Flowers blooming, grass growing, birds chirping—there’s evidence all around us of things we’ve anticipated over these long months of waiting. Spring is a beautiful reminder there’s always hope and a new season of life waiting to bless us.
In Montana there are hopeful signs, too, that we are emerging from the worst of the pandemic. Although concerning variants persist and people continue to suffer from the virus, it’s looking like this summer may more closely resemble our pre-COVID days than the fearful, isolating summer of 2020.
But what about our spiritual health both individually and as a society?
While some thought COVID might produce a resurgence in religious faith and practice, indicators suggest that is unlikely. For example, a 2020 survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that 36 percent of young adult Catholics plan to attend Mass less frequently once churches fully reopen.
We need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the pandemic, rather than driving religious disaffiliation, has simply accelerated and revealed more profoundly what was already well underway. People are leaving churches and religiosity is in serious decline in our country, particularly among younger generations.
If fewer people are attending church services, what does that mean for broader society?
The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the country. Consider the students educated in our schools, the patients treated in our hospitals, the hungry and homeless fed and sheltered in our facilities. Then add to it countless similar ministries offered by other religious communities—Lutherans, Methodists, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and so many others. We will all feel the impact if faith communities are less able to meet the needs of those on the margins of society and it is the vulnerable who will pay the greatest price.
But beyond impacts to social services, there is something more culturally fundamental at stake.
Religious principles and values have become imbedded into our social structures reflecting themselves in our relationships and the way in which we govern ourselves. Beware the social transformation that awaits when our anthropology no longer bears the marks of a healthy understanding of the human person; when that which constitutes “human dignity” is defined solely by what those in power think it ought to mean and require; when autonomy and economic efficiency become the greatest “goods” and there is no one left to remind us of what is just and natural to all persons.
Eventually, unthinkable questions won’t be unthinkable and society sanitized of religious principles and values won’t have answers when those questions are posed. And when the unthinkable is no longer unthinkable and the wisdom of the ages has been relegated to the moral dust bin, then the unthinkable becomes prudent and necessary in order to advance the “goods” enlightened decisionmakers have deemed to be such.
In a recent article, Dr. Russell Moore, P resident of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, opined that some young people are leaving the church, not so much because they don’t believe what the church teaches but because they don’t think the church itself actually believes what it teaches. In other words, increasing secularization and disaffiliation from religion is fed by a cynicism toward organized religion. This cynicism is driven by a belief that American religion has become politicized and is simply being used as a vehicle to advance agendas divorced from the gospel—power, materialism, political influence— the list goes on and on.
Perception isn’t necessarily reality and I don’t think most churches consist primarily of fools and connivers, but I suspect Moore’s assessment of what a growing number of people perceive regarding the church is probably accurate. For religion to be attractive it must have credibility and for reasons both fair and unfair, religion’s credibility has taken a major hit in recent years.
This presents an immediate challenge to people of faith. We need to ask ourselves, are we living our faith authentically with integrity and love? Do our lives boldly proclaim that what we profess infinitely matters? For the Christian, “going to church” should be a profound encounter with Christ that is then brought out into the world making our lives a gift.
But, how do we invite the disillusioned or unaffiliated to return to their family of faith, to come home to church, particularly in the wake of the pandemic? This is our “come to Jesus” moment and the response God asks of us is not complicated but it is gravely important.
Simply put, words alone won’t cut it. People need to see a church that joyfully lives what it preaches even when doing so means paying a heavy price. True discipleship comes with a cost and that’s a good thing. Paying that price provides an authentic witness to faith and a life of
meaning and purpose. Those are things every human heart deeply desires.
So, at church this weekend, take a look around and notice who isn’t there, not out of a spirit of judgment but as an impetus to recommit to fully embracing what you’re professing. It’s time for all of us to come home.
This article originally appeared in the May 15, 2021 edition of the Helena Independent Record.