Sunday morning marked a homecoming for many people when they put on nice suits and spring dresses, and head to church to celebrate Easter. Holy Week, with its spiritualism and tradition, is known for bringing out those who don’t see the inside of a church but a couple times each year. And our area houses of worship are prepared for the crowds. More seats are brought in. Extra services are added to the schedule.
Easter Sunday is always an exception on the church calendar, in terms of attendance, and these days that exception is even more dramatic.
Gallup last week reported on the latest benchmark in a trend that's been decades in the making. As of last year, half of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque — the lowest level since 1937, according to the polling organization’s numbers. Safe to say, in light our country’s history, that number has never been so low.
Gallup also noted a growing number of Americans, regardless of membership, with no religious affiliation or preference. They’re known as “nones.” As of today, they're closing in one one-fifth of the U.S. population, according to Gallup. Twenty years ago, they were fewer than 10 percent.
These trends are generational. While church membership and attendance are down across the board, Gallup reported, rates among millennials are “exceedingly low.” And, to be sure, the United States remains far more religious than many other countries, but our overall connection to faith clearly is in decline from just a generation ago.
Given the significance of Sunday’s holiday, and the Jewish observance of Passover also underway, it might be tempting to frame all of this in terms of souls and salvation. That’s probably best left to the pastors, priests, rabbis and other spiritual leaders.
On a more earthly plane, the decline in church attendance has real implications for everyday life in our communities, even for those among us who lapsed long ago. That’s because our houses of worship are deep wells of social and civic involvement. They feed people, clothe people, build houses, and help lift up those in need, often regardless of the religious beliefs of those receiving help.
On a different level, those in our community who are engaged at church are far more likely to be involved elsewhere in civic life, as well. They lead local groups, raise money for causes, step up to volunteer, and run for local office. In their 2010 book “American Grace” about religious life in the United States, Robert Putnam and David Campbell described social networks that people weave at church as “virtually the most powerful predictor” of common indicators of what it means to be a good neighbor outside of church.
Those people doubtless will be among the last to abandon their religious communities, but pruning their important social networks isn't helpful. And reports that these reservoirs of social and community benefit are depleted are not good news at all.
“This data confirm what we’ve been seeing for decades: American life is becoming deinstitutionalized,” commentator Tim Carney, author of the book “Alienated America,” told Religion News Service. “Americans are less likely to belong to anything. In America, historically, the thing most people have belonged to has been the church, and now more and more people are losing that.”
Certainly houses of worship aren’t the only places where community work and the rewards of friendship and fellowship are cultivated. Other organizations do that work, too, though their membership rolls have also thinned through the years.
And if there's any silver lining in this pattern of dwindling attendance at church or temple, it's that the past need not be a predictor of the future.
In his own interview with Religion News Service, Putnam noted that having charted this current trend, in and of itself, doesn’t mean it will remain so in the years ahead. In fact, he expressed some optimism that a generation of millennials will lead us onto a new course in civic and social involvement.
Whether that change comes in houses of worship or someplace else, it's a nice thought to hold onto in this season of renewal and rebirth.