Church groups are losing members. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

The fundamental reason why God gave us a Church which we could recognize by its marks is that we are sinners who are going to die. Through His Church, Christ provides the ordinary means of our salvation. We have the sacraments and we have authoritative teaching about the content of the Faith and morals.

By the virtue of religion we must give God what is His due. Hence, we must conform ourselves to the teaching and participate in the sacraments and offer God pleasing worship. Pleasing worship is the primary way by which we fulfill the virtue of religion. God has told us all through salvation history how to worship Him, from His mandates in the Old Covenant through the rubrics that His Church lays down now.

All our activities as Catholic Christians must flow from and return to proper liturgical worship of God, in His Church and as His Church provides by God’s own authority. Otherwise, we drift from being a people with a mind and heart for the transcendent, a transforming encounter with God in Mystery, and we wind up mired in immanentism, without a sense of something beyond, that which is unsettling and yet alluring.

Christian life moves in a dynamic cycle of worship, loving God with “all our strength”, as well as fulfilling specific commands from God such as “love your neighbor as you love yourself”. Hence, without displacing sacred worship of God as our primary means of fulfilling the virtue of religion, we also rightly pursue corporal and spiritual works of mercy for our neighbor.

Keeping always in mind our priorities, it is the spiritual well being of our neighbor that is most important, and our help given to them on the temporal level aims finally at their spiritual good. The spiritual always has logical priority over the temporal, even it chronologically our efforts for the temporal and spiritual are simultaneous. If we reverse that logical priority and make our efforts mostly or completely focused on the temporal, our works are no longer performed mainly in charity. They are still humane and good, but they are not as “Christian” as they might be.

There are those who see the Church’s role, or want the Church’s role to be that of an NGO. St. Paul warns that we must not conform ourselves to the wisdom of this world. And yet so much of what we have done in the Church in the last 50+ years has been to turn its members into immanentists without a sense of the transcendent.

Today I saw a piece at the American and Jewish The Tablet, not to be confused with The Bitter Pill (aka The Tablet) with an interesting title:

Data suggests that the more a religious movement is concerned with progressive causes, the more likely it is to rapidly lose members

Here is the concluding section. As the old phrase goes… in cauda veneno.


Catholicism, now under a reforming and politically progressive pope, faces a similar challenge. It is losing adherents, not only in North America and Europe, where his views are popular, but also his homeland of South America, where the church is steadily losing out to more conservative evangelical churches. Until the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin America’s population was Catholic, but that number has fallen to under 70 percent. Today, roughly 1 in 4 Nicaraguans, 1 in 5 Brazilians and 1 in 7 Venezuelans are former Catholics. The one place where the church is growing most, Africa, is dominated by conservative bishops often at odds with Francis.

Anthony Lemus, an influential lay Catholic, believes the church’s future relies on remaining true to its principles while refashioning its message to serve its adherents’ worldly, as well as spiritual, needs. An astrophysicist brought up in a deeply Catholic East Los Angeles household, Lemus is working with a prominent Catholic theologian, Rev. Robert Spitzer, on rewriting of the Catholic Catechism to make the faith more accessible to the new generation. He also supports efforts to improve services from the church—day care, athletic clubs, camps—that might attract young families back to the faith.

“Today’s generation is more in tune with value-add products and services influencing their lives immediately, and the relevance of faith competes with these promotions,” he said. “A ‘sticky’ rebranding of the importance of faith formation’s value in everyday life is key to reposition its importance for living a holistic life.”

Ultimately, as Lemus suggested, religions, including Judaism, can only hope to thrive if they serve a purpose that is not met elsewhere in society. It is all well and good to perform good deeds, but if religions do not make themselves indispensable to families, their future could be bleak. As we already see in Europe, churches and synagogues could become ever more like pagan temples, vestiges of the past and attractions for the curious, profoundly clueless about the passion and commitment that created them.

Okay, dear readers, what’s wrong with that? What’s missing?

