Why People Leave or Join a Local Church: Getting Past Controversy to the Root Causes

A piece over at Crux by Margery Eagen, Grace Church: A spiritually richer worship, reveals quite a bit about the diversity of Catholic life in the United States today.

First off, I want to be clear that I don’t think the column/article/opinion-piece (genre was hard to gauge) was especially well done. It came across as a bit PR-ish and without much of the author’s voice to reveal her point in covering this or examples of balance. And some claims are simply myopic (i.e. Grace Church is “able to attract and grow a congregation in a way that’s nearly impossible for the American Catholic Church”–quick research would reveal many Catholic parishes growing at faster rates). However, the descriptions Eagen provides are still worth pondering.

Based on the column, here are some of the positives of Grace Church:

  • Sunday worship that inspires
  • Member having a relationship with Jesus
  • Members enthusiastic about Sunday worship service
  • An intimate, casual, friendly, and warm atmosphere and feeling between members
  • Fellowship after Sunday service
  • 30-minute sermons
  • Feeling of being spiritually fed; emphasis on spiritual growth

Now, if you’ve lived outside of the historically culturally Catholic parts of the United States, you’re probably thinking–What’s newsworthy about this? Isn’t this a just a relatively unimpressive, generic description of just about any congregation that’s not dying? And I’d agree with you. Though the exact details on fellowship and length of sermons vary, it’s not hard to find lots of congregations that do these things. And, there are in fact lots of Catholic parishes that have these characteristics as well, especially outside of the northeast.

Looking over Grace Church’s website confirmed this. Nothing extraordinary–it’s what one should expect to find in a congregation. What I do think is noteworthy, however, is that Grace Church very intentionally and specifically makes an appeal to Catholic Christians. The website uses the language of sacraments, it links to the USCCB’s daily lectionary, etc. It’s a nondenominational Christian congregation where many aspects of Catholicism’s language and liturgical structure are preserved.

Eagen uses many quotes from members of Grace Church that talk about perceptions (or real) differences with Church teaching, ministerial behaviors (many of which are not in accord with Canon Law to begin with), etc. But I think those complaints and justifications are not as important as she makes them out to be.

Instead, it comes down to the list of positives I mentioned above. People leave or drift from their Catholic parishes because the initial proclamation and offer of personal relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t clear enough or repeated enough for an authentic response. People leave because they don’t have friends or peers in the faith, fellow disciples to grow with. People drift because worship is perceived as an obligation, rather than a gifted opportunity for praise, hearing the Word of God, encounter with Jesus Christ, and communal prayer. These are all essential parts of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ in communion with his Church. Every Catholic parish can and should be a place where this is a reality.

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