May 11, 2018

Future flock

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Will your grandchildren belong to your Church? That may be a question you’d rather not think about. 

Now it may be that you don’t have children or grandchildren. Or it may be that your offspring are so alienated from Ukrainian life that the question does not even arise. Perhaps you think that it really doesn’t matter. Any religion will do, as long as they believe in something. Or maybe it’s enough if they’re just “good people.” Or perhaps you simply don’t care. 

In fact, the future of our Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Churches does not depend on the spiritual fate of your grandchildren. For as each successive wave of emigration leaves this world, it is not so much its descendants who are filling the pews, as the latest wave of immigrants from Ukraine. Now if our Churches are to remain “immigrant churches,” halfway houses for Ukrainians whose children will leave them once they assimilate with American society, then they will need to stay linguistically and culturally Ukrainian. But if the immigrant stream ever slackens or stops, they will be empty. 

If, on the other hand, our Churches are to serve our grandchildren (or grandnieces or grandnephews), then they will need to pursue a different strategy. They will have to use English. They will have to preach not only to immigrants whose mental universe is still Ukrainian, but to full-fledged Americans with American problems and concerns. And there will have to be persuasive reasons why those Americans should continue to attend a Ukrainian church rather than a Latin-rite Catholic or American Orthodox one. Ethnic roots may not be enough.

So what are the odds that your grandchildren will belong to your Church? 

First of all, do your children belong? Do their spouses? I would say the chances of both these things happening are no more than 25 percent. Yet these seem to be the necessary – though insufficient – conditions for your grandchildren being brought up in the Church. 

Then there are the pressures of a society, culture and school system that can override whatever catechesis they receive. Those pressures come to bear early: a sociological study of formerly Roman Catholic teens and young adults in the U.S.A. found that the median age at which they left the Church was 13 (“Going, Going, Gone,” cited below, p. 74). That might reduce the chances to 15 or 20 percent. 

And then there is college, where the general atmosphere is often hostile to “organized religion.” The college years could bring the chances down to 5 or 10 percent. 

Of course, such calculations are highly speculative. Unexpected trends appear, cultures revive. But a sober look at the future suggests that our Churches cannot simply assume that either the Third Wave, or Ukraine, will produce an endless stream of parishioners. 

There is a third possibility. If the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. could attract Evangelicals, why can’t our Churches receive American converts as well? In fact, they do.

So what can they do to keep their faithful or attract new ones? First, that would require knowing not only their present flocks, but also their former and potential future flocks. One way to do that is the opinion survey. In fact, in preparation for the Catholic Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment” next October, Bishop Bryan Bayda of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has distributed an online questionnaire for young people. It must be filled out by May 30. (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NNDBRYR). 

This survey will no doubt yield valuable results. But it does not cover those young people who have left the Church. Nor does it reach those in the general population who might join it in the future. Only a broader, professionally conducted study can provide Church leaders with the deep understanding of the surrounding society that is needed for successful evangelization.

This does not mean, of course, a “market survey.” Our Churches should not be out to “sell” themselves, competing in the “religious marketplace” by offering the best “product” (salvation) for the lowest “price” (moral, ethical or ritual requirements). Nor does it mean that they should tailor their liturgy or theology to the standards and preferences of the surrounding culture. Churches that have tried to attract believers that way have failed. “In no historical or institutional church,” writes Cambridge historian Richard Rex, “has an increasing alignment with modern or postmodern values and mores arrested numerical and demographic decline.” (“A Church in Doubt,” First Things, April 2018, p. 48). Nobody needs comfortable “bourgeois religion.” 

There is evidence, indeed, that young people of character are drawn to a challenge. And there are few challenges more demanding than an authentically Christian way of life.

What a sociological study can give Church leaders, rather, is the understanding of today’s culture without which they cannot effectively teach or preach. As St. Paul understood, one must speak differently to Romans and Hebrews, Corinthians and Galatians – and Galician guest workers and Silicon Valley techies. Youth culture in particular has its own language and frames of reference that few people over age 40 can understand. Can a clergy trained in Ukrainian or even North American seminaries really understand it? Father Rostyslav Pendiuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Patriarchal youth commission, recently argued that in Ukraine (where we see increasingly similar societal developments), sociological studies would be ineffective. This is because young people follow constantly shifting trends. What is needed, he says, is direct dialogue. That, however, would be difficult in North America, where our clergy have little public contact beyond their Sunday congregations. 

Does clerical outreach even work? Some have suggested that only their peers can bring young people into the Church. And evangelization is only effective if the evangelizers are truly living the Gospel. Then people will come of their own accord. Maybe even your grandchildren.

FURTHER READING: “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics” (Winona Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 2017). For the interview with Father Pendiuk and related articles, see Patriyarkhat No. 1 (January-February) 2018.

 

Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.