It’s the same problem that we find with nearly everything every bishop and other Church leader proposes when looking down the road at the problems we face.  They simply don’t think to go there or they don’t dare to go there.  Either way, their proposals cannot stand because they are not grounded in the right bedrock.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Chuck4247 says:

    “Ultimately, as Lemus suggested, religions, including Judaism, can only hope to thrive if they serve a purpose that is not met elsewhere in society.” — as he proceeds to outline a service done in many places in society (see: YMCA, Salvation Army, FMSC, etc.). The diagnosis is correct, but the prescription will only harm the patient, not heal her.

  2. Sawyer says:

    Fr. Robert Spitzer is a brilliant man and a good priest and speaker. His new catechetical materials in development, referred to in the article, are total junk, however. His website is Credible Catholic. Check it out if you’re interested. I have experience as a catechist. The presentations and resources that are already available are completely unusable and ineffective and visually unappealing, in my opinion. The people designing them and publishing them have no clue how to teach nor put together attractive graphic designs. It’s like high-tech filmstrips. So boring.

    One big problem with catechesis in our day is that Credible Catholic and other organizations like Lifeteen, Ascension Press, Dynamic Catholic and so forth are all trying to create idiot-proof, canned, lesson-in-a-box approaches to catechesis so that people watch videos or have PowerPoint slides read to them by a leader. The appeal of such programs is that you don’t have to know anything to use them, so you don’t need (nor does the parish need to pay) a knowledgeable and talented catechist to bore people to death with a canned catechetical program. Fewer and fewer catechetical programs these days employ competent, knowledgeable teachers because more parishes are opting for the canned approach. It’s assembly-line catechesis, and it’s doing great damage to the Church because it’s not relational, among other things like being so dreadfully boring.

  3. Asperges_me says:

    I’m the Catechist at my parish in charge of teaching our Confirmandi. I create all of my lessons from scratch, and use discussion to teach. (I use PowerPoints with no more than a sentence per slide, and never read what’s on the slide). The kids overwhelmingly enjoy the class compared to their previous instruction (which consisted of reading through workbooks). AND they are learning their faith!
    Also, kids know when you are teaching something that you yourself do not understand. And frankly, if you can’t explain a topic, at least generally, from memory.. don’t teach that subject! Most of my ccd teachers over the years wouldn’t even be able to explain the difference between Mortal/Venial sin!

    We have also started taking our Confirmandi to confession once a month, this helps them to become familiar with the Sacrament, and reduces fear. They loathe going less and less each month, and are actually doing a good examination of conscience everytime.

    Overall, WE must engage the younger generation, and WE must teach the faith. A book or lesson plan can never compare.

  4. Adeodataomnia says:

    ^^What great comments!!
    I am the only Priest Curate in a huge parish (about 4,000 families). My Pastor has actively discouraged my efforts to make Bible Studies (Bilingual, to boot!) and other Catechetical Initiatives throughout the Parish. His reasoning: it is better that we have ten groups all doing an Ascension Press (or what have you) program by great scholarw than have one or two groups run by a Priest, Deacon or Lay Leader. For him, it’s a question of resource management and numbers. Although I don’t deny there is some validity to that approach, I believe it is a disaster pedagogically and relationally. I am quite certain, again with fairness to the good people who make these programs, they don’t intend their own programs to be used like automatons, but as tools. Much like Social Media should not replace real relationships, neither can a video replace the art of pedagogy and discipleship.

    However, I can’t agree with what you guys have said more: we can’t “outsource” discipleship. Loving relationships, both with God and between Christians, is part of the cement that glues the Church together. That love flows from the Eucharist and prompts us to obey Christ’s command that we love one another. There is nothing on earth like it, which is why it is so attractive to people.

    By the grace of God, I founded a Bible Study three years ago which drew so many people, we even had Protestants and even Ministers of other Christian Faiths. And once, we even did the Book of Sirach! With Protestants! Not only did that little group have a passion for the Word of God, they also formed a community which genuinely enjoyed praying together, sharing a bit of their lives, and all the while being equipped with spiritual armaments to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. It was, and is, a supreme honor to teach them.

    I love that image of “assembly line” catechesis. Permit me to add another: “cookie-cutter” or “puppy-mill” catechesis. If we truly have the faith, we should be able to share it with someone else, because only healthy organisms reproduce. Sick or dying ones tend to be sterile.

