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A Shocking Loss of Faith: Reflecting on the Closing of So Many Churches

December 6, 2018 25 Comments

Lincoln Congregational Temple in Shaw, credit: NCinDC, Flickr

As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.

A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.

As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.

This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are “religious” are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.

This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.

The Protestant Experience:

There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten “Baptist” churches in a fairly small area, but they weren’t serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.

However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasn’t just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical “anchor” churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isn’t just “inflexible” niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the “awkward” experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals don’t join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.

In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.

As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the “old time religion” a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social “gospel.” Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].

The Catholic experience:

The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.

Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of “niche marketing” is generally frowned upon.

The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.

That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.

Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so it’s taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone else’s dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today it’s only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been “business as usual”; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.

The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.

There isn’t the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.

In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.

If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.

What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parish’s five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the “old-timers” have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, “Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.”

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Comments (25)

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  1. C Beltz says:

    It has become apparent to me that our general loss of faith (as opposed to a personal loss) seems to track with our generally increasing prosperity. In this light I recall the healing of the 10 lepers. Only one returned, 9 went on and “forgot” Jesus.

    The Lord granted this Nation prosperity and we forgot Him.

  2. Robert says:

    “Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls).”

    I’m 66. When I lived in Alexandria (I moved to Ohio in April 2018), for several years I loved to attend the 7:30 pm Mass M-F at St. Rita’s. And St. Rita’s also offered Confession M-F from 7 – 7:30 pm, and Adoration T – Th before 7:30 pm Mass.

    And there always were at least 25 people present, of all ages. Some nights more than 100 people.

    More Catholic churches should consider offering daily Mass in the evening. WITH Confession BEFORE Mass and Adoration before Mass – a wonderful combination.

    • Deb says:

      Yeah, I would definitely go to daily Mass if my parish had this schedule. I can’t get up early enough for 7am Mass and 8:30 is out of the question. 🙁 Maybe if I was retired, but that’s a few years off.

      I’ll suggest it to my pastor when I see him this Sunday.

  3. Frank says:

    Been there, done that, inviting friends, acquaintances and lax family members back to Church. Excuses like too busy, tired, some other time, hate this prelate, that Pope, the hodgepodge Mass, etc., are just some of the reasons they do not return. Perhaps if we were holier ourselves they would come back but don’t really know the answer.

  4. John says:

    Over the years I have made a cursory examination of this topic of in Los Angeles. Seeing churches close or barely hanging on is tough to stomach.

    The mainline denominations seem to have taken the biggest hit: Baptist, Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodists, and Presbyterian USA. There are exceptions but by and large their congregations have hollowed out.

    The Catholics have faired better primarily due to Hispanic immigration. In Hawthorne where I once lived the one there has 8 masses a day. Also, parishes in upper middle class areas seem not to be not hurting. One area that has suffered a bit are the church schools with some closing or don’t have the attendance they once had. Also, there are there are parishes in low income areas that operate in the red.

    On the other side of the coin the new non denominational churches small or mega have sprung up and some are thriving. They tend to be more Pentecostal in their worship services, telling the truth as they see it, and welcoming to their members.

    On the Catholic end with the continued secularization of society and the low numbers of adherents who attend mass, the Diocese of Los Angeles will sometime down the road hit some brick walls if they are not already doing so. I am with you on not watering down the message, but the general trend since Vatican II has been otherwise. The Church in the U.S. is fairing much better than what we see in Western Europe, but as you say there is a lot of room for improvement.

  5. Mario says:

    As you rightly say, we, as the Church, have been going down the wrong path for quite a long time. Our tragedy is that many people, even at the highest levels of the Church hierarchy, seem to believe that our problem is that we are not going down such path fast enough…
    I really appreciate that you call out the personal responsibility of each of us in proclaiming the Truth of the Gospel that has been passed to us. We cannot change the mind of other people, at least not if we don’t work a lot first to change our own. There is a sentence (I don’t know the author) that says: “Only the Lord can convert. All we can do is to love”.
    But people have also to know that proclaiming the Truth will bring persecution, as it has always been.

  6. James says:

    After reading Msgr. Popes essay:
    I see a correlation beteeen orthodoxy and active membership. Yesterday’s readings come to mind: the house built on sand (the gods of today) or the house built on rock (the everlasting God). Those who succomb to the gods of today to be more accommodating and inclusive are losing congregants. Catholic parishes need to maintain orthodoxy and follow the Catechism/Magesterium closely or possibly suffer the same fate. Additionally, all languages and cultures are equal and it would be beneficial (possibly) to encourage worshiping together regardless of language/national origen.

