Why some church pews are empty

The PEW researchers have once again taken to studying the state of life in the pews.  In a national snapshot released just this month, they presented the findings from a study of why Americans go (and don’t go) to religious services.

The most popular reason given for the absence came from those who said, “I practice my faith in other ways” (37%).  In second place came the admission that “I am not a believer” (28%), followed by those who apparently do believe but “haven’t found a church/house of worship I like” (23%).

Despite an explanatory note, the report boggled the mind a bit in its references to non-believers.  Among those who rarely/never attend because of a lack of faith, 15% still say they pray daily (to whom/what?); 61% say religion is very/somewhat important in their lives (religion without belief?); and 45% self-identify as at least somewhat religious or spiritual or both religious and spiritual (without belief having anything to do with it?).

Those oddities aside, the sad truth is that fewer and fewer people seem to find a home in the church or a place in the pews.  For those who do go regularly, or who at least try to, the primary reason is clear – they want to draw closer to God (81%).  That divine-human connection, we know, is the beginning and end of religion.  Religious faith does have an important notional dimension (concerning what we believe about God), but at its heart faith is a relational phenomenon (focused on the divine One in whom we believe).

But on a more practical level, two tidbits can be linked to the research question, one found in the survey, another drawn from personal experience.

From the survey we learn that “Catholics who attend Mass regularly are significantly less likely than other Christian churchgoers to say that the sermons they hear are what keeps them coming back” (emphasis added!).  Only 36% are likely “to say valuable sermons are a very important reason.”  Is that because the sermons they hear aren’t valuable, or because any sermons is a less important reason?  The problematic of the former explanation I shall grapple with in my new Homiletics courses this year!  The logic of the latter explanation remains the by-product of a Catholic sacramental culture.

From recent experience, though, there may be a rather simple explanation.  Some folks may not go to religious services because it is increasingly (and unconscionably) difficult to find out when Mass is being celebrated!  Case in point – the Assumption holy day that falls during the time when many people are traveling on vacation.

In our online world, most information can be found in a matter of seconds with just a few clicks.  But my digitally-savvy friend struggled to find a scheduled Mass on August 15.  Of the ten Catholic churches located within ten miles of the hotel, only four had a web site.  Of those four web sites, only one listed a “holy day” Mass schedule (even the cathedral’s site had none).  With a few extra clicks, two of the sites that had online bulletins finally gave up the sought-after times for Mass.  But this discovery came only after telephoning one of the parishes and receiving the after-hours message that listed the Mass times for Easter!

Granted, website design has multiple features and functionalities.  Costs for creating and maintaining digital sites might be prohibitive for some parishes.  But if “going” to Church matters, it is incumbent upon parishes to provide the information that makes that going possible, both for believers and seekers.  If we want digital natives in the pews of our churches, then our churches need to be present and more engaged in the digital world.  Having a good web site, and making Mass times easily accessible there, is a simple first step that every parish should take.

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