The Easter Weekend edition of USA Today had a front page story on religious “reverts.” It explored the current push of various religious groups, including Jews and Christians, to reach out to a large and growing demographic. That demographic consists of millions of people who have left organized religion over the last two decades. The article told the story of people, ranging from cradle Catholics to former-Southern Baptists, who have come home.
For all that the article revealed about people who are on their way back this sentence said it all: “Then (referring to the reverts), unlike most, they came back.” Simply put the stories of reverts make an interesting narrative but the numbers of such reverts is still small. Very few people who leave the religion of their childhood ever return to it.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life noted that more than half of all Americans say they have switched religions at least once. Only 9% of them say that they’ve come back to the churches or religious centers that shaped them, or maybe I should say never shaped them.
The interesting thing here is how much energy and money various groups are pouring into trying to regain these former members. Catholic churches have seemingly done the most with their “Catholics Come Home” effort. While this effort is well conceived and very professionally produced it seems to have born limited results so far. Mark Gray, a Catholic political scientist, says that it is not clear if those who have come back will really stay, at least not yet. He notes that the Catholic share of the population still remains at 25%.
So what makes reverts stay, so far as we can tell at the present moment? At St. Bede’s, a Catholic mega-church of 3,700 families in Williamsburg, Virginia, it is a seven-week program called “Welcome Home” that seems to bear the most fruit. This class is specifically designed to answer the questions that reverts have. The intention is to calm their concerns about what has kept them away from the church. The program seeks to intentionally draw them back into the life of the parish, not just to return to Mass on Sundays. Education and evangelization are central to this approach.
One clear trend is clearly at the center of the narrative accounts of these reverts. Family is very important, both that of their past and their present. This is not surprising. Could the growing breakup of the family prompt many to search for faith and discover the church again? It is possible. I am just not sure that the numbers strongly reflect a major movement quite yet. I pray this will be so but right now most of those who were churched, and left, are not coming back. It seems to me that the harder work for the church will be to reach those who were never churched at all, which is increasingly a very large percentage of younger Americans.