SALT LAKE CITY — The week before Easter is hectic for churches. There are extra services to plan and programs to print, musical performances to coordinate and sermons to write.
But on the Tuesday morning of Holy Week, Utah's Episcopal leaders traded their to-do lists for a more nourishing form of preparation. They gathered at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark to sing, pray and renew their ordination vows.
"May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things give us also the grace and power to perform them," they asked in unison. Then, one by one, they walked to the front of the sanctuary to be blessed.
The service is a pep talk for Holy Week and the year ahead, said the Very Rev. Tyler Doherty, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark. Participants reaffirm their call to ministry, gathering strength to face growing challenges affecting members of their profession.
The group of Americans who affiliate with "no religion" is now the same size as the largest faith groups, according to the General Social Survey. "In the 2018 data, there is no statistical difference between the size of the Catholic, evangelical and no religion groups," said Ryan Burge, a political science instructor at Eastern Illinois University who analyzed the data.
That's bad news for faith leaders, who are struggling to fill their pews.
Still, few see Easter, a time when many religious "nones" make a rare appearance at church, as a chance to make a great sales pitch, said the Rev. Christine Myers-Tegeder, pastoral associate at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. Instead, like all Sundays, it's an opportunity to praise God, serve people and do the work they love.
"We don't try to dress it up or dumb it down just because there's going to be visitors in the pews," she said.
Although she hasn't changed her Easter plans to court them, the Rev. Myers-Tegeder does often think about the nones during Sunday worship. She notices empty pews and worries about those who never hear about God's work in the world.
"I'm worried about the people who aren't listening. I'm worried about the people who aren't there," she said.
We're not designed to cultivate our religious and spiritual lives on our own, she added. And yet it's undeniable that more and more people are choosing to do so.
"There's actually a category on (hospital) intake forms for the spiritual but not religious," said the Rev. Myers-Tegeder, who also serves as a hospital chaplain.
Since the 1970s, the population of Americans who say they affiliate with "no religion" has risen 15.5 percentage points. Mainline Protestant churches, like St. Mark's Cathedral or First Presbyterian, have faced the largest membership losses, Burge said.
"In the 1970s, mainline Protestants were at 28 percent (of Americans). Today, they're at about 10 percent," he said.
Today, nearly one-quarter of Americans (23.1 percent) don't affiliate with a faith group. Some reject God's existence, while many others simply don't feel connected to a spiritual or religious community.
"It's not that they're antagonistic toward religion," Burge said. "They just don't care."
These nones often pray or meditate, embracing some religious practices even as they reject organized religion, said Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation for the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
"If you dig down, a number of those people … say they believe in God, whatever that means to them," he said.
In other words, it's not always lack of belief that's keeping people away from church. Sometimes, it's "dissatisfaction with the delivery system," he added.
Seeking new members
Attending worship was once an integral part of American life. Stores and restaurants would close on Sundays, a day for worship and rest.
That's changed amid the rise in people who claim no religion, Flory said. In his research on faith communities, he's found that even many churchgoers feel only loosely connected to their religious routines.
People think of worship as "just another part of their life, like taking their kid to soccer practice or going to work," he said. Churchgoing friends have told him that few people in the pews are listening closely to 45-minute sermons.
Dissatisfaction with organized religion is impossible for faith leaders to ignore. But most are still slow to shake up their worship routines or launch new service programs, Flory said.
"There are a lot of things that fight against making changes, including inertia," he said. "People think, 'We've never done it that way.'"
In some ways, being slow to change can be good, said Jennifer McClure, who consults with churches on organizational health. Congregations need to ask many, many questions before they come up with the right answers for them.
"Sometimes churches think there's a silver bullet and that if they do a new young adult group or change their worship style or something like that, it will be a silver bullet and they'll be OK," she said. "There is no silver bullet."
In her consultation work, McClure often provides congregations with demographic data on their surrounding community. At first glance, a high poverty rate or rising divorce rate might seem like an obvious hook for a new program. But before it's implemented, church members have to see what services already exist and meet the people behind the data.
"Where there aren't connections between a congregation and the local community, the next step is to meet people. You have to go out into the community, meet people and learn about who they are, what's going on in their lives, whether they go to church and where they go to church," said McClure, who is an assistant professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
Too often, churches don't meet with the people they're hoping to serve, Flory said, recalling a meeting with a congregation hoping to attract more young members.
"My colleague said, 'Have you ever asked young people what they want?' And the room fell silent. That was something they'd never considered before," Flory said.
Asking good questions won't necessarily lead to dramatic changes, according to Flory and McClure. However, a period of soul-searching and discussion should lead to a clearer sense of purpose.
"Are you doing church for the sake of doing church or for some other reason?" Flory said. "Part of the inertia problem is (worshipping) the way you've always done it without ever questioning why."
During his homily at this week's service of renewal of ordination vows, Bishop Scott Hayashi, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, briefly reflected on the "why" behind some of his denomination's habits.
Speaking to the assembled clergy, he described feeling torn about whether or not to wear his cope — a formal, embellished robe — for the service. He knew it would add a sense of grandeur to the occasion, but wondered if that was really the right tone for Holy Week, which honors Jesus Christ's sacrifices.
"Jesus sure as heck didn't wear one," he said.
Appearance doesn't matter during a time of trial, which is what the church is going through right now, Bishop Hayashi said. What matters is serving God's people, whether or not they're in the pews.
"Do not insist on privilege or entitlement. Insist on being one who serves," he said.
What churches should aim for on Easter and throughout the year is authenticity, not flashiness, said Flory and McClure. People seek depth, not empty gestures.
"Pastors or churches need to be authentically who they are and not try to put on a show to bring people in, because people are really good at sniffing that out," Flory said. "Be authentically who you are and let the chips fall where they may."
As the Very Rev. Doherty put it, it's not a pastor's job to try to make the Bible more appealing.
"The gospel doesn't need any help from our end," he said. "You don't need to mix it with any advertising."
You do, however, need to share it with people, which doesn't happen enough outside of church on Sunday, the Rev. Myers-Tegeder said.
"We do have to make an effort to get the good news out to people. We can't just sit here and celebrate with ourselves every week. That's not what the church is called to do," she said.
For Burge, who is an American Baptist pastor in addition to a religion researcher, data on the rise of religious nones is both troubling and comforting. Depressing trend lines help him put the struggles of his small church in Mount Vernon, Illinois, in perspective.31 comments on this story
"In some odd way it gives me some comfort because I know what's happening to me in my church is not really my fault. We're caught up in some much more seismic religious change in America," he said.
Amid religious disruption, he's certainly striving to give great sermons and attract new church members. But he's also thankful to serve people already in the pews.
"I've come to understand that my place in this world is with these 15 or 20 people" in the congregation, he said. "They need a pastor who knows them, cares about them, loves them and gives them the honor and glory they deserve."