow-motion version of the Cathedral spire and roof falling to the ground.

Here's a sampling from U.S. publications and research firms over the past three years:

  • "U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time."--Gallup, 26 March 2021
  • "About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Religiously Unaffiliated."--Pew Research Center, 14 December 2021
  • "The Pandemic May Be Ending, but the Church's Fight Is Just Beginning."--Christianity Today, 14 June 2022
  • "Losing their religion: Why U.S. churches are on the decline."--The Guardian, 22 January 2023

Much, but not all, of the decline in the past 50 years resulted from a sharp drop in attendance for Catholics after Vatican II. (Roger Finke, Ph.D., Penn State University) While the rise of the "nones," mostly among Millennials and Generation X, has gained attention, little notice has been paid to the other side of the faith spectrum.

A study published in early 2018 shows that "intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism—is persistent, and in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the U.S." (Landon Schnabel, Indiana University; Sean Bock, Harvard University) 

Vitality is found in nondenominational churches. The 2020 U.S. Religious Census shows that those congregations increased by 4,000 since 2010 and rose by 6.5 million in attendance in that same period. A significant part of that growth comes from the Catholic-to-nondenominational pipeline and retention of children. (Ryan Burge, Ph.D., Eastern Illinois University)

The Atlantic reported in 2021 that Latino evangelicals are the fastest-growing segment of evangelicals in the country. It also said that "Latino Protestants, in particular, have higher levels of religiosity"--with more frequent church attendance, prayer, and Bible study than White Protestants. 

A revival at Asbury University in Kentucky, which began in February of this year, is a reminder that studying religion is more prudent than trying to predict its future. "Religious history is shaped as much by sudden irruptions as long trajectories, as much by the mystical and personal as by the institutional and sociological," wrote Ross Douthat in the New York Times.

Ministry is (mostly) analog

Though decreasing church participation pre-dates Covid-19 by at least a generation, there's no question the pandemic is further restructuring relationships with houses of worship. 

"Churches waiting for more people to return on Sunday morning are still waiting," wrote Kate Shellnutt in Christianity Today. She added, "While overall reach has expanded, there's a segment of Christians who used to belong to a church community who aren't engaging at all anymore: 12% of formerly regular churchgoers say they're not attending in person or watching online." (Pew Research Center)

So why don't those who resumed their everyday lives attend physically or virtually? It's a follow-up question to consider asking as a matter of concern. Although knowing why people returned--or never left--may hold greater value.  

Digital worship, like remote work and schooling, lessens the magnitude of a communal experience. 

"Virtual services, webcasting, and online Bible studies are certainly better than no religious participation. However, none is likely to be a fully adequate replacement for the in-person meetings and community, wrote Harvard professor Tyler J. VanderWeele, who studies these interactions. 

But, of course, health, job schedules, and caregiving are legitimate reasons for online worship. And that format helps avoid social isolation, an unhealthy state of being. 

Benefits of frequent service attendance

"We have to retrain people from the beginning on why you should bother to assemble," said Collin Hansen, who wrote Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential. 

Let's remind everyone that faith communities are sometimes disordered and filled with flawed people. Yet, changed lives speak of God's grace, meeting individuals where they are. Like the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Christian life is always under construction.

In addition to scriptural exhortation, pre-pandemic research from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and other sources reveal why frequent in-person service attendance is vital to wholeness and well-being: 2

o First, there's a closeness with God not always felt when alone. Forgiveness is a theme and caring for others is a priority as needs are made known.

o A belief system offers clear moral guidance creating relationships of accountability to reinforce positive behavior. Some religious communities can provide a social safety net that other institutions can't easily replace. 

o People who attended weekly religious services or practiced prayer and meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction in their twenties. For example, they were less likely to subsequently report depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity--than people raised with less regular spiritual habits. They were also more likely to grow up happier, to be forgiving, to have a sense of purpose, and volunteer.

o Multiple mental and physical health benefits correlate with attending church once a week or more, including reducing mortality by 20% to 30% over 15 years. In addition, people who attend at that frequency are significantly less likely to die from "deaths of despair" (suicides, drug overdose, or alcohol poisoning).  

o Those who attend services three or more times per month are generous givers. They are more charitable to the church, nonprofits, and secular institutions than those who don't attend or do so less often. 

Habits of the heart

While research shows improved personal health correlates with attending church regularly, one's spiritual well-being may be the more critical beneficiary of frequent in-person attendance. 

The 19th-century English preacher Charles H. Spurgeon, whose church, London's Park Street Chapel, suffered through the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854, reminds us it's not about music, presentation, or architecture. 

Instead, Rev. Spurgeon said, "Go where the gospel is preached and go often."

National trends don't necessarily imply the same positive or negative trend in a particular location. In addition, nationwide data can differ from specific areas for cultural, demographic, or political reasons. A recent Wall Street Journal/NORC study showing patriotism, religion, and hard work in decline in the U.S. is an example of that phenomenon.

2 Findings were published in the following sources:  Journal of American Medical Association, American Journal of Epidemiology, USA Today, Christianity Today, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Lake Institute, Edge Foundation, and The Heritage Foundation. 


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