You probably remember the parable Jesus told about the man who prepared a great feast for his family, friends and neighbors. When all was ready, he sent his servants to gather the invited guests. They refused to come, however, each offering an excuse: one had to check-out a new field he had purchased; another had to test-drive some new oxen; a third had just married and wanted to stay home with his bride. The master of the house then ordered other strangers to be invited so that his house would be filled and the banquet not wasted. (Cf. Lk 14:15-24)
I thought of that parable recently when I came across a newspaper article that described the religious practices of older Americans, those 45 and above. More specifically, the article explored why people lose their faith and, presumably, quit their churches.
Fifty-eight percent said they lost their faith because of the hypocrisy of other worshippers. Fifty-seven percent pointed to the misbehavior of religious leaders. Thirty-nine percent said they quit because their church placed too much emphasis on money; and 18 percent said there were too many rules.
Now I suppose that there's some validity in the reasons offered by the dropouts. After all, it is possible to be scandalized by the inappropriate behavior of church leaders or members of the congregation, and too much emphasis on money and rules can deflate any community.
But notice that the reasons given by those who lost their faith focus on the behavior of others without any commitment to self-examination. I'm reminded of the words of Jesus: "Stop judging that you may not be judged.... Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?" (Mt 7:1,3)
The people who have abandoned their faith are like those in the parable who refused to attend the banquet. But do they have legitimate reasons or self-serving excuses? And is it possible that people quit their churches for "reasons" other than those in the newspaper survey?
For starters, how about laziness? I suspect that some people abandon their faith simply because they don't have the energy to attend services on Sunday morning or participate in other programs offered by their churches. It's much more comfortable to stay home, lounge in bed, drink coffee, read the paper and watch television, isn't it?
I'll bet that some people quit their churches because they have a guilty conscience. They're probably the same people who claim their churches have "too many rules." But is the problem "too many rules" or the fact that apathetic individuals don't like being challenged by the teachings of Christ, some of which are very hard?
Some people lose their faith because they're in love with the world and the easy road it offers. Their lives are directed by the ungodly trio of materialism, hedonism and atheism rather than the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. They're professionals in their own secular endeavors but rank amateurs in the life of the spirit.
And, without a doubt, some people abandon their faith because God isn't very important to them. They attend church on Christmas and Easter but not at other times of the year. They see God as a safety net and turn to Him in times of national emergency or personal crisis, but rarely in other moments in their lives. Religious faith for them is a personal convenience rather than a fundamental commitment.
Laziness, a guilty conscience, secular values, and practical atheism - these aren't the convenient excuses people usually cite for losing their faith, but they are the real reasons, aren't they?
During our recent pilgrimage to Mexico, we visited a beautiful church that had an especially interesting pulpit. Among the ornate decorations of the formidable pulpit were several mirrors that ringed its circumference. Our tour guide mentioned that it's not unusual to see mirrors used that way in Mexican churches and explained that the purpose is to remind people that whenever they hear the Word of God, they should be looking at themselves, not others.
That's not a bad habit for Christians to develop. If you tend to criticize the sins of your pastors and misbehavior of your neighbor, look into the mirror. If you find the demands of the Church or the teachings of Christ too challenging, look into the mirror. And if you've drifted away from God and find that He's no longer part of your life, look into the mirror.
Some in-depth mirror gazing will go a long way in purifying the Church and making it a more attractive home for others.
(This article was previously published in "The Catholic Exponent".)