Too much trust in survey data has produced a distorted image of religion in America by masking declines in church participation. Church attendance is less strong and stable than poll data show. Still, many Americans continue to hold the church in great esteem and define themselves in traditional religious terms. The increasing gap between doing and saying reflects these counter trends. But we do not think that this pattern can continue indefinitely. Enduring church-related identities are a legacy of involvement in the church. When experience is diminished over many years, church identity is likely to erode, and with it the need to say you went to church when you did not. The challenge for American churches is to help reconnect the doing and the saying, before all is said and done. -- Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler
Kirk Hadaway is minister for research and evaluation at the United Church of Christ’s Board for Homeland Ministries. Penny Long Marler is associate professor of religion and philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 6, 1998, pp. 472-475.
Megachurches that are all the rage right now have absorbed many people that left mainline protestant churches. However, they are starting to show signs of weakness. They have megabudgets to sustain and have highly leveraged real estate investments. Likewise, the Catholic Church has billions invested in aging property that requires staggering maintenance costs. Many nuns and priests are pensioners whose support overhangs the budget of the Catholic church. There is a well known and serious problem recruiting young people to enter seminaries. Once new converts stop coming in the door these maintenance costs and pensions will work against Catholics.
The church has had to pay billions of dollars in legal costs and settlements to sexual abuse victims. Accordingly, church authorities will have to divest property and many holdings are in older cities in undesirable neighborhoods. A nunnery in Los Angles was closed last last year and the nuns reportedly had no place to go.
This article in Religion and Ethics describes the financial problems in a typical big city diocese as critical:
We must examine ways to reverse the financial fortunes of the religious institutions by providing a more accurate picture of organized religion, especially the fictions surrounding the good they do and the denial of the harm they do. Once memberships decline, current income cannot cover operating costs and they will have to divest property and consolidate operations. Fewer people will be served and that will mean even fewer people attending services. The spiral will have begun. When they reach bottom there will be strong motivation to reform.