Trends of membership in religious groups seem to be down pretty much all around the world. Billions of people are living out their lives without any connection to a religious group. If survey results in our country can be believed, many people still practice religion in some form--the "spiritual but not religious" folks. That label betrays an individualistic bias. You don't have to be involved with other people to be "spiritual."
The question of the future viability of religion has been around ever since the days of the Enlightenment. "Secularization" is the label given by sociologists to the idea that religion will eventually disappear.
I keep coming back to the analogy with music. Recently I attended a performance of the Quincy Symphony, which featured young artists--high school age musicians. The symphony and its incredibly proficient young performers tell me that music is not likely to die out.
True, 99% of the people in Quincy were not present for that performance, but I'm sure a larger percentage of the 99% watched the recent televised Grammy awards, which reward musical excellence of a different kind.
Quality music requires professionals--people skilled both in performance and in support for performers. Without both performers and supporters, music languishes. As societies grow wealthier and more peaceful, the number of professionals and supporters grows. Music is not dying out.
Religious groups need professionals and supporters. The Catholic Church has prided itself on the quality of its leadership. It has prided itself too much. The sex abuse crisis is just one aspect of the failure of its leadership to address issues. Even more important is its failure to motivate people to become its leaders on the local level (priests). Maybe the present structure of leadership will have to dissolve into ashes before something new can arise. But something new will arise.
One theory is that religion appeals to people when everything else falls to pieces. I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled that the "religion of the gaps." Religion can only flourish when people are hurting. Perhaps the world will face disasters such as nuclear war or total environmental degradation, and then people will turn back to religion.
But religion can flourish without such dire conditions. With proper leadership, religious activity of all kinds can enrich life just as much as music. Religion does not need to control everything, nor does it need to convince everyone of a vision held by a particular group. I believe my Catholic vision reflects reality, and I look forward to dialog with other faiths in order to see what I can learn about how others see God working in the world. The proportion of the world's population that will be Catholic is God's problem. In the Gospel of Matthew (10:23), Jesus is quoted as saying: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. Amen, I say to you, you will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." This suggests that the followers of Jesus will never get universal coverage.
I want to share my vision of God's kingdom because that vision is life-giving, just as musicians want to share their vision about how music can enrich our lives. That is the proper motive for "evangelization." Evangelization gets a bad name when it turns into a tool for any kind of control.
We believe that Jesus Christ was God become human. Jesus didn't take over the world and get everyone to accept his vision of God's kingdom. Who are we to expect that we can do that?