  5. The authentic Faith doesn’t NEED to be dressed up. Nor does it need to be dumbed down. Not one of the Twelve Apostles had a fancy degree. All it needs is to be straightforwardly proclaimed by someone who knows it and loves it.

  6. SumusResNovarum says:

    @Sawyer excellently put. It’s really the entire problem with youth ministry. Done well, it’s authentic and personal to teens – being involved in their lives and with their families, but also being another voice for catechesis, prayer, and spiritual formation as they are growing to become more and more adults themselves. But all of the “programs” you can buy are always founded on sociology or technology, so even those that claim to be seriously Catholic (like Lifeteen, which claims some absurdly high number of seminarians which can’t possibly be accurate) don’t actually equip ministers or volunteers to hand on the faith, it gives them some videos which claim to do it for them. It is a completely flawed pedagogy.

    @Adeodataomnia I may have to steal “puppy mill catechesis” into my vernacular. I’ll especially be using it as my parish tries to re-format our PSR classes in the wake of our DRE leaving us.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    I don’t know who Anthony Lemus is and why, exactly, we should be listening to him. I would be willing to guess that none of these people have any experience in spiritual direction outside of the psychological pablum taught in most modern seminaries.

    I happen to have known the famous recently deceased cultural sociologist, Christie Davies. We were having lunch together at a humor conference and we both came to the conclusion that PowerPoint is evil. Students love it because it is passive learning, but it discourages thinking beyond the moment.

    There are two elements to proper catechesis: knowledge (theory) and application (practice). For knowledge, a blackboard is sufficient (it worked for Bishop Sheen), supplemented with a slide show or music, just as in teaching music or art history. The knowledge of the Catholic faith is largely a knowledge of its history, expressed in terms of its commands, counsels, and precepts, as they have developed in time as new situations have arisen. If I were teaching catechesis, first, I would teach elementary logic and fallacy theory; then, I would give a ten week course in Church history; then, I would give an introduction to moral theology; then basic theology; then Scripture. I would teach the people how to learn and properly reason about the Faith

    For practice, I would introduce apologetics and then have them try to reason their way out of practice scenarios.

    In other words, I would follow the methodology pioneered by Frank Sheed for his organization, The Catholic Evidence Guild, in the 1930’s and 1940’s. If you look over their manual (available, online) I would bet the fewer than 20% of the very knowledgeable commenters on this blog could pass the tests that were given to people who completed the course.

    People tend to rise to the level of expectation of their teacher. Most catechesis, today, sets the bar for infants. Teach the adults, well, and let them teach their children. I wonder if the-powers-that-be (i.e., bishops) want to keep their members functioning at the level of simpletons, else, why would so many parishes be extolling the virtues of the Alpha program?

    There are many gifted teachers in most parishes. The catechists should be drawing on their experience. I suspect that if even 30% of parishioners knew anything beyond pablum for the Faith, the misshapen social justice experiments of the last fifty years would stall in their tracks ( or tracts). There are two groups of men over which it is easy to assert authority: the ignorant and the truly skilled, because the ignorant are impressed by the knowledge of the one in authority, but the truly skilled are impressed by the heart of the one leading. Perhaps, if more pew sitters had been truly skilled at living an authentic Catholic life, the abuse crisis might never have happened, because the phony hearts of some bishops might have been exposed.

    Kids, today, need to be kicked in the pants, nor coddled. They need a band camp where they can learn to march, they need more drill sergeant and less school counselor. This is the fighting Church and most children are being trained to lose the battle, not trained to win the war. Think about that – how long would a drill sergeant last if he trained his men to surrender when the enemy walked up and said, “Please.” If you lose in a war, you might lose your life; if you lose in the War of Life, you will lose your soul. There is no time to be pansies. Face front. Forward march.

    The goal of catechesis is the salvation of a soul. If only catechists could believe in Hell. If that doesn’t spur them on, then they have no business teaching the Faith.

