Remember the Sabbath? If you do, you’re part of a rapidly shrinking block of Americans.
An extensive new report by Pew Research Center reveals that Americans who regularly attend religious services are steadily declining. After surveying more than 35,000 U.S. adults, Pew reports that the religiously unaffiliated — those who do not attend church of any kind — have grown from 36.6 million in 2007 to 55.7 million in 2014. They now account for 23 percent of the adult population.
What’s more, the religiously unaffiliated are increasingly likely to say they seldom or never pray and that religion is unimportant to them. To put things in perspective, this group is mainly younger, which means that steady churchgoers are graying and dying off. That has led to an overall decline in Americans who pray or even believe in God.
Even among churchgoers, no generation of Americans reports becoming more religious as measured by church attendance, frequency of prayer or valuing religion’s importance in their lives.
In fact, the share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped sharply from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2014.
That’s the statistical summary of Pew’s massive survey. What does it mean?
In sum, as Americans drift away from church, they begin to pray less and eventually lose faith in God. While there are always exceptions, Pew’s finding cuts against the common claim that we don’t need church in order to have a relationship with God. By and large, as one distances himself from the larger church community and embarks on what might be called a “Lone Ranger” path to spirituality, the prayers come less frequently, then thoughts of God fade into the background and eventually faith shrivels up and dies.
While churches of all denominations will find the Pew report disturbing, Catholics should be most troubled by the growing unease Americans have with “belonging” to a church.
Catholics don’t separate an individual’s very real and personal, spiritual journey from their membership in the larger body of the church. That would be like claiming to be an American while renouncing all geographical, cultural, legal and historical ties to America. One may continue for a while with some vague American sensibilities, but eventually she will drift into some other national identity, or none at all.
The reason Christian faith relies so heavily on the church is that the church is the very source of our faith through the ages. We would have no Bible, no understanding of the Trinity or the belief that Jesus was both God and man, if it were not for the early church faithfully recording Jesus’ teachings, proclaiming this good news and preserving it against all error through the centuries.
Moreover, Christ established the church as the place where his individual followers come together to partake of the sacramental graces he pours through the church and out into the world. The church is where we gather for the eucharistic meal. It is where we receive the gift of baptism, where we are instructed in the faith, where we raise our voices and bend our knees in praise and honor of our maker and redeemer. It is also the place where we are challenged to surrender all to God and when we do not, we repent through the sacrament of confession and embark anew toward the Heavenly Kingdom.
Severing oneself from all this is akin to packing your bag and heading off into the desert for good. Eventually provisions run dry, which for most means death.
We were not made to be spiritual Lone Rangers. The Pew study shows in no uncertain terms that outside Christ’s Mystical Body — the church — we cannot long endure in faith.
It’s an old saying: Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.