We aren’t losing people because of worship. We’re losing them because we’re hypocrites.

And you gave me to Drink

And you gave me to Drink (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

There’s a blog post making the rounds right now about the dismal record of churches, both mega- and traditional, to retain their youth into adulthood. The author and all the commenters have their pet theories about why this is–the age-old argument between “worship isn’t relevant” (i.e. it’s too traditional) and “the worship is too contemporary” (i.e. it’s too contemporary) seem to be the focus of discussion.

Although I’m a liturgist, and I have impassioned opinions on the question of musical style in worship, I actually don’t believe the style of worship has all that much to do with this question at all.

We are losing the youth–and everyone else who’s leaving organized religion–because they think it’s a bunch of B.S. A conspiracy made to pacify the ignorant and keep the masses in line. And why do they think this?

Because we call ourselves Christians, and we don’t act like Christ. We say we believe, but then refuse to act like believing changes everything. We talk big and then we talk trash about others. We act as if the aesthetics and the personal preferences are what it’s all about.

In simple language, we’re losing people because we’re hypocrites. Even, and sometimes especially, those of us who are the most involved in our churches.

In every Catholic discussion, Vatican II seems to be the lightning rod. Someone always says that whatever problem we were facing was caused by V2 because it didn’t exist before that, and if only we went back to the way things were fifty years ago, all our problems would go away. As if somehow people were intrinsically holier then, instead of simply doing what was culturally expected. Fifty years ago, people went to church whether or not they really wanted to, not because they were better Catholics, but because that’s what everyone did.

These days, church is not what everyone does, so people don’t do it. And that’s not a change caused by Vatican II. That happened in the context of a larger world. All matters of faith are lived in and influenced by the context of the larger world, and that is as it should be. We aren’t “of” the world, but we do live “in” it. We can’t possibly hope to leaven the world if we stand apart and wag our finger at it. You have to dive in.

I know that’s scary. Each of us has a vision for the way the world should be, and it’s pretty cut and dried. But the world isn’t black and white. It’s a complex, interwoven mess. You tug on one string and every other one is affected. There are no simple solutions to any of the issues we face.

The world is messy, and the more you get down in the muck, the more you realize your pat answers don’t–can’t–stand unassailable in the face of the real world. You find yourself forced to reconsider, to shift your dearly-held philosophies to make room for circumstances that don’t fit neatly into the box you’ve made.

Nobody likes having to do that. But if you just keep confirming yourself in your own rightness, it pretty soon becomes self-righteousness, and self-delusion. And then your faith, strong as you think it is, ends up ringing very false to others. They might not know why, but they’ll sense the underlying conflict.

And then they figure, if this is what faith is, I don’t want any part of it.

We can’t ever stop seeking deeper truth. And that search is exercise for the soul. Like physical exercise, it hurts, because it begins with breaking down the boundaries of the muscle in order to make room for expansion.

photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales), via Flickr

But at its basic level, that spiritual exercise begins because we go out and we do something with our faith. It’s in the doing that we experience the things that challenge our presumptions and assumptions. Don’t tell me all the reasons it can’t be done. Do something about it. You may not succeed, you may fall flat on your face, but do something.

This is what Pope Francis keeps saying over and over. Sure, worship is important, but worship is not the most important thing; worship is the spiritual food for doing the real work of Christianity. Do something.

If all of us who call ourselves Christians heeded his call, it would be a game changer.

Related Posts:

A Ministry Manifesto

32 thoughts on “We aren’t losing people because of worship. We’re losing them because we’re hypocrites.

  1. Yes we are hypocrites. We always have been. Church is not for saints. Church is for sinners. We don’t go to church because we know we are perfect. We go to church because we know we are sinners and we need God in order to be able to go and do good. Eventually many of us come back to church. Eventually, we realize, we cannot do this alone.
    As for going out and doing, yes, amen. And we are reminded of that at the end of every Mass.
    Great article.

