Long time readers of Intentional Disciples and those who have attended Making Disciples will have heard this all before, but John Allen has an interesting interview with Pew Forum senior researcher Greg Smith this morning:
Here's a few thought-provoking snippets, cast in what is very much "marketplace of ideas" language:
Everybody's losing members in this country, some even more than Catholics. In percentage terms, Catholic losses are not out of line with other groups. It's on the recruitment side that Catholics are not doing as well. Protestants are losing lots of members too, but for every four Americans who are no longer Protestant, there are three who are Protestant today who were not raised that way. Protestantism is declining as a whole, but the recruitment rate is pretty good. Catholics are not replenishing their ranks through conversion in the same way.
Smith: One of the things I was struck by, especially with regard to the Catholic church, is the degree to which apparent stability masks enormous change just below the surface. If all you look at is the percentage of the population who told us they're Catholic, it's exactly what we've found for four decades, and you would think nothing much is going on. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But one of the points of the report is that to understand the dynamics of American religion, you have to see retention and recruitment together. It's the churn, the ratio of leaving to joining, which matters. It's the recruitment side that sets Catholics apart. Four people leave Catholicism for every one who joins, and there's no other religious group where you see a similar ratio. Baptists, for example, also have more people leaving than joining, but their ratio of 2-1 is twice of what we see for Catholics.
The article also covers that religious change is normal in our culture across the spectrum; the "two track" reality - that Catholic who leave to become Protestants are motivated differently from those who leave to become nothing - and that most religious change happens early in life, by age 24.
It is worth reading the whole piece. 21st century American cultural winds are, oddly enough, supporting religious groups who actively go out and evangelize and penalizing groups that depend largely upon inherited faith and culture to maintain their numbers.
Just one note: remember, the topic here is the retention of religious identity, not how often people who still regard themselves as Catholic actually attend Mass. Around the Catholic blogosphere, we tend to conflate the two issues but the Pew study addresses both separately and John Allen is focusing on the first issue of religious identity in this interview.
The interview is about the roughly 32% of American adults who were raised Catholic and now call themselves something else and the 2.6% of American adults who are converts to Catholicism from some other background.