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Maurice Timothy ReidySeptember 15, 2023

In August, The Wall Street Journal published a story that caught the attention of a certain cohort here at America. “Church attendance for Gen Xers has dropped off more dramatically than other age groups,” Clare Ansberry wrote. “Americans in their 40s and 50s often identify with a religion, but they’re also in the thick of raising kids, caring for aging parents and juggling demanding jobs that spill into the weekend. During the pandemic, many got out of the habit of going regularly to religious services and didn’t resume.”

The story was based on a study of 2,000 adults conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. The study found that “the percentage of Gen Xers who worship weekly is now as low as millennials”—an age group that has generally received far more attention for their religious habits.

I asked my fellow Gen-Xers on staff to reflect on this trend, and what may be contributing to it.

In case you haven’t guessed it, I am a member of Generation X (b. 1975), so I took a natural interest in this story. Indeed, it nagged at me. What’s going on here, and is there anything that could be done about it? I asked my fellow Gen-Xers on staff (and one Xennial) to reflect on this trend, and what may be contributing to it. What follows are their (totally unscientific) reflections, drawn from a life living and working in the church.

Life is Busy

First, yes, life is busy for middle-aged Catholics. Executive editor Kerry Weber (b. 1982) reports:

I think a lot of people in this age bracket are overwhelmed by caring for children or parents or both. Some of these responsibilities cover essential things and others include signing kids up for extracurriculars, etc. When Covid hit, everyone necessarily had to cut back on the latter. And I think, for a lot of people, church or parish life became another “extracurricular” of sorts. When it was time to go out into the world again, as people re-evaluated how they wanted to live, I think many people looked at what they were gaining from being a part of a parish community, or looked at whether or not that community supported them through the pandemic, and decided their investment of time was not worth the return.

Literary editor James T. Keane (b. 1974) suggests another possible wrinkle. During Covid, members of Generation X found themselves “coexisting with parents who probably regularly went to church all their lives” but suddenly found “it wasn’t the all-in obligation it seemed to be (or have found it’s safer not to enter crowded buildings).”

As Jim puts it: “When the parents who took you to Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, come hell or high water, no longer go themselves, I think the expectation that Sunday is for Mass begins to change.”

“Small decisions—sometimes quickly—break religious habits.”

I think J.D. Long-Garcia (b. 1977) is on to something when he suggests for many people, it’s not a big ideological decision to leave the church, but “life simply gets in the way.” J.D. writes: “The dad who’d rather stay home and watch football. This weekend we have to go to two birthday parties. Whatever. Small decisions that—sometimes quickly—break religious habits.”

I would add that prosperity also plays a role. When people have the wherewithal to take a ski vacation or go to a Broadway show, going to a religious service sometimes takes a back seat.

People are Alienated

Still, there are reasons for alienation. For some it’s church teaching, for others it’s lackluster liturgies or the sexual abuse scandal. “For a lot of people, the Catholic Church represents judgment of people they love, whether that’s people who have divorced and remarried, L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics or women,” Kerry writes. “When you throw in the stories of abuse that continue to be released, I think a lot of people are eager to distance themselves from the institution, even if they find value in some of the spiritual practices.”

Brother Joe Hoover, S.J., (b. 1972) shared the story of a friend who has been involved in her Catholic community for years. In the past she would have described herself as pro-life, and yet is put off by what she perceived to be the male-dominated church’s role in overturning Roe v. Wade. Joe writes: “She still attends out of tradition. She has kids in Catholic schools and probably has a deep sort of inculcated Catholic obligation towards church that maybe nothing on earth could dislodge…and yet she is holding on to the church by barely a thread.”

Divorce can also lead some families to feel unwelcome at church, says J.D. “What does religious practice look like among kids of divorced parents versus parents who are still together? I bet it’s a stark contrast. And folks who get divorced, well, I’ve met a lot who leave the church.”

