What can the Church Learn from Blockbuster?

by Josh Packard, Ph.D., NCEA Executive Vice President of Strategy and Operations [email protected]

In 1995, if you looked at movie rentals and ticket sales at theaters, you’d have a pretty good sense of how much people were interested in movies. But if you looked at those same two metrics today, you’d come to the conclusion that in the past 25 years people had really started to hate watching movies and that maybe movie watching was just a fad that eventually ran its course before going the way of the dodo bird.

But that would be the wrong conclusion, of course. The reality is that today people consume just as many if not more movies than they ever have. The market research firm Statista found that in 2021, during the pandemic, nearly one-third of 18-44 year-olds watched movies every day1! Of course they weren’t going to theaters, they were streaming. The decline of ticket sales and rentals isn’t because we stopped watching movies, it’s simply that we’re watching movies in different ways than we used to, and traditional metrics like ticket sales and rental revenue don’t capture the full picture anymore.

This is sort of how it works with the world of religion. For the longest time we relied on just a handful of key indicators to tell us how interested people were in church. We tracked statistics like attendance, giving and membership to drive our assessment of overall religiosity. Many of us still do.

And when we compare those numbers today versus 30, 40 or 50 years ago, what we find is alarming.

  • In the 1950s just over 70% of Americans were members of a local congregation. Today that number is around 45%2.
  • People with no religious affiliation (aka, “Nones”) made up 5% of the population in the 1970s and account for 30% of the adult population today and well over one-third of Gen Z. At the same time, people who identified as “Christian” held steady around 90% of population throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but it now sits around 65%3.
  • Donations to congregations and religious organizations, which accounted for nearly 60% of all charitable giving in the early 1980s, now makes up just 27% of donations according to Giving USA4.

None of this happened overnight. Just as the shift from theaters to rentals to streaming wasn’t like flipping a light switch, the move away from institutional religion has not been abrupt. Instead, it’s been a steady softening5. Every year, the traditional metrics of religiosity show just a little bit more erosion. The result, over time, is something of a crisis for institutional religion.

With all of that in mind, it becomes clear that the problem with using the old measures is not just that we incorrectly assess people’s religiosity. The real problem is that it sends us in the wrong direction for action. As the old adage goes, “That which gets measured, gets managed.”

When we focus on membership, attendance or affiliation as the sole or primary indicators of belief, we end up focusing our actions on those numbers. We focus on getting people to join or show up or identify, when we probably should be focused on their relationship with God. When we leap from a number to a conclusion without stopping to think about whether we’ve got the right number in the first place, we are in grave danger of spending a lot of time, energy and other resources going in the wrong direction.

The old metrics have lost their utility because they are primarily markers of institutional connection, not personal religiosity. Think about it for just a second. Affiliation is about whether you’re willing to align yourself and your identity with a religious institution, not about whether you believe in God. Attendance is about whether and how often you participate in the gatherings designated by the institution, not about how often you interact with the divine. Membership is an indicator of whether you’re willing to make a long-term commitment to a local expression of the institutional Church, not about whether you find yourself longing to participate in a community of people exploring the sacred.

Young people today have demonstrated that their religiosity cannot be adequately captured by these institutional measures. But critically, their movement away from institutional identities does not mean that they are less interested in God.

If we really want to understand what animates young people around faith, religion and spirituality, it is imperative that we take a relational approach. We must get to know them before we do anything else. They are simply not going to accept and internalize pre-packaged understandings of God in the same way that previous generations once did.

At NCEA 2024, we’ll be unveiling some listening exercises designed specifically for Catholic educators. You’ll hear directly from a group of young people about the importance of adults who listen, and you will find new ways of connecting with young people in relational ways that are the most critical for their faith formation. If we can combine the unparalleled care and devotion of Catholic educators with some of these strategies, we’ll have a good chance of nurturing the faith lives of generations to come.

  1. Statista. (n.d.). Frequency of watching movies via streaming in the U.S. as of February 2019, by age group. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/935493/movies-watching-streaming-frequency-us-by-age/ ↩︎
  2. Gallup, Inc. (2021). Church membership falls below majority for first time. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx ↩︎
  3. Pew Research Center. (2022). Modeling the future of religion in America. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/modeling-the-future-of-religion-in-america/ ↩︎
  4. Philanthropy Roundtable. (n.d.). Giving USA 2023: A conversation about faith and giving. Retrieved from https://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/giving-usa-2023-a-conversation-about-faith-and-giving/ ↩︎
  5. Chaves, M. (2017). American religion: Contemporary trends (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press. ↩︎