  7. Maureen says:

    Msgr. Pope: For me, the takeaway is how much we need to grow as one with a “fiery love of Christ that holds him in awe”. God bless you.

  8. Peter says:

    How do you evangelize when neither the local parishes or the bishops are anywhere close to orthodox.

    Do I say to a prospect: “You should become Catholic because this is Jesus’ church, but all the parishes near you, and the local Cardinal and bishops, and the Pope, are not Catholic. And I should warn you that homosexual predators are in charge, and the corruption is far worse than you’ve heard in the news.”

    • Bender says:

      Oh come on. No need to say all that to prospects. You are right, though, asking about evangelizing.

      I remember years ago on this very blog, and other times thereafter, similarly wondering how effective evangelization efforts could be with so many people – many of them purporting to be so orthodox and traditional – constantly bad mouthing so many things about the Church. For example, how likely is one to bring many people into the Church when he implies, if not states explicitly, that the Ordinary Form is basically a lousy piece of junk, or that it is even an invalid Mass?

      Leave out the current outrage and injustice and evil. Give us an utterly pure clergy. Long before the revelations of the last six months, long before June 2018, plenty of people continually trashed the Church, complaining about the bishops, complaining about the priests and the homilies, complaining about the music and what people are wearing, complaining about what language we are using at Mass and what direction the priest is facing (the altar or the altar), and on and on and on with the endless whining about how lousy things are. Over and over one would strain to hear them say anything nice about the Church.

      Such an approach, as has been a frequent practice for years, is not likely to bring many people into the Church. In fact, it is likely to alienate them away.

    • Stephen Garland says:

      Peter, Satan is happy you feel that way about the Church. Remember God is in control and things are working for the greater good. If God wanted a perfect Church He could have it at any time and there would have been no need for Jesus to come at all. A desire for a perfect Church is a desire to rely on works, our own efforts (as in the Law and the Jewish temples). God calls people and their conversion and growth comes through their submission and agreement. We must come to God in prayer repentance and humility in a life long journey to find truth. Take your questions, in anguish, to God, get your answers, then act.

  9. RWG says:

    I have found the most common reason for Catholics to stop attending mass is divorce and remarriage. It is rarely the first, second, or even third reason they will give but if you get to know them well it often eventually comes out .

  10. Sean says:

    Exodus 3:14 ESV

    God said to Moses, “ I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘ I AM has sent me to you.’”
    I AM WHO I AM, Anglicized IS YESH HU, HI YESH, Semitic

    I AM is a state of being or Existence

    YESH is a state of being or Existence

    WHO is a Pronoun, He, She and It

    HU, HI is a Pronoun, He, She and It

    John 1:1 ABPE

    In the origin The Word had been existing and That Word had been existing with God and That Word was himself God.

    I AM WHO I AM, Anglicized is YESH HU, HI YESH, Semitic

    JESUS

    Moses, Anglicized and Moshe, Semitic spoke to JESUS, Anglicized and YESH HU, HI YESH, Semitic

    YESHU,IYESH YESU,IYES in contracted form

    SH L M

    And

    Peace

  11. James says:

    What do you say to people who’ve suffered through bad marriages and stayed faithful to spouses and families, when annulments are given out like candy?
    The stalwarts of our faith are seeing protestantism manifest in cafeteria catholics. This is being facilitated, unknowingly, by kind priests. We can not make everyone happy at the expense, of the value, of obedience to the Gospel.
    Sometimes the difficult road is the road best traveled.
    The real anchors of our congregations must see the frivolity of letting people do as they wish and worry about the consequences later. Outward appearance of piety is cheap and practitioners of it are not open and loving forfear of being unmasked. We live in a world of actors and actresses. The amount of TV people watch makes them think they can “pull it off”; act pious.
    This is not a well formed laity that we hear about in Vatican II. I dony blame the Mass or the music. People are licensed to run amok in many parishes.

    • Bender says:

      Thanks for adding to my list of examples of things that some people complain about in constantly telling us how awful every thing and everyone is in the Church.

      I understand the frustration at some things. I understand the need to vent. But it is not an attractive quality – especially on a global stage – and is actually counterproductive. And misses the point of Monsignor’s piece.

      If one cannot come up with anything good to say to others about the Church, perhaps they ought to ask themselves the question of: Why do you stay? There were interesting discussions in the comment boxes when Rod Dreher asked it a couple of weeks ago, and then in a taunting follow-up by an anti-Catholic over at the Federalist.

