Written by Alex Downing, Sofia Deatherage, and Claire Orcutt (Creighton) | Edited by Ariel Hobbs
The following was a college essay written by Alex Downing, Sofia Deatherage, and Claire Orcutt. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
A survey performed by Pew Research has found that the Christian population has been steadily declining in the United States in recent times. The survey found that in 2007, 78.4% of the American population considered themselves Christian. Ten years later in 2014, that number had dropped to 70.6 % (Pew Research, 2014). There are various factors that may have fostered this nearly 8% drop in Christian affiliation; however, upon doing research, we have found a noticeable correlation between the decline of Christianity and the changing interrelations between the laity and clergy. Our claim is that negative interactions and distancing relationships between the clergy and the lay people have led to negative perceptions of the Christian faith, resulting in a steady decline in the percentage of people who identify as Christian in the United States.
One example of negative interactions between clergy and laity involves religious celebrations and how they are performed in the Christian church. More specifically, one major factor that shows evidence of affecting church attendance in general is impersonal and unstimulating sermons at celebrations. A survey performed by Pew Research in 2016 found that 83% of Americans who have looked for a new place of worship feel that preaching quality played a significant role in their choice of church membership (Pew Research, 2016). Furthermore, a survey performed by Gallup in March of 2017, found that 76% of Americans say that sermons teaching scripture was one of the major reasons they were attending church (Gallup, 2017).
However, in recent times, data shows that church leadership among the majority of churches has failed to meet expectations. In 2018, researchers at Gallup asked a group of church members to rate their priest, minister or rabbi based on sermon delivery. The results show a significant gap in leader ratings between members who attended church in the past seven days and those who did not. They found that, in a group of members who attended in the past seven days, 63% rated their ministers, priests, and rabbis as outstanding in delivering sermons. For those members who did not attend mass in the past seven days, only a staggering 41% rated their minister, priest, or rabbis as outstanding in delivering sermons (Gallup, 2018). These findings illustrate that American churchgoers aren’t highly impressed with the preaching quality of their church leaders. Additionally, this survey proves that less-frequent attendees rated their church leaders lower than the more frequent churchgoers. One viable conclusion that can be drawn from these findings is that less-frequent attendees do so because they are less engaged by performance of their church leader.
Research also shows that there is a lack of interpersonal relationships between clergy and laity. In the same Pew Research survey referred to earlier, 79% of Americans said that they value feeling welcomed by leaders when searching for a place of worship (Pew Research, 2016). However, in the 2018 Gallup survey mentioned previously, data proves that church members do not hold foundational relationships with church leaders in general. Gallup’s survey found that among members who attended church in the past seven days, only 63% described their minister, priest or rabbi as having caring, personal interactions with members. Among members who did not attend church in the past seven days, only 40% of church members described their minister, priest or rabbi as having caring, personal interactions with members (Gallup 2018). Furthermore, in another survey performed by Pew Research in 2016, it was found that only 55% of Americans talked to clergy at the church when choosing a place of worship (Pew Research, 2016). This lack of communication and relationships between church members and leaders poses as a highly probable explanation for the decline of Christianity in the United States.
Another possible factor that could account for the decline in Christian affiliation in the United States is scandals in the church. 92% of Americans have heard about sexual abuse scandals/misconduct involving Catholic priests and bishops. 58% of that percentage report having heard “a lot” about these scandals (Pew). It’s no secret to the people, religious and non-religious, of America that the scandals regarding sexual abuse perpetrated by religious clergy, especially Catholic priests and bishops, are still prevalent in this country. The consequences of these scandals can be seen in numerous ways among Catholics. 46% of U.S. Catholics have concernedly talked about scandals and misconduct of clergy amongst themselves. 27% attend mass less often due to the scandals, and 26% have reduced their donations to their church/diocese (Pew). While 61% of US Catholics say sex abuse is just as common among clergy of other religions, 48% of all Americans believe sexual abuse is actually more common in the Catholic Church than other religious groups (Pew). Though the link to the discouragement of the scandals and mass attendance appear to be linked, there is also a trend among Catholics themselves that may be contributing to the lack of recognition of the issue. 24% of Catholics, a higher percentage than any other religious group, believe that sexual abuse scandals reflect issues of the past and are no longer relevant. 93% of Americans who identify as atheists believe this is an ongoing issue (Pew). While 61% of US Catholics say sex abuse is just as common among clergy of other religions, 48% of all Americans believe sexual abuse is actually more common in the Catholic Church than other churches (Pew). Unfortunately, not all Catholics are willing to recognize the severity of the sexual abuse scandals, which gives the rest of the church a poor image in light of covering the scandals. In 2002, 22% of US Catholics taken from a sample of 581 Catholics said they questioned their religion due to scandals. A 2019 poll reveals that percentage increased to 37% (Jones). Though it could not be confirmed if these people ended up leaving the church or not, their question of their faith in the church and its ideals causes enough of a concern regarding the stability of the Catholic Church in America. This uncertainty in the morality of the church in light of these scandals leads to doubts in the integrity and piety of both local and higher clergy. In the 2019 poll, 41% of Catholics in the U.S. claimed to have a great deal of confidence in the priests at their own parishes, but 25% have very little to no confidence in Catholic priests in the U.S. in general, and 25% have very little to no confidence in bishops and other Catholic leaders in the U.S. (Jones). What certainly doesn’t help is the way religious leaders address, or fail to address, the scandals and solutions to them. 59% of Catholics and 71% of overall church goers have not heard their religious leaders speak out against sexual abuse (Pew). On a larger scale, even though Pope Francis had strong statements condemning the sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy, people were disappointed by his lack of concrete actions issued towards preventing and punishing perpetrators of these incidents, such as a zero-tolerance policy (Jones).
