Quitting Church

Why People are Quitting Church

Affiliation with Christian congregations has fallen off rather sharply in recent years. Gallup reports that less than half of the American population is now connected to a church. These new statistics have drawn commentary from all quarters.

Southern Baptist Russell Moore, on his Moore to the Point blog wrote: “We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches. The presenting issue in this secularization is not scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism.”

Roman Catholic Ross Douthat, writing in his New York Times column, describes “institutional faith’s general weakness, its limited influence, its subordinate position to other personal affiliations, from partisanship to ethnic identity to sports or superhero fandom.” He notes “religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia…”

Professor, scholar, and pastor Ryan P. Burge has written a book about it: The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. I spoke with him about it in The Meetinghouse two weeks ago.

In chapter two of that book, Burge offers an answer to this question, “So why is all this happening?”  Here are his seven answers: secularization, the internet, politics, socialization, loss of trust, changes in family structure, and what social scientists call “social desirability bias.” He embraces a combination of the first three: secularization, the internet, and politics.

But I am not so sure.

The question of why people disengage from church life might very well be connected to why they engage in church life in the first place. As a theologian and a minister, I suspect the two are connected, but not in the way we might think.

Every person taken as an individual or as a member of a family will have some particular story about these things: a family tradition, a traumatic episode, a talented minister, even a significance romance. There are a million micro-causes to explain why people join a church and why people leave a church. And all of them may well be true and legitimate.

But it is the macro-causes that interest me, those sweeping, culture-wide conditions that impact all of us in ways that are profound but subtle, pervasive but unseen.

I don’t mean those that hang halfway in the heavens, higher than any individual narrative that motivates you or me but lower than the intellectual atmosphere that envelops all of us all the time. I put Dr. Burge’s seven suggestions in this intermediate state of explanation. They are, in the words of John Prine, half way there.

No, I am thinking of things bigger, broader, deeper, wider.

Here is the way I want to express it: Christianity, in particular (and religion in general), has failed to offer a comprehensive and compelling interpretation of human life on planet earth in the modern era.

We have responded inadequately and unconvincingly to the challenges brought to human society by these things:

  • Science, including the scientific study of the Bible and, more recently, global warming;
  • Race, especially its history and its perennial power to corrupt religion;
  • Gender (and its impact of religious leadership) and sex (and its role in human flourishing);
  • World religions, and how they relate to our own religion; and
  • World history, especially the whole notion of the End of the Age and the afterlife.

Some preachers, scholars, and theologians have done well in crafting a fresh vision of Christian faith (from the late Hans Kung to the very much alive Brian McLaren). But most have opted for short term skirmishes and an occasional victory, such as winning an election or “redeeming” a denomination. They have not framed a compelling interpretation of these things within an understanding of Christian history and ideas.

In other words, they (and we) have lost credibility as interpreters of human life.

Douthat is right: traditional interpretations of these things have failed to win the allegiance of the intelligentsia, even much of the Christian intelligentsia. This uneasiness has oozed into concentric circles of society including most of the churches. When this level of existential unease is prevalent, any ordinary controversy can push a person over the edge into unbelief (or at least into disconnection).

Which is what has happened.

People at all levels of belief are leaving, cutting loose, striking out for other shores in search of significance and wisdom. They will offer their own experience as an excuse; that is what I have called a micro-cause. It is true as far as it goes; but the real explanation is much bigger broader, deeper, wider.

And much more serious.

Finding a new pastor, or revising the liturgy, or launching a new ministry—these are inadequate responses to what surrounds us. We need prophets…like Moses, or Isaiah, or Paul, or even Jesus. We need help, for sure—a fresh word from the Lord.

Have you ever thought about quitting church?

Churches–all kinds of churches–are human organizations with all the problems that arise from our human frailties. People can be immature, petty, judgmental, and angry just as they can be kind, compassionate, creative, and attractive. In a church, we just have patience; we must forgive people; we must remember that we also are still growing into maturity as people, as believers. One of the first quotes from the Bible we learn as children is this: “Be kind, one to another!”

“Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”