    The Chicken

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    No no, this isn’t it at all. This isn’t what draws people to the faith. If you are going to have the church mock an NGO then just be one. You can’t fake it or be second best. Oh there will always be people who will be happy to take the stuff you’re giving away, but that’s all you’ll be, a place to get things. You’re paying for people to show up, a whole different thing from faithful Catholics.
    I’ve driven by many a tiny Protestant church, the little white buildings you see dotted here and there, and where once you would have seen a line of scripture out on the announcement board, in the last few decades you see bad churchy puns, and you realize the people who own that building don’t recognize the power of Christ’s words, they have no faith in it, or they’d take down the puns and put the Word of God up there. People will see it and be moved by it, maybe come in.
    What people need today is Truth. Something bigger than themselves, something to belong to, something to provide some self-discipline and order to their lives. Something to provide meaning. Something they can pass down to their children. Only the Gospel and the tenets of faith do that.
    The men who run our church are lacking in supernatural faith. It shows. When I was a young pagan, I was drawn in by my future in-laws and their adherence to Catholicism, the requirements of the faith. I wanted to belong to it. It wasn’t random, willy nilly, or touchy feely, it had requirements. They had consistency, something beautiful, and I wanted it. Young people today are told all the wrong things, and the world encourages them to do whatever they want to do, even trying in vain to turn themselves into the opposite sex if they want. They NEED Truth, they need Jesus Christ and the kind of worship you can only really find in a Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I’m sorry, but the Novus Ordo Mass is not going to draw in people. Don’t blame me, the numbers speak for themselves. If they ever want more Catholics, or for Catholics to stay, they will have to stop appeasing the world with political correctness, stop the constant promotion of the church as Social Justice Machine, and get back to the practice of the faith as Christ gave it to us and the apostles handed it down to us.
    Personally, I don’t think these men will do it. They’ll do everything but. I’m pretty sure the church is headed for extinction, except for the faithful remnant, who will meet in grassy fields or basements.

  9. The Masked Chicken says:

    Here is a short video (5 minutes) by the originator of the term, moral therapeutic deism (I hope the link works). It is frightening.

    The Chicken

  10. ALL: So far every one of you has latched onto the aspect of catechesis. Catechesis is important. However, you have fallen into the trap I described in the post at the top, thus emphasizing my point. I am not trying to diminish catechesis. However, review my comments at the top.

    Let’s see if someone can figure it out.

    What’s missing from Spitzer (great guy, btw) and the suggestions of almost everyone else you hear on the topic of “What are we going to do?”

  11. mtmajor says:

    “By the virtue of religion we must give God what is His due. Hence, we must conform ourselves to the teaching and participate in the sacraments and offer God pleasing worship. Pleasing worship is the primary way by which we fulfill the virtue of religion.” Fr. Z

  12. Mac in Calgary says:

    I think what’s missing is liturgy celebrated devoutly.

  13. Justalurkingfool says:

    In the piece by Lemus, was there a mention of God or the Gospel?


  14. JabbaPapa says:

    Father Z :

    Pleasing worship is the primary way by which we fulfill the virtue of religion

    I’d say that pleasing action is just as primary, though of course worship *is* action. [You are very close. Not quite there.]

    And because so many in our times do not understand the identity of right worship with right action, it is necessary for Faithful Catholic Christians to put some just emphasis on the former, because this too is to engage in right action, and so to encourage the right worship that God so lovingly desires and deserves.

  15. Charles E Flynn says:

    @The Masked Chicken:

    which is excerpted from


    The conclusion is that improperly used, PowerPoint can lead to loss of vehicle and crew, as NASA would put it.

  16. JabbaPapa says:

    Father Z :

    [You are very close. Not quite there.]

    Yes I know, but my Vocation is Pilgrim, not Priest nor Husband nor Father nor Theologian.

    Foot Pilgrims spend their days being close, but never really quite there. You are very much helping, Father, along my Way. May we meet in the Eternal Shining Grace at Journey’s End !!

  17. Peter Stuart says:

    What’s happening to all those souls?

