- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2019

Pastor Adam Weber said a member of his Embrace Church recently summed up a winning message for congregations that see increasingly empty pews.

“The church not acknowledging the online presence is like Sears not acknowledging Amazon,” said Mr. Weber, whose church, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has grown since 2009.

He tweets, and his sermons are on iTunes. His weekly homilies reach the faithful not only in bricks-and-mortar churches in South Dakota and Minnesota but also online.

His congregation’s growth, however, runs counter to the experience of many other U.S. churches. A Gallup poll shows that churchgoing has plunged to a 20-year low, with only half of American adults belonging to a church or similar religious institution. The biggest declines are among Democrats and Hispanics.

Since 1999, overall U.S. church membership has fallen from 70% to nearly 50%, and the percentage of adults with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%, the poll shows.

Churchgoing by Democrats dropped from 71% to 48% and by Hispanics from 48% to 45%. Church membership among Republicans fell 8 percentage points, from 77% to 69%.

In the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, Texas, Bishop Michael Sis said the mostly Hispanic parishioners have been there for generations. He said Catholicism has deep roots in the area, but he acknowledged the challenge of energizing young people.

“We have eight young men right in seminary,” said Bishop Sis. “I’d prefer to have twice that number, but we’re working on that.”

The diocese has invited in missionaries to a college campus and holds regular “Theology on Tap” nights. Cultural issues such as same-sex marriage can be at odds with church teachings, but the diocese prefers to build relationships before getting into the doctrinal nitty-gritty.

“Some young people [missionaries we] meet on campus are quite receptive to the message of our faith,” Bishop Sis said. “Some are not. But most are willing to talk.”

The drop in religiosity — whether because of an aging population, generational differences or social teachings — is not an American phenomenon.

A day after Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned, Monsignor Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris, wished not only to “rebuild our cathedral” but also to repair the broader church, “whose face is so wounded.”

Nearly 6 in 10 French identify as Catholic, but only 1 in 10 pray daily, according to a Pew Research Center report.

The Gallup poll shows that Catholic Church membership has fallen from 76% to 63% since 1999, compared with the decline from 73% to 67% in membership among Protestant churches over the past 20 years. The decline among Catholic congregations coincides with the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal.

In addition, a recent LifeWay Research survey found that black millennials — more frequently than their white counterparts — are not attending Sunday worship services, with 75% of respondents saying they stopped attending church regularly between the ages of 18 and 22.

“In that age range, there is a declining participation in church, at least in traditional worship experiences,” said the Rev. David Emmanuel Goatley, director of the office of black church studies at the divinity school at Duke University. “I think that there are some generational tensions, but that may be overblown, too. There is some generational conflict everywhere.”

Mr. Goatley said that as he grew up in a church in Kentucky in the 1960s, the congregation wrestled with new music, clothing and “expressions,” and that he believes the message for today’s churches is the same as it was a generation or two ago.

“You need to both adopt and adapt,” Mr. Goatley said.

Meanwhile, churchlike events without theology have become more common. On Easter Sunday at the California music festival Coachella, hip-hop artist Kanye West will hold “Sunday Service,” an amalgam of musical and Christian worship performance replete with a gospel choir.

“It’s just music; there’s no sermon,” Mr. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, told Elle magazine. “It’s definitely something he believes in — Jesus — and there’s a Christian vibe. But there’s no preaching.”

There’s no preaching, either, on the George Mason University campus, where Michael Fuentes is a missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). The university says he is on the front lines of the Christian church encountering nonbelievers or skeptics on a college campus. But he has tried to show a side of his faith that is not only theological but cultural as well. He described a recent parranda, an Afro-Caribbean musical festival, that his group held at the Virginia campus.

“We went out and bought about 40 pounds of meat, grilled out, and had meringues, salsas,” said Mr. Fuentes, who grew up in Miami after his parents fled communist Cuba. “I guess our goal is to change cultural Catholicism into practicing Catholicism.”

It’s a goal shared by the faithful — regardless of the denomination — at Embrace Church in Sioux Falls. Mr. Weber said attracting members today is simple.

“They just want to know that you’re in tune with reality,” he said.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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