Study ranks Providence-New Bedford area fourth-most 'post-Christian city in America'

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PROVIDENCE — A study released July 11 by The Barna Group rated America’s major metropolitan areas on residents’ engagement with the Christian faith and ranked the Providence-New Bedford area the fourth-most “post-Christian city in America” based on factors such as lack of belief in God, low attendance at church services and lack of active participation in church life.

The results were based on a survey of 76,505 adults across the United States conducted over a seven-year period ending in April 2016. To qualify as “post-Christian,” a survey respondent had to meet nine or more of 13 criteria, including factors like “do not believe in God,” “disagree that faith is important in their lives,” “have not prayed to God (in the last week)” and “have not donated money to a church (in the past year).”

Metropolitan areas were ranked by the percentage of respondents who qualified as “post-Christian,” with the Portland-Auburn, Maine, area leading the list at 57 percent, followed by Boston-Manchester at 56 percent, Albany-Schenectady-Troy, New York, at 54 percent and Providence-New Bedford at 53 percent. Last on the list of the 100 most “post-Christian” cities was Shreveport, Louisiana, at 12 percent.

In the Diocese of Providence, clergy responded to the survey results with both agreement and caution, saying the study confirmed what many priests have already observed regarding the decline of active participation in their own faith communities but emphasizing it must be read within context and in light of the activities of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island.

“The Barna report must be read with proper perspective,” said Father Timothy Reilly, chancellor for the Diocese of Providence. “The statistics seem to verify the current decline in the active practice of a life of faith within the U.S., especially here in the Northeast. Certainly, here in the Diocese of Providence we are all too aware of the alarming demographics and their consequences.”

While the survey by The Barna Group is not the first study of Christianity in the greater Providence area, it differs from previous studies in that it seeks to measure residents’ deeper commitment to and engagement with their church communities rather than their faith identity. A 2014 “Religious Landscape Study” by the Pew Center found that 72 percent of respondents in the Providence metropolitan area identified as Christian, a much higher number than the 47 percent considered Christian according to the metrics of The Barna Group.

However, this number included all respondents who listed a Christian denomination as their religion and did not consider factors like church attendance, the importance of faith in a person’s life and beliefs about God. A follow-up question in the Pew Center survey found that only 42 percent of total respondents in the Providence area considered religion “very important” in their lives and even fewer attended church services on a weekly basis, suggesting many of those who identified as Christian have limited engagement with their religious community.

Dr. Brandon Martinez serves as an assistant professor of sociology at Providence College, where he specializes in the study of religion. He told Rhode Island Catholic during a phone interview that sociologists often see a disparity between the number of people who identify with a religion and those who actively practice it, and that sociologists typically distinguish between a person’s belief, sense of belonging and behavior when trying to measure religious faith.

“How do you measure religiosity? There’s really no perfect answer to this,” he said. “There definitely is a disconnect between people who identify as Christian, but do they do things that we consider Christian?”

Dr. Martinez said he was glad to see the Barna study measuring actual religious practice, but cautioned some of the factors taken into account by the study, such as whether an individual was “born again,” were better suited to measure Evangelical Protestant Christianity than the population of a predominantly Catholic state. He suggested a future survey might take into account practices such as praying the rosary or going to confession to better gauge the Christian population of Rhode Island.

“It’s not that people aren’t Christian, they just have different acts or behaviors,” he said.

Father Robert Perron, pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Church, Providence, also offered a mixed response to the survey results. He said that while he often observes individuals within his community who have limited engagement with the Church, he is reluctant to describe these individuals as “post-Christian,” since many of them share a desire for Christ but lack opportunities to express it. For example, he frequently encounters individuals through hospital ministry who were not raised in a culture of attending Mass but, after witnessing the ministry for their loved ones and speaking with a priest, express interest in reengaging with the Church.

“Once they meet Christ in the sacraments, there’s almost like this conversion that goes on, and I use the opportunity to really be with them,” he said. “They really haven’t had an integration of Christ in the present moment and once they meet him, things go differently.”

Father Perron added that churches should view the decline in more traditional forms of engagement with the Catholic faith as an opportunity to reach out and evangelize in new areas if they hope to bring people back to active participation in the faith.

“I think lots of organizations are feeling the same pinch where people might say I affiliate with this group by name but I don’t get involved with it as much,” he said. “I think it’s more of a trend in society. We have to be in places where we weren’t before.”

Father Reilly also responded with a look toward the future, offering a realistic acknowledgment of the work ahead but reminding Catholics there are many signs of hope that the Church is alive and relevant, especially among young people.

“A balanced approach helps to remind us that, ultimately, the Lord is less concerned with polls, metrics and trends,” he said. “Individual conversions to the faith are happening every day, and they usually fly under the radar.”