Church attendance in the United States has been on the decline now for about 20 years. There have been many studies conducted which have tried to solve this problem; however, there may be more than one answer.
The church used to be the center of the community. Many immigrant populations used the church as their anchor in this new world, a place to belong and restart a life that was lost moving across the ocean. The early churches in America provided familiarity in a strange land. They provided commonality and stability during times of change.
Before immigration, in the “old countries,” the church often provided social services, food, medical attention and educational services. Many of these things that we take for granted in modern society were pioneered by religious communities.
However, all these things that the church provided for the material needs of the community have since been farmed out to either government or social institutions and specialized professionals.
Churches once functioned as social gathering places where cultural events would be put on. Community and cultures were built and passed on there. Now private entertainment has taken the place of corporate celebrations and common culture is on the decline.
Now, we could all wring our hands and bemoan the fact that the church no longer can supply these things to its people, but that will do no good. The church would be in real danger if material benefits were the only thing it could offer. In reality, all the social services they once offered were and are beside the real value of the church.
The real value in the church is the spiritual framework it provides with which to encounter the rest of our lives. Lifestyles which refuse to admit the authority of a higher power inevitably result in subjective morality, or at least an inconsistent application of morals. When designing our own set of morals, humans have a tendency to match them to their own convenience.
I would never propose that the people of the church are perfect. The One whom we follow is, and He demands that we strive to be like Him. G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
The church needs to stop trying to play the “social services” or “entertainment” game. I just recently met the wonderful women who run the Mount Carmel Food Bank. They do God’s work feeding the hungry. My wife recently delivered our third baby, healthy and happy and beautiful because of the good work of the professionals at Geisinger. I enjoy the occasional movie or TV show as much as the next guy.
As a priest, I would be crazy to try to make the message I have compete with these institutions. The singular goal and benefit of the church cannot be found in any other institution and remains the spiritual healing which we all crave. “The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”
We strive to be kind and compassionate to others because we have found an eternal acceptance, forgiving toward others because we ourselves have been forgiven, loving each other because the fountain of life has shown us what true love is.