It’s interesting that Richard Gaillardetz asks the same question—and he’s a professional ecclesiologist, whose business it is to explain the church. Yet he admits convincing his own children of the necessity of going to church is another matter entirely. Why does church attendance need persuasion?
Gaillardetz identifies four troublesome modern obstacles. The first is widespread institutional distrust. We just haven’t seen all that many churches, banks, governments, or schools with a sterling track record lately. Add to that the more recent conflation of religion with partisan politics. Now, it seems, your church comes with obligatory party affiliation attached! That is understandably distasteful to many. A third problem with church affiliation is the social decline of absolutes. We once hung our hats on doctrine with confidence. But today a black-and-white approach to any issue seems simplistic, self-righteous, and begging to be debunked. Frankly, we don’t want some exterior machinery regulating what we’re allowed to believe about our reality. Finally, there’s the “fragilization” of religious identity. This lovely term expresses how religion, once the defining principle of a person’s life, has recently been downgraded to a lifestyle choice: a thing you have, rather than a thing you are. So, Catholic paraphernalia may be in your ethical toolkit. But you don’t see yourself as “a Catholic” anymore.
All of which explains why more people are skipping church. It doesn’t argue why they might not want to. Gaillardetz suggests that church might benefit from a reintroduction: not as mind-controlling Hall of Obedience, but a re-imagined School of Discipleship. Such a school exists to form us in the way of Jesus, not to keep us on the straight-and-narrow (much less save us from eternal fires). Old-school church asks different questions of us: “What do you think or believe about God, morality, your place in the scheme of things?” The School of Discipleship model asks, rather: “Whom do you love?”
This approach is in keeping with the teaching of Pope Francis, who sees servile obedience as the wrong spirit in which to develop a mature faith. The church exists to console, clarify, and challenge us. It shouldn’t simply deliver to the adherent a longer set of reliable truths than the person down the street enjoys. In the School of Discipleship, we would decree or forbid less, and trust ourselves as “liturgical animals” more. Rituals work on us as we worship, teaching and shaping us as we say grace, give alms, fast, stand in praise, kneel in humility, or share a meal. This is what church does best.
Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11; Isaiah 2:2-5; Joel 2:12-17; Matthew 18:20; John 17:20-26; Acts 2:1-4, 42-47
Books: A Church With Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium – Richard Gaillardetz (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 2015)
Go Into the Streets: the Welcoming Church of Pope Francis – Thomas Rausch and Richard Gaillardetz, eds. (Mahwah, MJ: Paulist Press, 2016)