David Gibson says a new study about to be published by Notre Dame finds that the church most Catholics who have left Rome in the wake of the sex abuse scandal have turned up in is … the Baptist Church. According to the Notre Dame press release:
The study by [economist Dan] Hungerman, Stepan Family Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame, shows a 2 million member drop in the Catholic population following the sex-abuse scandal and more than $3 billion in donations to non-Catholic faiths, with Baptist churches showing the most significant gains.
The full study will be out next week, so we’ll be able to look at the methodology. But this is surprising. The Baptists?! They’re pretty far from Roman Catholicism in some important ways. Hungerman speculates that it could be a case of angry ex-Catholics seeking to “punish” their old church by going to the opposite extreme. Gibson isn’t so sure:
I’d opt for the mundane explanation — location, good Sunday School, lively services. Those things seem to attract Americans as much as scandals, political involvement, and treatment of women and gays, e.g., repel them.
American religions operate in a marketplace, like everything in the U.S., and such shifts happen when brand loyalty doesn’t matter so much, and the experience of faith is more important than the content of beliefs.
When I was a kid, I was so jealous of the kids at First Baptist. They had a youth minister, which was a really exotic thing to us. He was so great with kids. I did some youth activities with the Baptists under his direction, and I couldn’t believe church could be so serious but also so much fun. There was a spirit among the Baptists in our town that was so special. Places change and churches change, so I don’t know if things are the same for anybody in my hometown, where I haven’t lived for decades. But I’ve always had good feelings about Baptists out of my childhood.
By the way, I just looked up that youth minister, who moved on after a couple of years, to see where he’d turned up. Wow, go Facebook! We’re all 30 years older now; I hadn’t seen his face since at least 1980, and maybe earlier. I bet that man has been a blessing in every church he’s served since.
Anyway, back to the study. Assuming the Notre Dame economist’s numbers are correct, how would you explain this puzzling result? You could see frustrated Catholics leaving for the Episcopal Church, or the Orthodox Church, or maybe a high Lutheran Church, simply because those services are so much closer to what they’re used to. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. I suspect David Gibson’s got it right, and I would add this too: Baptists tend to have great preaching. Catholics do not. Maybe converts are simply getting excited by pastors who explain the Bible in ways they can relate to, and get excited about.
Your thoughts? Catholics? Baptists? Former Catholics? Former Baptists? What do you think? Please be thoughtful when you post. Be analytical, but please don’t elevate your own tradition by putting somebody else’s down.