Yesterday Rod Dreher had a post on the declining membership of the Episcopal Church:
The comments' section below Rod's post began as a thoughtful discussion about the overall decline in church attendance among Americans, the problems of family and culture and employment that lead to these sorts of declines, etc. before devolving into the usual sort of shouting match between secularists who think nobody needs religion when we've got science (which is sort of like saying that nobody needs art museums, concert halls or theaters because we have television). But I thought about the claim that people don't go to church anymore because they don't really want to, and it reminded me of a recent experience our family had.
According to TEC’s figures, only about 700,000 Episcopalians are in church on Sunday morning. There are megachurches in suburban Dallas that have more worshipers on Sunday than most Episcopal dioceses. That’s not hyperbole.
I found this out via the blog of Sherry Weddell, the Catholic lay evangelist, who writes:
To compare, CARA estimates that on a given Sunday, there are about 22 million Catholics in the pews in the US vs. approximately 657,000 Episcopalians. In other words, there are roughly 33 times as many practicing Catholics as practicing Episcopalians.
This is not a time to gloat but to thoughtfully ponder. A group I spoke to recently about evangelization wanted to look to the experience of mainline Protestants to see what they were doing. Seriously?
If we are serious about evangelization, we would far, far better look to the experience of our evangelical brothers and sisters. 49% of American evangelicals weren’t raised as evangelicals while Catholics have the second lowest number of converts of any American religious faith.
Indeed, Putnam & Campbell, sifting the data, found that if not for the large influx of Hispanic immigrants, Catholicism in the US would be declining at a rate comparable to that of mainline Protestantism. [All links in original--E.M.]
We had to stop at a grocery store after Mass one Sunday, and as we entered the store we passed a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old, and her grandmother. I didn't hear the first words the little girl had asked her grandma when we were approaching, but from the rest of the conversation I heard, it seems clear that she must have asked her grandma why we were all dressed up, and her grandmother must have told her that we had probably just come from church--as we had.
The rest of the conversation went like this:
Little girl: I like going to church. I wish I could go to church.
Grandmother (surprised and delighted): You do?
Little girl: Oh, yes, I love it. But mom and dad say they want to sleep late on Sunday. So we almost never go.
Grandmother: I would love to take you to church with me. Would you like to come?
Little girl: Yes, yes! We could ask mommy when we get home...
At that point, we entered the store, so I didn't hear the rest of the conversation. But the look of hope on the child's face, the utter surprise and gladness of the grandmother, was a revelation.
I'm not judging the child's parents. Perhaps they work odd hours, and rarely get to rest. Perhaps they have had a bad experience at a church or have simply gotten too busy to make Sunday worship a regular part of their lives. Perhaps, like many in my generation, they suffered from poor catechesis and have no idea why the formal worship of God on Sunday is a good thing.
The point is that there was an absolute longing in this child's voice for something she is missing in her life, and a total joy in the grandmother's voice as she replied to the little girl. Grandparents sometimes have it hard in these areas--too much interference, too many kind offers to take the grandchildren to church with them, may be seen as criticism or judgment or general negativity about the way the children are being raised. I think many grandparents are hesitant to offer to take the little ones to worship with them on Sunday mornings.
And yet, if parents or grandparents or someone doesn't instill in a child the habit of faith, how is that habit supposed to take root in later life?
Someday I'd like to see a study--perhaps it has already been done, and I simply haven't seen it--comparing the difference in numbers between those "raised Catholic" (or Episcopalian or Evangelical etc.) who fall away in later life, and those who were actually taken by their families to church every single week unless impeded for serious reasons who later fall away. Too often, I think that the number of those "raised Catholic" who fall away includes people who are taken to Church to be baptized, to make their first holy communion, to be confirmed, to get married, to attend a handful of funerals, and to show up on the CAPE days (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter), but who otherwise live without religion or faith in their daily lives. This is not to say that a share of those who attended Mass every Sunday of their young lives don't fall away, too--the reasons for the loss of faith are many, and complex, and there's no one answer. But if the habit of faith has never formed in the first place, how can it be said to be lost?
I hope that little girl will get to go to church; her expressed longing was sweet to hear, and I know her grandmother was delighted to hear it. But I wish even more that Christian parents, Catholic and otherwise, would take very seriously their duty as the first teachers of their children to form in them those habits of faith that endure through hardship, through doubt, through suffering, and even through the dark night of the soul.