They're Leaving in Droves?
The question, "Why are people leaving the church?" raises several issues critical to the health and life of the church, especially the church in North America.
Once possessing a "favored place at the community table" along with other community leaders, with portfolio and reputation to boot, the church in North America is now hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate. Further, the indifference toward the church by non-attenders and unbelievers has been a shock to the often insulated and isolated members of an all too often recalcitrant church. To make matters worse, most people in the church are clueless as to the reasons for this indifference.
Recent studies have recognized the difficulties facing the church in reaching a new generation of unbelievers and unchurched people. In a recent summary of his new book in the Lifeway publication Facts and Trends, Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, James E. White analyzes the challenge of reaching people who are, at best, indifferent to the church and seemingly unmoved by the message of the Gospel.
White notes ten characteristic of the "nones":
1) he is a he — women tend to be more open to spiritual things, while men are more skeptical, less committal;
2) he is young;
3) he is white, although a growing number of non-white persons are showing interest in religious traditions other than Christianity;
4) he is not necessarily an atheist — God, at best, is a universal spirit, a deist theological position;
5) he is not very religious — choosing not to identify with an organized, religious body, while, at the same time he considers himself spiritual;
6) he's most likely a Democrat;
7) he thinks abortion and same-gender marriage should be legal — thereby turning traditional definitions of marriage and family upside down and inside out;
8) he considers himself morally liberal to moderate at best;
9) he is not necessarily hostile toward religious institutions — institutions, he might say, too concerned with money and power; these institutions are non-essential; and,
10) he is more than likely a Westerner — someone located west of the Mississippi River.
White's analysis of the current religious terrain reflects the research by such respected institutions as Barna Research Group, Lifeway Research, and other reputable groups that analyze such data.
In sum, White said people are leaving the church because:
1) the church is too narrow-minded and unbending on moral issues;
2) the church is more interested in propping up the institution of the church rather than fulfilling the mission of the church;
3) the church is legalistic and not gracious and merciful enough;
4) the church has isolated itself from the lives of real people and is, therefore, disconnected from the reality of life;
5) the church is anti-intellectual, rejecting the claims of science and modernity;
6) the church is antiquated in its methodologies, methodologies that were effective at one time but are no longer essential and effective;
7) the church is not very warm and loving, failing to recognize people want intimate and personal settings for relationship building in order to work out their spiritual and personal issues, not systems that are large, cumbersome, and unwieldy — and the list could go on as to why people are leaving the church.
The church in North America is in trouble.
But Is That the Whole Story?
While I agree with many of the criticisms that are leveled at the church, I would like to look at the question — "Why are people leaving the church?" — from a different angle.
What troubles me most about this question is that the church is usually the one on trial rather than the motives of the unchurched and unbelieving. Why is the church always on trial? Why is the church always in question? Why are the motives of the church always under the spotlight and never the motives of the unbelieving community? It goes without saying that the church does put itself in the bulls-eye by claiming to have exclusive rights on the truth. Yet, is it fair to always blame the church? I think not.
I want to offer an alternative list of answers to the question — "Why are people leaving the church?" — that may explain the indifference many have to the church itself and the gospel she preaches.
1) People leave the church because the gospel way is truly narrow. "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Mt. 7:13-14). Why are we surprised when people decide not to enter the narrow way of salvation that leads to eternal life? To enter the narrow way means that we have to drop everything to follow Christ.
2) People leave the church because the gospel requires repentance and faith; the gospel is about turning away from sin/self and turning by faith to the Savior, a repentance and faith that is not about self-fulfillment or self-actualization. "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Cor. 7:10). Repentance requires self-denial, the very thing most sinners dislike. Faced with the call to repent, it is easy for the sinner to accuse the church of being narrow-minded and unloving when, in actuality, it is simply being true to the gospel message.
3) People leave the church because of the demands of holy living. While holiness can morph into legalism, it is also true that holiness is the by-product of the Spirit's work in the life of the believer. We are called to be holy (1 Pt. 1:16), to reflect the character of Jesus Christ as a by-product of the Spirit's work (Gal. 5:22ff.). The label of legalism is too easy of an accusation to be used against the church, especially when that charge is motivated by unholy people for unholy purposes. To be holy is critical to the Christian life. "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Heb. 12:14) Holiness doesn't mean isolation. Holiness means to be set apart for a special or specific purpose; it means to reflect the very character of God. One can be holy and be connected to real life at the same time. If holiness means isolation from the world then it has misunderstood the meaning of holiness.
4) People leave the church because they are not truly rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While many people give the appearance of "being saved" for a season; time and truth have a way of exposing the true nature of a person's profession of faith, a faith commitment that may be disingenuous and inauthentic, where the person "has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately falls away" (Mt. 13:21).
5) People leave the church because a "gospel-less commitment" is eventually overcome by "the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfaithful" (Mt. 13:22). They have no appetite for the things of God because their appetites for the world have not been curtailed or assuaged.
6) People leave the church because their understanding of the gospel does not comprehend the nature of gospel commitment, consecration, and endurance. As a result, many 'try out' Christianity to see if it works for them, without truly understanding the gospel, soon departing when they realize that the gospel is not all about "me" but about the Lordship of Jesus Christ: "Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us" (1 Jn. 2:18-19).
7) People leave the church because they love the world and their own lives more than they love Jesus Christ. They fail to understand that Christianity is not about self-fulfillment, self-actualization, or a some grandiose social project; instead, the gospel is not about making bad men good or good men better – Christianity is about making dead men live, about life transformation (Eph. 2:1-10; Rom. 12:1-2). Many people are O.K. with being God-centered so long a God is man-centered or me-centered. It is a hard thing to be radically God-centered. It is a shocking truth for many to discover that while God's gracious work for us and in us through Jesus Christ brings with it many benefits, in the end, all things are for God's glory, a glory he will not share with anyone (Isa. 48:11).
8) People leave the church because the church resists the desire for the individual to build a smorgasbord belief system, picking and choosing those things they like about Christianity and rejecting those truths about Christianity that may be less-desirable, on their way to constructing a personal theology that is more individualistic than biblical. This could be what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote these penetrating words to Timothy: "For the time will come when people will not endure sound teaching (doctrine), but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While there is great latitude for individual self-expression and giftedness, we are not allowed to make up our own theological or belief system or to separate out the things we like about Christianity from the things we don't like. Some people leave when they realize that there is a "faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), a faith that is the sum and substance of the Gospel itself and that cannot be substituted by a diminished or degraded Gospel.
9) Finally, people leave the church because they are unconverted. They need to be saved. Genuine salvation presupposes many of the aforementioned points.
While the church is not innocent when it comes to accounting for the many reasons people leave the church, it should also be said that those who leave the church carry with them a great degree of duplicity and guilt in this matter. The church is not solely to blame. In fact, we should not be surprised when people leave, especially those whose hearts have not been truly transformed by a well-articulated, well-understood Gospel that aims at redirecting the self from sin to the Savior, a turning that produces a level of commitment and consecration that can endure the challenges of living a holy life in an unholy world and the often ugly nature of a church that is all too imperfect.