    • Moonshadow

      Colleen has it correct: we’re sinners primarily and as soon as young people realize they’re no better than their elders, they’ll get on board. It’s youthful arrogance, really. Not that we’re excused from helping them see it for what it is. We’ve been there ourselves, no?

      • Maybe…but the drop is society-wide, and a lot of people aren’t coming back to the Church when they have families now. Or if they do, it’s at the margins.

  2. Agellius

    I totally agree that if more Christians were more Christ-like, than more people would be attracted to the Christian faith.

    That being said, the issue with Vatican II is not that people were intrinsically holier back then. It’s that people back then at least knew that holiness was required for salvation. Since V2 the idea has become more widespread that it doesn’t really matter how holy you are, or aren’t, because God loves everyone and nobody’s going to hell. So just be yourself and do your thing and everything will be fine.

    Well in that case, why go to Mass? It’s boring and it has no bearing on my salvation.

    If you’re right, that “worship is the spiritual food for doing the real work of Christianity,” then worship has to come first and the “real work” will come as a result. In which case it’s extremely important that worship be effective.

    • I do agree that worship is lacking and needs to be more effective, although your solution and mine might not look much alike. 🙂 Liturgy is a big deal to me, I don’t want to make it appear that is isn’t. But I do think we get so wrapped up in these liturgy wars that we forget that the real work lies elsewhere.

      • Jeff Cavins has a great talk called I’m not Bring Fed. He talks about how we are being fed at Mass. With Christ body and blood and word. Oh my. Isn’t that enough? I
        get tired of hearing people say they are bored at Mass. Mass isn’t about entertainment. It is about praising and worshiping and thanking God. It’s about community. It’s about putting ourselves into it. Not waiting for entertainment.
        Yes we need good liturgy. But more than that, we need to remember what Mass means- giving thanks.
        Gee, what a great conversation here. Thanks Kathleen.

  3. Agellius


    I just wanted to clarify that I don’t blame Vatican II for the Church’s current problems. The problem was not the Council itself but a lot of things that happened to coincide with it, including changes in the surrounding culture, as you mention in your post. However it seems to me that if changes in the culture are leading to less and less church attendance, then the answer is for the Church to stand against the culture rather than following its lead.

    • Oh yes, totally in agreement with you there! But the culture isn’t all bad, either, so we have to figure out ways to meet people where they are. My prayer these days is always the same: “Please, Lord, help me make a difference.”

      • I just read a book written by a priest and a pastoral minister who basically follow the Protestant mega-church model about how to increase church attendance. One thing they said was that vestments (and similar items) were like golf clubs. Golf clubs are very important to golfers and they’ll spend a lot of time and effort and money to acquire what they consider to be good ones. However, to those of us who aren’t golfers, one is like the other and they aren’t interesting at all. In their opinion, if your goal is attracting those who don’t go to church then “golf clubs” aren’t where your effort and money need to go.

  4. Very interesting, Kathleen. Since my husband is a worship and arts pastor, and our 23-yr-old son struggles to find a church he feels excited about, we have spent a lot of time discussing this very issue.

    I do believe people are yearning for “real,” but I don’t think too many people are really searching at all. We have become a people of convenience and let’s be honest, it’s not always convenient to be a Christian. For those people, it’s easier to say no thanks and blame the ignorance and intolerance of Christians and their out-dated liturgical practices.

    I wonder if it’s possible for humans to escape hypocrisy. We are human, after all. We are gonna mess up, despite our best efforts. No matter what we do, someone will find fault with it. Everyone’s opinions and standards differ. We can’t look good in everybody’s eyes.

    I wish I knew what the answer was. How I wish I knew! I’d get my kid plugged in again!

    Here’s another article on this topic I thought you might find interesting.


    Good stuff, friend!

  5. I haven’t read the comments yet, but I love reading your take on religion and church-going, because I know it comes from an authentic place. I’m not sure I agree in this case (that this is why the church is losing young people), as it’s not the reason I’ve stepped back from my own church experience, but certainly it’s a factor.