Though statistics can portray the real threat of these scandals to the Church’s image and religiosity in the United States, two anonymous Creighton students offer their own fears and concerns about the church regarding the recent scandals. They offer their own hopes for how the Church can improve its image moving forward and reflect the values of love and respect it preaches. Student One, raised Catholic but a recent atheist convert, explains how with his recent viewing of the movie Spotlight, it played into his “overall view of the church being full of hypocrisy in utilizing power to manipulate the lives of the poor.” He expresses his troubling concerns of the clergy of the church perverting the teachings of Jesus Christ, and cannot see himself being a part of a group where its leaders are hypocrites, especially when he saw how close to home the issue was: “Our head parish priest when I was a kid was kicked out because of it.” Student Two, a Catholic, offers his own analysis of the troubling scandals and how they affect his view of his Church: “I expect the leadership of the Church to fail, to repent, make penance as well as it can, and through the grace of God, be better. But this kind of sin on this scale is challenging in a new way. As a Catholic, I expect the Eucharist to be transformative, that it divinizes those who receive it, that ‘we become what we eat.’ If priests, those men who celebrate and receive the Eucharist more than anyone else, are sinning in such an obvious and heinous way on such a systematic scale, what does that say about the power/weakness of the Eucharist?” His concerns reflect the conflict felt by Catholics throughout the country, and the threat Christianity, especially Catholicism, faces in the future. He also lives that the Church should improve its image “only in the sense that the image should accurately reflect the religion behind it, and the religion should always be striving to be more and more like the Kingdom of Heaven. Which, among other things, means being transparent and penitential about the sex abuse crisis.” Both the atheist and the Catholic student agree that the Church faces the very real threat of losing its trust and appeal to followers, exposing the scandals of clergymen as a contributing factor to the decline of religiosity in America.
Negative interactions and relationships between clergy and laity are more prevalent in particular denominations over others. Many Americans often find themselves growing up in a certain church denomination. In recent years, we know attendance for specific denominations like Catholicism has gone down, but why is this? There are many different reasons that people leave specific denominations such as abuse, political views, and the organizations they support. As Gallup states, “68% of Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion in 1975,” but as time went on, “Confidence fell below the majority level for the first time in 2002, and with some fluctuations along the way, confidence this year has reached a new low of 36%.” Organized religion and specific denominations have started to develop a sort of stigma that’s worse than those of other organizations. People take politics and money quite seriously, but they typically take their spirituality and faith much more seriously. No one wants to feel lied to or cheated, especially when it comes to their life in an eternal perspective.
Catholicism has struggled with attendance because of their views. Catholics tend to be very traditional in a continuously progressing world. People who aren’t leaving the church completely are beginning to move towards more modernized versions of Christianity. Denominations such Lutherans and Methodists are a much more common and viable choice these days. The reason for the decline in certain sects of the religion largely have to do with the role they play in society. The transfer from Catholicism to a different denomination or to non-religious most frequently happens due to topics such as homosexuality. In our modern world, ideas are steadily becoming more progressive, so when the church says things like, “if you’re gay you go to Hell” people are often disgusted. Topics like that as well as premarital sex and old rules about hair length may not actually specifically apply to that person in the church, but it’s the idea behind it. People are more aware these days and do not want to be associated with, what seems like, an organized, hateful group. Being a certain type of Christian can now automatically label you as a bigot or unintelligent. The facts/theories of the world we’re living in heavily rely on science, which tends to contradict Christianity. Those are the main reasons the modernized versions of Christianity are much more attractive, assuming that person hasn’t decided to remove themselves from the religion as a whole.
In conclusion, data reports that the population of Christianity in the United States has been declining in recent times. After performing research and conducting our own survey, we have found evidence that a correlation exists between the decline of Christianity and the changing relationships between clergy and laity. Studies show that lay people are less engaged by their church leaders and that fewer lay people are holding interpersonal relationships with their church leaders. Furthermore, negative interactions and perspectives in the church also show evidence of affecting the demographics of the faith. Things like sexual abuse scandals in the church and strict political views are greatly damaging the image of Christianity. It is highly probable in today’s era that these negative interactions between the clergy and the lay people have led to negative perceptions of the Christian faith, resulting in a steady decline in the Christian population in the United States.
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