Recently I was listening to a radio talk-in show that was debating the question: ‘‘why are less and less people going to church?” The question sparked a lively response and the phone-lines were busy as a steady series of callers voiced opinions.

But they kept cancelling each other out. Half the callers, more liberal in bent, made it clear that for them the reason people were not attending their churches was because the churches are too old-fashioned and not in step with the times. The other half of the callers were of a more conservative view and suggested the exact opposite, namely, that people were no longer going to church because the churches, in trying to be relevant to the world, had sold out. They did agree on one thing, attendance within all of the major churches is in a steady decline.

Exact numbers vary somewhat for different regions of the Western world, but, if statistics can be believed, church attendance has been dropping steadily for the past generation.

Precisely how bad are things? Interestingly enough, the news is quite mixed. While church attendance is dropping, belief in God is not in decline and neither is church affiliation. Less than 5% of people officially surveyed would say that they do not believe in God and less than 1 5% would say that they have no religious affiliation. People, it would seem, still believe in God and still link themselves to some church. They just do not go to church very much. As Reginald Bibby, a leading sociologist of religion, puts it, they aren’t leaving their churches; they just aren’t going to them. 

And why aren’t they going? Again the news is mixed – and suggests that our respective liberal and conservative theories on this generally miss the point. According to Bibby, less than 10% of persons who are not attending church regularly have serious angers with their church. The bigger problem is that of indifference, of individualism, of an a-la-carte approach to everything, including religion, and of the breakdown of community at every level of our society. Churches are in trouble because community is in trouble.

Simply put, we tend to treat our churches in the same way as we treat our families and neighbourhoods. We want them to be there (for when we need them) but we do not want them to make any regular or unconditional demands on us. Today, regarding our extended family and neighbourhood, we tend to buy in on our own terms. We pick, for our own purposes, what occasions we want to be present, how much we will be involved, and for the rest we remain free and non-committed, guarding our own time and interests. Generally, we want them, extended family and neighbourhood, to celebrate special occasions with, rites of passage. Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and the like; but, outside of that, we want to be left alone. We reject any sense of obligation to them and resent any active interference or challenge they might bring into our lives. Most of all though, we do not find them interesting. We look for life elsewhere.

I once helped give a marriage preparation course in a local diocese. The major dissatisfaction we experienced from the couples taking the course had little to do with content. Their resistance focused more on the necessity of having to take the course in order to get married in their churches: “Why do we have to take this course? Why is the church and society trying to control our lives? My marriage is nobody’s business but my own! Why are you interfering with my life?”

A generation ago, in a different social climate, in a time of strong and extended families, of strong neighbourhoods, and of stronger public life, hardly anyone voiced this type of objection. Today, in the reverse social situation, almost everyone does.

These are the consequences: How can we have vibrant church life when there is no vibrant family life? How can we have strong parishes when we do not have strong neighbourhoods? Is it surprising that so many people go to church only once or twice a year when those same persons only visit their own extended families once or twice a year?

Fewer and fewer people are going to church and more and more people are divorcing their private quest for God (their spirituality) from any real involvement within the church. However, in addressing this, we should be dear that the issues go far beyond whether the fare being presented on a given Sunday morning is too liberal or too conservative. What must be renewed, more than liturgy, is community.

What must be challenged is the pathological individualism and excessive sense of privacy within the culture. Especially what must be challenged is the fallacy, as omnipresent as the air we breathe, that we are independent and not interdependent, that our lives are all our own, that we owe nothing to anyone beyond ourselves, and that we can buy into family and neighbourhood on our own terms, how and when we feel like it.