People are fleeing the institutional church and there should be no question as to why this exodus is happening. The vast majority of people who claim to represent God in the United States have been perpetuating a Biblical misconception that has been leading the church into decline for decades. That erroneous notion is Escapism Theology.
Escapism theology is the concept that humanity needs to get away from this mess we call Earth and go "home" to Heaven. I hear this kind of verbiage all of the time from church leaders almost everywhere. They say things like: "Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and reserve your place in Heaven."
Most will be dismayed by the fact that the popularization of Escapism Theology in the modern era was advanced by one of greatest Christian evangelists in history, the Rev. Billy Graham. Rev. Graham is well quoted as saying "My home is in Heaven. I'm just passing through this world." He is renowned for statements like: "The Bible says that as long as we are here on Earth, we are strangers in a foreign land. There are enemies to be conquered before we return home. This world is not our home; our citizenship is in Heaven."
The difficulty with quotes like these are that, while they are emotionally compelling and provide great media sound bites, they don't offer the bigger picture of the Biblical message. Generally speaking, most people are not going to question Rev. Graham's ability to lead people to Christ or his tremendous value to humanity. But we also know that God is an agent of reformation and redemption, and the church (made up of called people) is the object and catalyst of God's reforming and redeeming work in Jesus. As such it is pretty straightforward to believe that we Christians, to whom folks like Rev. Graham have faithfully passed the mantle of Christian stewardship on to, have a responsibility to evaluate what we are doing presently in order to continually strive to make things better via the grace of God. And upon such assessment it is clear that things are not going well with the institutional church in the United States and Europe.
That is because people have been led to believe that all they have to do is "accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior" and then they are "good to go" to Heaven. But the problem with this kind of thinking is that it isn't Biblical. And because we have perpetuated unbiblical theology for decades the church has effectively become spiritually impotent.
One of the problems with Escapism Theology is that it is an incomplete expression of humanity's future. Yes, the Bible says that there is a place called Heaven. But the existence of that place doesn't mean that humanity is called to flee the Earth. Instead we are called to participate in the redemptive purposes of Jesus to help redeem and renew the world, in Jesus' own words "on Earth as it is in Heaven." The end game of our participation in these redemptive purposes, from a Biblical perspective, is that it will bring about the creation of a new Heaven and a new Earth in Christ that will intersect/interlock with one another.
Why does this matter? Because it means that instead of escaping from the world we are called to engage it. Our divine calling is literally to strive to make the world and all of humanity better with God's help. That means that we have to choose over and over, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, in every context, to open the gift of grace given by God to walk in the formational teachings of Jesus. Yes it is difficult, but the alternative, regardless of your religious background or belief, or lack thereof, is literally a living hell.
When we fall prey to Escapism Theology it opens up a bunch of excuses for humanity. It allows us to ignore how we care for the Earth because "it's all going to Hell in a hand basket" anyways. Escapism Theology implies that humanity isn't staying here so go ahead and pollute the atmosphere, pour oil and dump plastic into the oceans, cut down the rainforests, bring other forms of life to extinction, because this isn't our long term home "we're just passing through."
Escapism Theology reduces our relationship with God to transactional theology. When we ascribe to escapist notions our public witness to "accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior" is effectively reduced to us bargaining with God to "save us a spot." Such theology is nothing more than a works righteousness hangover disguised as grace.
Beyond this, Escapism Theology has bled into culture causing people to lose hope that there actually is a redeeming way forward. I've written about this previously in articles like — Stephen Hawking is wrong about the Future of the Earth. For instance, the late Professor Hawking believed that we need to make plans to flee the Earth because we are going to destroy ourselves using technology. People like Elon Musk are so worried about AI that he's literally reinvigorated the global space program so that we can one day escape to Mars.
To make things worse, much of the global church has embraced Escapism Theology instead of being God's agent of change and redemption in the world. The institutional church has, in many instances, retreated from engaging culture only to become a failed coping mechanism for people. Veiled in poor theology, much of the church has simply become an isolationist way for people to flee the harsh realities of the world while waiting to cash in their Jesus-ticket to Heaven.
The difficulty with this way of thinking is that, of all the ways that humans have to disengage reality, the church is not a good option of escape because that is the opposite what Christ created it to be. Consequently, being a poor alternative to other ritual forms of self-medication, and not living into its life-giving purpose, people quickly find alternatives to the church. When the church fails to articulate its divine purpose, people understandably leave in mass looking for other founts of ultimate meaning.
What is particularly interesting about this recent exodus though is that polling indicates that, even though people are leaving the institution of the church, they haven't stopped believing in God. They just properly understand that something isn't quite right. What they seem to intuitively know, but struggle to find the words to describe, is that when the church fails to engage the world and change it for the better, the church fails to be Christ's church.
Pastors like Billy Graham had the unique gift of gathering people together and convincing them to listen. He made the world sit up and take notice of humanity's rescuer Jesus. Now the time has come to pivot the larger body of the church from just intellectually confessing that we believe in Jesus to actually showing what it means to live out the formational teachings of Jesus.
In the modern technological age this task will take some creative thinking in context. It will require bold new approaches implementing time-honored virtues. It will take people willing to risk their comfort and security to work to make sure our tomorrow is better than our past. It will demand humanity work together to confront the realized Hell that so many people experience daily in the world.
But the Good News is that the end result is a goal worth pursuing. The end result is a future worth the risk. That is because, if we submit to live the teachings of Jesus, the end result will be an Earth that is heavenly and a humanity that is godly.