  6. Tamara Copple

    Kate, I am just going to say you are correct in your choice of words – ‘hypocrites’ – and leave it at that. If my opinion would have any bearing I would share it but as it is I will just leave it at that. I haven’t decided if this pope will really be a catalyst for change but I see hopeful signs. Lets hope his cardinals don’t assassinate him for his radicalism.

    • The thing is, Tamara, Buddhists are hypocrites, too. I just heard a whole story on KBIA last night about Buddhists in Myanmar massacring Muslims. So it’s not the institution/philosophy/religion, it’s individual members therein. The fact that some people within any institution/philosophy/religion are hypocrites is a call to change individual hearts, not pitch the baby with the bath water.

  7. I think it’s much simpler: the Church sets a higher standard for sexuality than mainstream culture does. Don’t want that standard shoved in your face? Then skip the Church Thing.

    • I don’t think so, because even the churches that are much more lax about sexuality have the problem of dropping attendance. In fact, this is exactly what I think we have to avoid: trying to oversimplify it. It’s way too easy to set up these black and white “solutions” and fail to recognize our own responsibility and culpability in the way people perceive the Church.

      • Yes, but that’s a different reason: low standards means why bother with church? That’s different from tough standards you don’t want to meet.

      • I’m not saying it’s not a factor, because I’m sure it is. But people are much more willing to accept tough standards if they see vibrant faith that isn’t self-righteous and self-deluding. If it’s not at a surface level. And I feel like many of us are really focused on the externals of faith rather than the fundamentals of holy living. And we can’t pretend our own behavior doesn’t turn people off.

  8. Agellius

    What I keep coming back to, Kathleen, is that if Christians being hypocrites keeps people away from church, then it should have been just as bad 50 years ago as it is now. But church attendance was better 50 years ago. Granted, the larger culture has also changed, and that has a lot to do with the decrease in church attendance. But in that case it seems like more of the blame should go to the culture than to hypocrisy. Blaming it on hypocrisy seems like you’re contending that people are a lot more hypocritical now than they used to be, which I seriously doubt.

    All that being said, admittedly Christians acting more like Christians is always going to make Christianity more attractive. But if you’re comparing the Church today to the Church of 50 years ago, I don’t think the main difference is hypocrisy. The main differences within the Church, I would contend, are a loosening of doctrinal and moral standards (at least in the way they are preached to the laity), and the modernization of the liturgy. I submit that those things combined with cultural changes account for the bulk of the difference in attendance, not to mention lessening of vocations to religious life and the priesthood.

    It’s always better to reduce hypocrisy, I just don’t think that the Church is comparatively more hypocritical now than it has been during most of its history.

    • That makes sense, and of course people were hypocritical 50 years ago. Although I think the cultural factors put pressure on people to keep coming despite that. Even so, I think if we were a Church full of people who were really on fire in a non-annoying way–on fire to do God’s work and NOT on fire to tell everyone else how they’re wrong about X, Y or Z while completely ignoring our own deep flaws–it would go a long way toward attracting people to the Church. I will unapologetically stand in favor of the modernization of the liturgy, but I can certainly respect those for whom the old liturgy held a deep place of honor in their hearts. There’s certainly a lot of poor liturgy to be found out there these days, but I’d be willing to bet that was the same before the Council, too.

  9. Kathleen:

    You are absolutely right. If all of us who profess being Catholic actually lived out in our daily lives what we profess to believe, this world be drastically different and the Kingdom of God would be at hand.
    Thanks for the blunt reminder.,

  10. barbaraschoeneberger

    The average Catholic isn’t a good evangelizer, at least not in my lifetime. Evangelization begins with our behavior first, according to St. Francis. That behavior is learned in the home. So the starting point for keeping the young in church is the loving family that doesn’t make church a one day a week thing and the rest of the time forgetting about God and living as if He doesn’t exist.

  11. Your posts and the comments have given me a lot to think about. I had a discussion with my aunt about this issue of people not going to church. Among other things, she told me, “God is everywhere so I don’t have to go to church to pray.” I think besides Christians being hypocrites, there has been such a lack of catechesis, that people just don’t understand the great gift of the Mass or why it is important for salvation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.