Every denomination has its concerns about empty pews at one time or another, but it has become a critical issue for the Roman Catholic Church. This has prompted several surveys among “lapsed Catholics,” one of which was a recent survey in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, conducted by Villanova University. The survey was called “Empty Pews” (not to be confused with the Pew Forum, which also conducts surveys).
According to the report, the survey asked members of the diocese “a series of questions about church doctrine and parish life to better understand why they are staying home.” The survey was considered to be representative of almost any diocese. About two-thirds of the responders were female, with a median age of 53. One spokesman noted this as a critical demographic: “If we’re losing the 53-year-old women, we risk losing their children and their grandchildren,” he said.
So what were some of the reasons given which might explain the empty pews? As to be expected, there was criticism about the sex scandal and how it had been handled. There were a considerable number of negative comments about their parish priests, like “distant” and “insensitive.” As one responder put it, “Ask a question and you get a rule,” rather than, “Let’s sit down and talk about it.” Responders were also troubled about the Church’s view of gays and same-sex marriage (rather muddled), and about women priests. Some also expressed a desire for better homilies (Luther could help them with that), and better music (perhaps some good old congregational hymn singing might help?).
It is not a happy time in the Catholic Church, as the survey revealed, and we can sympathize with some of their people’s complaints. However, the greatest reason a person should have for dissatisfaction with the Pope’s church is its refusal to let the fresh air of the unconditioned gospel pervade its teaching so that poor sinners come to know that they are saved by grace through faith and not by the works of the Law. We’d be willing to wager that a lack of true Gospel teaching is at the heart of the problem and that if this problem were truly addressed, some of those empty pews might start filling up again.
Splinters vs. Mergers
It may not be a permanent trend, yet this development in the Protestant world is worth noting. After decades of mergers among church bodies, we are witnessing a different trend on the religious landscape—a trend toward splintering rather than merging. Back in 2008, the Episcopal Church experienced a split when the splinter group known as the Anglican Church in North America was formed, after the parent church had consecrated an openly gay bishop.
Two years later, the large Lutheran body ELCA experienced the withdrawal of a sizeable conservative group, which formed the North American Lutheran Church. Most recently, the large Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has experienced the separation of a breakaway group known as the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. All three admit that the breaking point for them was the dispute over gay clergy, though other issues in theology and church bureaucracy had been brewing for some time.
There have been varied reactions to the splinter “trend.” One sociologist commented that American Protestants have been splintering since Roger Williams left Plymouth Colony in the 1630s. Some see the new denominations heading toward a dead end if their only reason for existing is their anti-gay policy. As another sociologist sees it, “Public opinion about gays and lesbians and gay marriages are changing so dramatically that at some point in the future—it’s not going to matter very much.”
Sad to say, he is undoubtedly right. We know how the slippery slope of gradual accommodation works. We refer you to the example of the fabled frog that boiled to death after starting out in a pail of warm water. Any movement for substantive change for good in the church cannot be swayed by public opinion, but must be rooted in that view of Scripture, which regards it as the very truth of God and nothing but the truth. This view goes for all of Scripture, not just some of it, as St. Paul states, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
A “Wedding” But Not “Marriage”
A reader of this column was given a case of indigestion one recent morning while eating his breakfast. The cause of the offense was a television program in which a rabbi was vehemently denouncing the Minnesota referendum against gay marriage. He charged the proponents of the referendum with bigotry, whereas, as the reader noted, in reality, the “bigot” he was denouncing was God Himself! The reader than added this discerning comment: “What apparently is not clear to many people is that homosexuals cannot marry, regardless of what any man-made laws or constitution may state.” Citing God’s design for marriage as that of one man and one woman, the reader concluded: “Homosexuals certainly may have a wedding, that is, a civil ceremony. They cannot marry; that is a spiritual determination.” To which we say, “Well said.”
Paul Madson is a retired pastor living in North Mankato, Minnesota.