  12. James says:

    My intent was not to add to your list of things people constantly complain about. In fact I dont think that was the case at all.

    I’m not frustrated by, but im not attempting to attract by, toleration of improper behavior. We love the behavor not the behavior. Read my first post to understand my views on the benefits of orthodoxy (lower case o).

    The Church doesn’t need me or anyone else to say anything good about her. She is the Bride of Christ. I find the question of “Why do you stay?” very insulting, crude and harsh.

  13. for you says:

    Putting aside the myriad of temptations and influences present now that were not present even thirty years ago, I think that when the Church (Protestant or Catholic) begins to behave more like the “world” and so follows the world, people leave. There is plenty of worldliness everywhere for them to have. Instead sincerely follow Christ and His commandments, be the authentic Truth and Light of Jesus Christ in Word and ACTIONS. The pews may still not be overflowing, but the Holy Spirit will be, and just like moths to the flame, so too will people be drawn to the Light of Christ.

  14. The Church already has the answer: The Mass. However, I recommend that the Liturgy of the Eucharist should be offered in the following Trinitarian manner: (1) Both priest and congregation facing towards the East, direction of the rising sun, which is God’s greatest natural icon [The Father]; (2) the Sacred Species should be elevated after each consecration as a gesture of sacrifice [The Incarnate Son]; (3) a large crucifix should be centrally visible so as to affirm in faith that (A) the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary and (B) the sacrifice on the altar are one and the same, except for the differences in appearance [gift of the Holy Spirit]. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

  15. mark says:

    C Beltz I think you hit the nail on the head there

  16. Giovanni Serafino says:

    Father Pope has written a very good article. ( Sorry, I am no going to call a fellow American citizen “My Lord” which is what Monsignor means , especially in these days of scandal) However, throughout the North East and else where the number of Catholics who attend mass has drastically fallen in the past few years, and continues to do so. What is needed at this point is clergy who LIVE AND TEACH the Catholics Faith.

  17. Joseph says:

    I have found that our priests do not ‘teach’. There are many interesting facts that could be told. I do not care to hear about what the priest thinks on a topic. I would like to hear what our saints said and did. Too many priests just read their notes for the sermon. Jesus was a ‘teacher’ and ‘healer’.

  18. R. T. Forr says:

    Thank heaven in Altoona, Pa. there are daily masses at various times to allow those of us who want to receive the Bread of Life every day to do so. I pray that it will continue.

  19. Thecla says:

    It is a wonderful combination of prayerful. The churches that offer this option have large numbers attending in Uganda and Kenya.

  20. K Walker says:

    I came back to the church in a powerful way after I was prayed over for baptism in the Holy Spirit. Secondly we need the annulments or there is no hope for those of us who were not raised with much Faith or got caught up in the darkness in our youth. Yes baptism in the Holy Spirit + the an hinulment has totally changed my life and given me a great love for the sacraments and every aspect of holy mother Church.

  21. Domenic says:

    If you search for the Truth, you will find it in the Catholic Church even today. But it takes a lot of time, effort, and experience – like most other pursuits for excellence. You will also need good, holy priests as Spiritual Directors and advisors. A few solid friends, and the guts to keep going until you develop a personal relationship with Jesus (and Mary, and Joesph, and the Saints) and learn to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Then you will Evangelize without Prosteletising (with doesn’t work), by living your life with Confidence, Fearlessness, and Joy wherever God puts you (even among sinners, who God loves equally). And once you’ve done all that, forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ll inevitably make because you still will have much to learn forever.

    I believe that one of the problems in the Catholic Church today is that some of the most powerfull leaders until now haven’t promoted the true teachings, like natural family planning, Christ in the Eucharist, the power of Confession, The Rosary for healing ourselves and others (Fatima). We know a lot about God’s Justice, but very little about His Mercy, which is endless if you ask for it (Divine Mercy). I’m not talking about the Popes, but some of the long-time higher-ups, although I don’t know the politics of the Church very well. I believe that horrendous things were allowed to persist for a long time because of this bad element of leadership in the Church, while the good shepards were powerless to stop it for whatever reason.

    For us to be witnesses of the Truth, living our life with Joy and Confidence will draw the curiosity of anyone who is truly searching for God. And if they can reprioritize their life, putting God first, they’ll get the desired response from God. Remember, “Where Evil is found, Grace is Ever more present”. Now is a time of Grace for those searching for the Lord.

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