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    Well, I discussed catechesis because it was part of the discussion. Why is the Church losing members? In essence, it is because of a loss of the sense of what Aristotle called final cause. The end of man is the beatific vision – everything must be ordered to bring that about – all worship, all behavior. People who leave the Church are almost always mistaken about what is necessary to final causality. God tells us what He wants us to do by virtue of what is called the justice of worship, whereby a king informs the people of right behavior. Sin is the violation of that behavior. It frustrates man’s final cause. Everything that leads to the contemplation and willed action to achieve the proper end of man is helpful. In modern times, the efficient cause, the means to achieve the final cause, has been so skewed that people like Lemus actually think that child care is part of the efficient cause. It is God, through his Church which establishes the means of salvation. Those who fall away do not understand why God established a Church instead of talking to each man, separately.

    The Chicken

  19. Flos Carmeli says:

    Perhaps, Fr. Z, what you are getting at is that without good, meaty, hefty, harrrrrrd, forms of worship, people become soft and stupid and selfish and stifled. The Novus Ordo Missae that has formed 2-3 generations of Catholics is like mushy baby food, and it should not come as a surprise that most Catholics today, even bishops and pastors, do not understand what is wrong with Alpha, what is wrong with canned catechesis, what is wrong with PowerPoint, and what is wrong with their understanding of our Final End. Lex orare, lex credende, lex ” to act” (agere? forgive my terrible Latin)

    Why did God make us?
    God made us to know, love and serve him in this world so we can be happy with him in the next.
    cf. The Baltimore Catechism, #s 3&4

    No matter how many new and flashy ways of catechizing and evangelizing are dreamed up, the current normal liturgical standards do not bring us to know and love God as He really is in right relation to who we really are, and certainly don’t encourage us to consider our Final End. Thus our idea of how to serve is just plain wrong. This is clear to me not only from seeing what is going on around me, and from the bits of reading I have managed to do, but also from looking back at my own life and how I have grown as a Catholic.

    What is it that Fr. Z’s priestly mentor said? “You can’t give what you don’t got.” I don’t remember the Latin hybrid version of it. [Nemo dat quod non got.]

  20. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    What’s missing?

    Where to begin?

    Objective truth. Supernatural faith. God.

    I appreciate that this is a mediated version of what Lemus is saying, and mediated by non-Catholics, at that, but it is presented as a kind of marketing, as if the Catholic religion were a supermarket chain in competition with others and struggling to retain market share – and for no other end than to secure its own worldly existence rather than, as I think the Chicken pointed out, with its real, supernatural, final end in sight: the salvation of souls.

    It’s topsy turvy, cart firmly before the horse. What the Church is *for* is nowhere to be seen. (Again, I stress that this is how it is *presented*, perhaps not how it really is.)

  21. Facta Non Verba says:

    Dear Father Z:
    Are you planning on telling us the answer to your inquiry? Some of us are not as smart as you.
    Thank you.

  22. TonyO says:

    The fundamental reason why God gave us a Church</i which we could recognize by its marks is that we are sinners who are going to die.

    The first things Christ preached were repentance and conversion, turning back to the Lord. Eventually he got around to establishing the sacraments and founding his Church, but he didn’t do that FIRST. But the sacrament of the altar, and its sacrifice, is the highest thing he did, and the highest of the acts he left for us to do.

    By the virtue of religion we must give God what is His due. Hence, we must conform ourselves to the teaching and participate in the sacraments and offer God pleasing worship. Pleasing worship is the primary way by which we fulfill the virtue of religion.

    The worship God asks is not merely burnt offerings, but charity, from the heart. But OF THE ACTS from the heart, the worship in the Holy Mass, properly performed and properly joined with the will of the worshipper, who in attending at Mass also includes in his offer all of his day’s acts of all the other virtues, is the pre-eminent act by which (in this life) we give to God the sacrifice that is pleasing to him. By this act one sanctifies and incorporates the whole of the active life and the contemplative life into the worship, and thus makes the whole of life a pleasing offering to God. Thus there is no “topping” this act with something else.

