I'm Not Surprised

Oh, religion certainly was one of the hot topics yesterday. The Pew Research Center released results of its latest study, showing a significant decline in those who consider themselves Christians. For Catholics, one particularly sober statistic is that for every one adult received into the Church at Easter, another six leave.

I'm not surprised by these statistics. In fact, I'm actually shocked they're not worse.

A few summers back, I used to walk past a yoga studio at 6:00 am each morning. Looking in the window, I saw a packed room filled with young adults. Mat-to-mat, they would bend and grunt and sweat next to each other for more than an hour. One morning, as the return leg of my journey at around 6:45, I actually saw them balancing one sweaty leg on the sweaty back of another person. My first thought was, "Oh my God, that's gross." My second thought was, "Wow, I know Catholics who go crazy when they have to extend the sign of peace and touch another person's hand, let alone a sweaty leg."

Why is a yoga studio packed at 6:00 am on a Wednesday, or a Sunday, and our churches continue to empty?

I can think of two reasons: dynamic community and common purpose.

If you've tried to lose weight, or get fit, or grow in the spiritual life you know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to do it alone. We need the support of others who seek similar goals. Thus we join up with dynamic communities. By 'dynamic' I mean, simply, communities that are in some way vibrant and engaging. It means something to join the group. Thus we have rituals: ways of entering into the group and marking our growth within it. Weight-loss programs record benchmark losses, karate has its belts, and the Catholic Church has Sacraments. The community draws its members into its life and provides its members ways to record progress.

A dynamic community makes demands upon its members. But it can make demands only because it has a purpose. One invests personal capital - time, energy, money, life - only to the extent that there is a purpose in doing so. If the purpose of a yoga studio is to (1) increase physical fitness, (2) cultivate renewed mindfulness, and (3) build a community, then to the extent it is able to actualize its mission will it be able to require its members to sweat together.

People seek to join communities not because they want to be coddled or pandered to, but because they glimpse in a dynamic community a mission they desire to claim as their own. This, then, raises for me the question: What is the mission of the Church?

I raise this question only to flag its importance and our too-frequent neglect of it. The churches will continue to lose membership so long as they fail to discern and enact their mission. It's not that people don't want community. It's that they don't want our Church community. If we have tasted salvation and forgiveness in the Church, we need to re-think how we live out this forgiveness and salvation in our world. How are we to be dynamic and purposeful agents of grace and mercy?

I'm not surprised we're losing numbers. And, not to be overly pessimistic, no strategic plan, or new evangelization, or marketing campaign will reverse this. The Church is not attractive because it is relevant but because it is real: in the Church, we catch sight of who we might be through friendship with Jesus Christ. We need, as in every era, to re-discover the mission of the Church and only by embodying this mission in a joyful way can we even hope that the hearts of others will be stirred to wonder how their life might be changed, and enriched, by entering a community based on a shared friendship with Christ.


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