I'm not at all sure when the first story about declining church attendance might have been written, but it's surely been a staple for the past two or three decades. Perhaps the modern iterations stem from the famous April 8, 1966 cover story in Time magazine, headlined, "Is God Dead?"
Since then, we've seen any number of pieces on how church attendance is in decline, how congregations are shrinking and, here's the biggest trend, how the old mainline Protestant denominations are in straitened times.
I've written such stories myself.
Whatever the present-day genesis, a piece in Fosters Daily Democrat, a daily in Dover, New Hampshire and the state's seventh-largest paper by circulation, examines the decline of faith in the state's seacoast region. There are several good things to read here, but also a couple of easily avoidable omissions, I believe.
Let's dive in:
Seacoast religious leaders said a recent cultural shift towards secularism has caused them to make significant changes, including altering their strategy for attracting members and consolidating churches.
Secularism, which experts say has always been prevalent in New Hampshire and has continued to rise, have caused attendance to dwindle in many religious congregations. A Gallup poll in 2015 stated 20 percent of New Hampshire was considered "very religious," the lowest percentage found in the poll. Mississippi came in at the highest with 63 percent.
In Portsmouth, Corpus Christi Parish, which is comprised of St. James Church, St. Catherine of Siena Church and the Immaculate Conception Church, is being consolidated into one church, and St. James Church is being put up for sale. Father Gary Belliveau, who leads the parish, said there is no longer a need for three churches led by three different priests.
Reporter Max Sullivan, described on the paper's website as "a Seacoast native and [University of New Hampshire] grad[uate]," certainly knows the area and the people. He also seems to understand one of the key factors in the decline of religious activity seen there.
The following passage is, well, chunky (i.e., long), but it bears close reading:
Belliveau said Catholicism was more prevalent in Portsmouth in the 1980s, but church attendance began to decrease in the late 1990s, leading to the three churches joining under one parish in 2006. Shifts in the city's demographics played a part in this, he said, but secularism was a factor.
"What I think we're facing today with secularism is basically, there's been the shift from a reliance upon God and a deeper appreciation for the things beyond what we can see and figure out, to the reliance on self," Belliveau said.
Dover's St. Charles Church was torn down last month and the site is expected to be used for workforce housing. Tom Bebbington, director of communications for the archdiocese in Manchester, said changes in demographics were a factor in the diminishing need for St. Charles Church, as well as the building's poor condition. However, he said secularism has played a part in that need going away as well.
Michele Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in religion, said New England states have experienced a drop in religious participation at an accelerated rate compared to other parts of the country.
There are a couple of interesting journalistic issues here: With the exception of the sociology professor and the diocesan spokesman, every voice in the article is that of a clergy member: Catholic, Baptist, Congregationalist, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist. What about the pews? Were there no parishioners of any congregation who might have observed changing trends, whose voices might have added something here?
Also apparently absent are any voices from relatively new and/or possibly growing religions on the scene.
Yes, reporter Sullivan reached out to the local Islamic Society, but what about the regional branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? The church's missionaries serve as many as 24 months knocking on doors and reaching out in places just like the New Hampshire seacoast. Might one of those missionaries have something to say about spiritual temperatures there? (If permitted, that is.) Pentecostal churches are on the upswing in most of America, along with nondenominational Protestant churches. Were there none in the paper's coverage area?
Another corner not heard from is Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, about an hour's drive away. Might someone on that faculty know a thing or two about trends in the Granite State and the wider region? How about the teacher of that class on "Evangelism and Discipleship Through the Local Church"? Or how about a professor at the Boston University School of Theology, also relatively nearby?
I learned a lot from this story about the religious situation in New Hampshire, but left hungry for more voices and more information.
Perhaps another roundup of voices, particularly incorporating the thoughts of those in the pews (and those not in the pews), might be helpful in understanding why what has apparently happened indeed took place.