BOSTON — Talk of a "spiritual awakening" is sweeping America. Indeed, book sales on the soul are rising off the charts. Suburban "megachurches" fill with thousands of seekers. Men meet in football stadiums to repent. TV shows touch on angels. Newspapers start religion beats. Polls say 90 percent of Americans believe in God, and 45 percent go to church every Sunday.
So churches must be brimming with members, right?
Not so. Even at a time of spiritual hungering, America stubbornly continues to experience a decline of churches as keepers of the spiritual flame.
"Interest in spirituality is up," says Kirk Hadaway, chief statistician for the United Church of Christ in Cleveland. "But active participation in a faith community or institution is dropping."
Titles of new scholarly books give a taste of the story: "The Empty Church," "Reclaiming the Church," "The Crisis in the Church: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woes." In fact, the number of people who participate in churches, keeping them alive through daily or weekly attendance, appears to be down - though a majority of Americans claim a religion either by birth or by being listed on a membership roster.
The longstanding decline in church participation may have an unforeseen cost. Many faithful warn that the idea of church as a vestibule for spiritual growth is slowly being erased from the collective memory. Churches and houses of worship have long emphasized commitment and discipline, values that may seem out of step with the commercialism and instant gratification of today's society.
"Religiously speaking, our society today is good at evangelism but bad at discipleship," says the Rev. Mike Regele, a Presbyterian minister and director of Percept Inc., a church consultancy in Costa Mesa, Calif. "A deeper sense of purpose and meaning comes out of a community where people are faithful over a period of time. That's missing."
"The idea of a firm commitment to church as a precondition to Christianity is no longer a lesson that is taught. Yet it is indispensable to the survival of faith," argues University of Wisconsin scholar Thomas Reeves.
Currently, new independent churches (those with no denominational affiliation) are the fastest growing sector. This includes evangelical megachurches, which attract as many as 15,000 members, many of them younger people who like a contemporary worship style that features popular music. Non-mainstream faiths like Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, are also growing.
Yet churches are still marginalized in US society, compared with earlier eras. This can be attributed partly to a loss of church members through attrition or disinterest. It can also be partly attributed to larger cultural forces - from secular sensibilities to on-the-rise materialism - that are hostile to spiritual faith.
Dr. Regele estimates it will take 500 new megachurches of some 12,000 members each year just to "make up the annual loss of faith involvement we are seeing."
"The evidence is that a lot of people who drop out of church are not going some place else," says Lauren Mead of the Alban Institute, a church consulting group in Maryland. "There's a myth that all our kids are heading down the street to the megachurches. I don't see it."
Mainline churches have lost one-fourth of their members in the past 30 years. Some 48 percent of Episcopalian children leave the church at age 18. Since 1965, the Methodist Church, to use the most dramatic example, has lost nearly 1,000 members a week, down to 8.5 million in the 1994 count (making it "the largest exodus in religious history," according to Dr. Reeves).
Even the Gallup poll's glowing numbers are soundly challenged. When Dr. Hadaway of the UCC church, for example, heard a Gallup statistic several years ago that between 40 and 45 percent of Americans attend church weekly, he just had a "gut feeling" it was wrong. He and a research team went to a small Ohio county and counted cars in the parking lot in every Protestant church over a period of several months.
His finding: Americans overreport their actual church attendance by a marked degree. Actual attendance is closer to 24 percent, Hadaway states, and is falling slowly. In two separate studies on Roman Catholics, he found an even greater disparity between the numbers reported and actual attendance.
"We think attendance has dropped, but that the decline is masked by people who honestly want to see themselves as active religiously," Hadaway states. "In fact, the reality doesn't fit what they are doing, or with their image of what they do."
In a soon-to-be-published abstract in the American Sociological Review, Hadaway answers criticisms of his method and adds new evidence for his claim. In a 1996 study of a Sunday school at a large Southern church, Hadaway compared attendance records with what parents said in telephone interviews about their children's Sunday school attendance. His finding: 40 percent of parents who said their children were in Sunday school the week before were wrong.
How churches are changing
"I worry a little about the naysayers who think churches are nearly dead," says leading religious sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University in New Jersey. "If things aren't rosy, it may be because they never were very rosy. Having said that, I think there is a qualitative change in our churches. They are less tied to families and neighborhoods, less certain about their doctrine, and more modeled on a consumer market where people shop for a spiritual life."
Mr. Wuthnow estimates only 5 percent of the US population is actively engaged in prayer or devotional practice on a daily basis, a figure drawn from his forthcoming book, "After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since 1950."
Other causes range from the mundane to the profound. There's the continued de-sacralization of the Sabbath: Some schools now hold football practice on Sunday, and an increasing number of shopping malls are open Sunday mornings.
At a deeper level, society's faith in physical sciences is more entrenched than ever - as an explanation for everything from the origin of the universe to human behavior and health. Moreover, popular culture is often linked to a "post-modern" spirit of the age - one in which ideas of right and wrong and moral sense are simply choices individuals make.
"We had a reporter recently call to ask if genocide could be categorized as something 'wrong,' " says John Seel of the Postmodernism Project at the University of Virginia. "What you see these days is a total lack of any authority in intellectual life. Everything is just OK as long as you think it is. That's bound to undercut claims of moral or spiritual truth, a claim churches want to make."