WHEN EVERY SUNDAY IS "LOW SUNDAY"
Of the various names given for the Sunday after Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday, Dominica in Albis) one of them is “Low Sunday”. This is properly meant as the contrast with Easter Sunday which is “High Sunday”. “Low Sunday” has also been used ironically, however, to describe the much lower attendance at Church after the surge in church-going for Easter Sunday.
An interesting article appeared in the Boston Globe on Good Friday this year, entitled Membership Plunges in US Churches over Past Twenty Years (April 19th, 2019). The news story was about a Gallup poll on church membership in the United States. According to Gallup church membership in the United States was 70% in 1999, and had been close to or higher than that figure for most of the 20th Century. At present that figure is only 50%.
Among American Catholics Church membership has dropped from 76 to 63%. Membership among American Protestants has declined in this same 20-year-period from 73 to 67%.
The polling is tracking some strong undertow currents in American life.
- Overall decline in trust in institutions in general and churches in particular.
- A replacement of an older “joiner” generation (i.e., a generation more inclined, or more socialized, to join organizations) with a younger “non-joiner” generation.
“Among Americans 65 and older, church membership in 2016-2018 averaged 64% compared to 41% among those ages 18-29.”
According to Gallup poll analyst Jeff Jones:
The challenge is clear for churches, which depend on loyal and active members to keep them open and thriving. How do they find ways to convince some of the unaffiliated religious adults in society to make a commitment to a particular house of worship of their chosen faith.
These trends are not just numbers, but play out in the reality that thousands of US churches are closing each year. Religious Americans in the future will likely be faced with fewer options for places of worship, and likely less convenient ones, which could accelerate the decline in membership even more.
Professor Scott Thomas, who teaches sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, identifies diminished social pressure to formally join organizations as another factor behind church membership decline:
I’ve encountered many persons in churches that have attended for several years but did not officially join or become a member. This is also evident in persons switching from one congregation to another without joining any.
This poll offers plenty of “food for thought”. Scandals and the way they are publicized may offer a ready explanation for declining participation in Catholic parish life but it would seem that the real undermining factors have to do with the ones identified here in this Gallup poll, scandals or not.