Part of American religiosity is church attendance, which has declined for many denominations and many individual churches within those denominations. I will share some of my own observations about why this is happening.
(1) First of all, denominations such as my own, the Episcopal Church, have done a very poor job of recruiting talented young people to enter into the ministry. Moreover, seminarians usually come out of their training with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. With notoriously low salaries, newly minted clergy face the grim task of trying to pay off this debt. The Episcopal Church has the best-run pension plan among denominations in the United States (and perhaps the best pension plan per se). The pension fund has billions of dollars for a relatively small amount of people who tap into it, yet there is very little financial help for seminarians within the Episcopal Church.
(2) With a small talent pool of available clergy, especially young clergy, many small churches cannot find a minister to meet their needs. Moreover, the Episcopal pension fund — to use again an example I am familiar with — encourages clergy to jump from small churches to large churches and the office of bishop because the pension formula rewards higher salaries much more than years of service in one parish. Raises in churches are often simply cost-of-living increases. So, to receive a real jump in salary — which translates into thousands of dollars extra in pension benefits — clergy bail out of small churches in favor of those which pay more.
What is tragic here is that few clergy are dedicated enough to attempt to build up a small parish, which takes years. The rewards of having a high salary for seven years or so, whenever those years occur in a career — which results in a much larger pension — are simply too tempting to resist. So, large, rich churches can afford and find the best talent. And what a minister calls "a call from God" to switch churches is in reality the call of a higher salary.
Another downside of receiving large salaries in large churches is that too often the minister becomes afraid of saying anything controversial, which might then jeopardize his or her position. Thus, many "cardinal rectors," as we say in the Episcopal Church, suffer the fate of being considered boring in their sermons. They fail to relate the biblical lessons to what is going on in the culture, the world, or in people's lives. This leads to the unpardonable sin for a minister, being unable to relate and thus considered irrelevant. This is particularly sad if a minister is afraid to say what he or she really wants to say.
(3) Mainline churches are having a tough time keeping or attracting young people. Ministers often think that when young people have children, they will return to the fold. Dream on! Sometimes this happens, but in today's culture it often doesn't.
(4) Clergy sometimes have their own agendas, which they impose on a resisting congregation. This might be a political or social agenda (e.g., gay marriage) or an issue of churchmenship (e.g., the use of chanting and incense, and the type of music). In other words, sometimes there is a mismatch between a minister and his or her congregation. No one's fault, just a bad marriage.
(5) A church's decline sometimes happens due to crushing debt. If a church expands but then begins to lose members, for whatever reason, that church could be headed for real trouble.
(6) Personality clashes between clergy and their congregations often split apart a church, leading to its decline. When a church interviews candidates for its pastor, sometimes there is not enough time to get a real feel for the person. Moreover, a pastor's previous congregation may give a search committee glowing recommendations because it wants him or her to move on!
(7) Often clergy get so bogged down in administration, that they forget to keep reading books. With a filled-up calendar, they make few parish calls and thus fail to get into the home and see how the flock lives. Clergy get burned out because of countless committee meetings, and then lose their energy. A church may notice that its pastor is getting burned out, but the demands on his or time keep on coming, as if a committee cannot meet without its minister present! This expectation makes the clergy feel guilty when they skip a meeting.
(8) A church may resist change. The last words of a dying church are, "We have always done it this way." Trying to move a church into something new is so exhausting that clergy are often driven to drink! Or they resort to junk food and get overweight.
Other factors come into play in religious decline, such as demographics (e.g., being located in downtown Detroit in a formerly ethnic neighborhood), or an aging congregation dying off without replenishing the pews. I remember a church organist once saying to me on a Sunday morning, "A lot of wood out there." Yes, empty pews translate into empty coffers.
I have not exhausted this topic, but have simply listed some of the factors in religious decline. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a church today is the nature of our culture, which is highly narcissistic and more attuned to social media than what is said from the pulpit. We are increasingly becoming a non-reading public with little appreciation for the rich liturgies and classic music many mainline churches offer.
Moreover, many people today are not looking for community, even though they might benefit from a loving community. They sit alone in front of their computers. And don't forget that women work today and both parents are exhausted on Sunday mornings.
Many churches cannot find enough Sunday school teachers, which are usually women.
The key for a reversal, I believe, is recruiting talented people for ordination, especially young people. Then training them well, making their education affordable, and rewarding them for staying in small churches where there is the possibility of growth, and thus not encouraging people to jump ship for the high-paying positions.
Yes, money controls much of what goes on in organized religion, as in every other place, which has a corrupting influence on the church, thereby weakening it.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist