The Pew study on (almost) why people choose which congregation to attend

by Michael Sean Winters

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Pew studies can sometimes leave me cold. They always demonstrate the large, tectonic shifts in the behavior of those surveyed, and sometimes in attitudes as well. But, oftentimes, they claim to demonstrate the "why" of a given topic but, when reading the results, I never feel like I would be in a position to advise anyone on how to proceed. Their latest survey on why people select a particular congregation when they change is the latest example of this.

Before getting into the whys and wherefores, very little attention has been paid to one finding in the survey that really jumped out at me. Pew reported that 51 percent of Americans regularly attend church services, with 23 percent saying they have always attended regularly and 27 percent saying they now attend church more frequently than in the past. Forty-nine percent indicated they do not attend church regularly, with 27 percent saying they have never attended regularly and 22 percent saying they once attended regularly but no longer do so. There is a sliver of good news there, yes? Twenty-seven percent of respondents are going to church more often compared to 22 percent who are going less often. It is not a landslide, but with all the talk of the rise of the "nones," those who claim no religious affiliation, I found this uptick surprising as well as encouraging.

On to the whys and wherefores. My colleague Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese has already offered his commentary on the Pew study and I agree with him, especially about wishing they had asked about music. It is very significant that Catholics are less likely to switch denominations when they look for a new congregation, and also significant is the related information that Catholics rate preaching and a welcoming congregation as less important than Protestants do. The numbers on preaching are astounding as only 62 percent of Catholics saying good preaching affected their choice, compared to 92 percent of Protestants.

The reason? Pew did not ask, but I can tell you: The Eucharist. I remember asking a priest friend about a similar survey years ago and he said something like, "Catholics will give up a lot in terms of convenience or quality, but they aren't going to give up the Eucharist." I remember growing up, Mae MacKinley, who was a war bride from Scotland and a sight of the Kirk, moved in next door. Our little town did not have a Presbyterian church, so she attended the Congregational church. Sometimes, when we were over playing bridge, she would complain about the sermons, but I can remember my mother explaining to me that Protestants like Mrs. MacKinley can change denominations but not Catholics.

This is not an excuse for bad preaching, and bishops and seminary rectors are well advised to do a better job training their priests to be good preachers. I am sure there are divergent opinions on what makes a good preacher, but when I set out to become a writer, I received a bit of sage advice: If you want to be a good writer, make sure you read great writing. The person who gave me this advice included a subscription to The New Yorker with it. I can say that in the two years I attended seminary, not once did I hear any one suggest that we seminarians spend time reading John Henry Newman's plain and parochial sermons. We might have encountered Augustine's sermons in a class on the fathers, and we prayed over them in the Liturgy of the Hours, but they were never commended to us as examples of great sermonizing. This is an easily remedied shortcoming.

Many respondents said they want a "welcoming" community. I think the priest who led Sunday worship at my church had read the survey as he was more fulsome than usual in welcoming visitors. But, it takes more than a few words at the beginning of Mass and more than an additional phalanx of greeters at the church doors. Last weekend, I attended a bat mitzvah at a conservative synagogue: The daughter of two of my best friends was being called to the Torah. For more than two and a half hours, this precocious 13-year-old shared the sanctuary with the rabbi and the cantor and others in the congregation. She read beautifully and delivered a short reflection of her own on the reading. I thought how much time she must have spent preparing for this day and how little time I was required to spend preparing for confirmation. Setting high expectations for full membership, especially among the young, actually serves as an enticement, not a hindrance, to continued attendance in most cases.

What impressed me about the service, however, was the way different members of the congregation were included in the service. The parents, and grandparent and aunts and uncles and cousins of the bat mitzvah were all involved in different parts of the ceremony. Those who had lost loved ones within the year were invited to pray the Kaddish. A woman who had recently lost her husband came up to do one of the prayers and receive a special blessing. Then her family members joined her. She certainly was made to feel supported in her grief. A young couple who were to be married the next day came up and received a special blessing. Then their parents joined them and they, too, received a special blessing. The couple did one of the readings. This went far beyond having a cheerful greeter at the door, although there was one of those too. If you had recently moved into this town and were attending this synagogue for the first time, you would have come away with the clear understanding that here you would be supported in your faith life, which is the kind of welcome that matters. As we adjourned to an adjoining room for lunch, I said to a friend who asked what I thought of the service, "That is how you keep something going for five thousand years."

I especially want to second Fr. Reese's observation about music. It matters. The music that was crafted in the wake of the council is only now emerging from the treacly "Yahweh, I Know You Are Near" days, and even now, dreadful numbers too often find their way into your average parish liturgy. Think "Gather Us In." (In seminary, in the mid-1980s, we used to spoof the first number as "Yahweh, I know you drink beer," and I am told that later seminarians crafted text for several verses of "Gather us in, the trolls and the cretins. ...") What bothers me even more is the way subsequent editions of the worship hymnal take a truly great hymn like "Cwm Rhondda," and give it new, dreadful words. How does one improve on "Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore"? The same has been done to "Thaxted," based on Gustav Holst's "Jupiter." There are several new sets of words accompanying the glorious music. Do any of them improve on the Cecile Spring-Rice original? Here is the second verse:

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Last week, I noted that at the ordinations of two new auxiliary bishops in the Archdiocese of Boston, as the newly ordained were escorted through the cathedral, the congregation sand "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." I called a friend who attended the service and said, "That never gets old." Last weekend, at the bat mitzvah, I was reminded how prominent praise of God is in the liturgical prayers of God's chosen people. Praise is best when it is sung. Great music can elevate the sentiments, and keep them from becoming sentimental. Hymns also have great catechetical value and, guess what, kids love to sing. So, yes, music is important if you want to have a vibrant parish. I do not expect all to share my love for Palestrina and Mozart. You can go to the multicultural Mass at St. Camillus in Silver Spring, Md., and hear plenty of music that is not my cup of tea, but they do it well and with vigor.

I understand that priests have many demands on their time, but I also understand that they can cede control over many things, such as finances, so that they can focus on improving the liturgical life of their parish. And, there are lots of things priests do not have to worry about like shoveling the snow or weeding the garden or cooking dinner. The people of God have a right to expect their clergy to put a great deal of focus into making Sunday Mass as beautiful an expression of worship as possible. And bishops should insist on it. Otherwise, the people will not come, and the clergy and bishops will blame it on secularization, and the Church will wither like an unwatered flower on a hot August day. If they seek it, the clergy will find that people are not only hungry for good worship, good sermons, good music, and a sense of community, they are hungry for an experience of God.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 

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