    Nevertheless, one does not evangelize the pagan or the anti-Catholic by bringing them to the Mass, all unexplained. One does not teach the whole of Catholic doctrine to the young Catholic merely through the Mass, though one cannot teach Catholicism without teaching the true Mass either, and in its fullness and beauty. But the true “catechist” is the apostle who teaches both by his words (borrowing extensively from God’s Word) and by his actions, which show by a coherent congruence what each other means. Which is, exactly, what Christ did in catechizing his apostles first, and what they did afterwards.

  23. marybiscuit says:

    Hello Fr Z,
    I thought there won’t be any change until there is a return to the full Tradition of our Latin Liturgy. People want God and the transcendent. I have been amazed by the transformation of my family (8 children) by attending an Oratory committed to the EF Mass and Sacraments for the last 8 1/2 years. God through the Liturgy has converted and healed us and our catechism has solidified what has been poured out to us by grace.

  24. hwriggles4 says:

    Here are three issues I am familiar with:

    1. I frequently substitute CCD. I am in a diocese where Catholics have flexible times to attend Mass in reasonable driving distances to fulfill the Sunday obligation. Normally I do 5th through 8th grade, and I don’t know how many times kids tell me their parents drop them off and don’t attend Mass. I do know that some attend Saturday Vigil or Sunday morning Mass at 9 am or later Mass on Sunday, but even though I emphasize the Sunday obligation, some parents just don’t find it important.

    2. Here’s another attitude (for what it’s worth, for several years I was a one hour Catholic, or as one of my buddies called it, a “clock in clock out Catholic”) that is common in our parishes (my Protestant friends tell me they see this in their congregations too). Here it is:

    “I am a Christian. I go to church every Sunday. Afterward, I go home.”

    3. At a conference last year, a good deacon spoke and said something that stuck with me:

    “The last 40 years, the Church has raised up volunteers, not disciples.”

  25. dallenl says:

    The Methodist church was started by the Wesley brothers as the social wing of the (Low) Anglican Church. The both of them have about the same fall away ratio. There is probably a lesson there.

  26. lh says:

    We have forgotten Who God is and who we are.

  27. aiello01 says:

    The Church also compiled Sacred Scripture in the fourth century as the regulator of Christianity (V2’s Dei Verbum 21). It comes in handy when there is confusion and dissension.

  28. dcntodd says:


  29. Semper Gumby says:

    Speaking of churches and declining membership, here is what some of our Protestant brethren and sisteren are up to. An op-ed by “social media pastor” Dave Adamson.

    Headline: Church as we know it is over. Here’s what’s next.

    Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over. Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.

    But that way of doing church is dead.

    And just like Joshua needed to hear God say, “Moses my servant is dead” (Joshua 1:2), so he could move into the next level of leadership, I think the Church needs to accept the fate of physical church as we know it, so we can move into the next phase of digital church.

    The secular marketplace has known for years that customers connect with brands online AND offline seamlessly. Companies like Home Depot, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Crate & Barrel have adopted “omni-channel” strategies that allow people to shop either online, through an app, or in-store.

    The result has been increased sales both online and at brick and mortar stores.

    In the same way, physical church has its strategies and measurements of success, while church online has its own separate (but similar) systems and measurements of success. Omni-channel however, is like a pool with no lane buoys—everyone is able to explore any part of the pool in their own time.

    An omni-channel approach to church would allow people to fully connect and engage with a church without the need to step inside a physical environment every week. They could attend one Sunday, listen to the message on podcast the following week, watch a live online stream the Sunday after, and catch the message on-demand in an church app the week after that.

    This shifts the Church from a location-centric approach, to an audience-centric approach that allows people to connect and engage with churches both digitally AND physically.


    If the Church is going to make an impact in the modern world, we need to take the swim lanes out and let people explore our church and our content in their own time and in their own way. We need to understand that digital channels do not compete with physical attendance, they partner with it. And if the marketplace is an indicator, doing digital engagement well will lead to increased physical attendance.

    Leadership requires focus on where you want to be, not where you were or where you are. As pastor Craig Groeschel of Life Church says: “If we want to reach people that no one else is reaching, we’ve got to do things no one else is doing.”

    Well, a “social media pastor” would look at it that way. It’s Friday afternoon, but allow a stark observation: there is no way “Digital Church” will survive the Coming Storm. Pax.

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