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When church attendance goes down, what do the faithful lose? | Opinion

While many churches may not feel warm and fuzzy at first, faith, at its core, is about community.

Visitors arrive before a mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, PA on August 15, 2018.
Visitors arrive before a mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, PA on August 15, 2018.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Before the recent report of the widespread cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, and the tepid turnouts for the pope's visit in Ireland, Pope Francis appeared to the world as the new blood the Catholic Church has needed for decades. He was largely considered a pope of the people, a charismatic figure who might drive Catholics back to the pews.

Yet, a recent Gallup report shows Catholic Church attendance slipped an additional 6 percent in the last decade. And the drop in church attendance is not limited to Catholicism.

Mainstream Protestant denominations have also seen fewer attendees. From 1972 to 2016, the percentage of Americans who labeled themselves Protestant dropped from 28 percent to just 10 percent today and the percentage of regular church attendees dropped from 8.5 percent to less than 3 percent now.

Increasingly, young people, particularly those in their 20s, are turning away from any sense of organized religion. The decline in attendance is staggering and suggests a dramatic disconnect between organized religion and American priorities.

As of 2017, more than 27 percent of Americans labeled themselves as "spiritual but not religious." When probed, these individuals point to the "hypocrisy of church leaders" and say they themselves live a more Christian life than church leaders.

Let's face it: We're all flawed. We're all hypocritical when measured against the values we espouse, regardless of whether we attend worship or stay home in bed.

So, what are the costs of the "spiritual but not religious" movement? For one, loneliness.

A recent study by the health insurer Cigna found that nearly half of all Americans feel lonely.  Many Americans now work remotely, saving them driving time and saving companies space. But this leads to less face-to-face interaction. A recent report indicates lonely people are more likely to die prematurely than those who smoke half a pack of cigarettes a day.

A quiet, individualized spiritual outlook does nothing to foster community. While many churches may not feel warm and fuzzy at first, faith, at its core, is about community.

A second cost is loss of happiness. The journal Review of Religious Research summarizes the data: "Numerous studies indicate a positive correlation between religiosity as measured by attendance at religious services and happiness."

Houses of worship can be a place for building faith, a system of values, and a sense of community. Members learn to care for one another. We simply do not find that same kind of alliance among the soccer moms and dads who watch their children play on Sunday mornings.

Faith and values need to be shared and discussed. Sure, we can find God in mountaintop experiences in nature (I've had them myself), but to develop a grown-up grasp of beneficial theology requires community. Your spiritual views shouldn't be a social taboo.

We find this principle in the early Christian church, in the Jewish pilgrims' years in the desert, and in the notion of Ummah, or community, found in the Quran. The world's religions almost unanimously point to "welcoming the stranger" and "looking out for the least of these."

Communal worship points to both our shortcomings and, as noted theologian C.S. Lewis pointed out, authentic worship should be a place of joy. It sustains our values and our focus outward.

Who is to blame for the loss in worship affiliation? Frankly, all of us. For one, churches and synagogues have clearly not adapted to today's world. While 20-minute sermons may have been effective in the 1950s, they don't resonate with younger groups. Even in our modern understanding of effective teaching, educators have learned that straight lectures can be one of the least profitable means of teaching.

One can only expect youth and adults to attend worship services if those gatherings resonate in a meaningful style that speaks to them in their language. People need to feel involved and messages need some sense of personalization.

Worship must become personally enriching, community-building, and, dare I say, "fun"? Essential theological messages don't need to change, but the style in which those messages are delivered is needed if organized religion in the U.S. hopes to reverse a 60-year decline in membership and attendance.

Finally, the question of religious participation is up to each of us as individuals. Do we want to wrestle alone with the meaning of life, the notion of a supreme being, and our value as human beings — or within a community of others, equally hypocritical, asking the same big questions, a place where all are welcome, loved, and forgiven?

Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer is an associate professor of communication studies and digital media informatics at Widener University in Chester.