Sports, Sports, Sports

Any parent who has tried to get to Sunday morning Mass in between soccer games must acknowledge the obvious: Sports play a huge role in our lives. And team commitments can be a weekend-long affair, stretching sometimes from Friday night to late Sunday afternoon. I go to church weekly with my family, but we often have to hop from Mass time to Mass time each week to accommodate the kids’ schedules.

When I was growing up, I played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. There are so many more options today. My 7-year-old son has the option of playing flag football, soccer, lacrosse or baseball this fall. There’s also taekwondo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or gymnastics for those with the time. And that’s before winter sports begins.

When I was growing up, I played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. There are so many more options today.

I sympathize with Jim Keane, who says “we pay far too much attention to youth sports, and it did me no harm that I spent my Sundays in childhood (other than at Mass) in unstructured play.” But the pressure on today’s parents is intense. And team bonds may also provide a social life for parents. With video games and YouTube tempting children while they sit at home, I can see why parents over-schedule their kids.

“A lot of parents feel the pressure to give their kids the best chance at success in a particular sport, whatever that might look like,” Kerry writes. “And a lot of times it looks like having to travel to tournaments all weekend. But that also might mean there is much less time for other commitments or regular weekend activities like Mass, or even just rest.”

Blame Politics

J.D. thinks that we can’t discount the effect of politics plays on religious affiliation.

“Our national political conversation is a big part of why people are more detached from their religious identity,” he writes. “As Americans grow increasingly defined by our party affiliation (or lack thereof), we become less defined by our religion. More ‘orthodox’ belief in any Christian tradition—and frankly, I’d argue any religion—will necessarily put adherents at odds with any political party or ideology.”

He adds: “As progressive politics have had a deeper grip on our national political discourse, it has become less acceptable to be religious. Most public figures who are religious, and progressive, are almost apologetic about it. ‘Well, yes I’m Christian/Catholic, but I’m not….’”

The Way Forward

What can be done to bring more people back to church? I asked my colleagues for suggestions.

Get families more involved. Joe Hoover reports: “I was at a Sunday night youth Mass in Morristown, N.J., where the kids—late grade school to high school—did everything. Collection, reading, taking up gifts, choir. There were probably 15 kids involved in that Mass on a Sunday night!

“In a way it wasn’t maybe so much about the depths of their devotion to church and the sacraments, but simply being asked to do something. People want to feel involved, useful.”

Get people into the building. This one also comes from Brother Joe: “The church should make its halls and conference rooms available for free or low cost for art shows, justice groups, tenants unions, theater rehearsals, film shoots, social gatherings, sports leagues, etc.” The goal is just to get people in the doors, and then maybe a “priest or lay leader pops down and greets them, makes a connection. Seeds are planted.”

“People will naturally be drawn to places where they feel welcome and wanted.”

Pastors, know your people. “I think people want to feel known when they show up at their parish,” Kerry writes. “Whether that’s a pastor who calls people by name, or a regular social hour after Mass, or a chance to participate in specific ministries or discussion groups. People will naturally be drawn to places where they feel welcome and wanted.”

More resources for families. J.D. writes: “Before I remarried, I wanted a divorce support group. I think the church needs to deliver annulments faster (mine took nine years). Our participation in parish ministries is limited by our 2-year-old (who’s super tough), but we find ways.

“After those milestones, I’d personally love more adult faith formation opportunities.”

In conclusion, some history: that religious practice is down now does not mean it will stay that way, especially in a nation with as much religious history as the United States. Jim Keane takes the long view:

No priest or nun enduring the aftermath of the French Revolution in France would have complimented the French people on their religiosity or love for the church, but 150 years later, France’s rates of religious adherence and Mass attendance were once again high. And then shortly after that, French religious identity plummeted once again. Similarly, here in the United States we have seen four Great Awakenings between 1800 and 2000, when religious practice and fervor soared, and yet we seem convinced now that the United States is secularizing permanently. The future is a hard thing to predict.

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