Several years, ago, I never dreamed that my life would change in such a way that I would occasionally go to the health club on Sunday morning. If my Sunday responsibilities don’t begin until an 11:00 a.m. worship service, it is sometimes possible to go to a weight-lifting class at 9:00 a.m. and still get to church on time. I’ve finally gotten over the guilt and the friendly barbs from workout partners at the club: “Not going to church today, Laurie?”
I’ve also become intentional about observing and listening to what Sunday morning is like at the club. Clearly, people enjoy working out, camaraderie abounds, and a lot of intimate sharing and informal counseling goes on. People leave the club feeling happier and healthier than when they came: physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. These are good people: they’re my friends, and many of them are young adults. So why aren’t they in church?
According to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center, religious attendance in the United States fell from 41% in 1971 to 31% in 2002. Other pollsters indicate that church members routinely over-report their own church attendance and that the actual attendance percentage is far smaller. Evangelical pollster George Barna says that the number of unchurched people in our country is growing by one million a year. And in the April 2006 issue of Christianity Today, researcher Dave Olson wrote that a significantly smaller number of Americans “are participating in the most basic Christian practices: the weekly gathering for worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship.”
Julia Duin, religion editor for the Washington Times, published a provocative book last year called Quitting Church; Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It (Baker Book House). Duin was particularly interested in hearing from people who were regular worship attenders in the past but now feel disconnected, discouraged and disillusioned by church. If you are a clergy or lay person who has a passion for growing the church, making disciples of Jesus Christ, and understanding the disappointments, hopes, and dreams of the formerly churched, Quitting Church is a must-read.
Why are people quitting church? Because worship is boring, shallow and mediocre. Formerly churched people often lament poor quality and entertainment-oriented music, little evidence that worship leaders care about excellence, and a missing sense of the mystical and spiritual. Worship is often passive, without meaningful congregation participation, and devoid of a challenge to be spiritually transformed in service to the world.
Why are people giving up on church? Because preaching does not relate to the felt needs of parishioners. Pastors are perceived as being disconnected from reality because they do not openly address issues such as racism, sexism, unanswered prayer, suffering, chronic pain, forgiveness, grief, despair and injustice. When people leave church asking the question, “So what?” they head to the health club the next Sunday.
Why are people leaving church? Because they detect a lack of grace and a lack of God. A recentGallup survey revealed that only 15% of non-Christians have a good impression of Christianity. Moreover, 87% of teenagers say the church is too judgmental, and 85% say the church is too hypocritical. People don’t feel as if they can come to church “just as they are” and be accepted as children of God despite their problems. Duin surveyed a woman who summarized the plight of the church by claiming that Christians are not living out their call in Hebrews to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” “The church is not like Christ,” she added sadly.
Why are our most committed members moving on? Because the church is unhealthy, and many church leaders are spiritually immature. Many formerly churched people leave because they have outgrown their church. By not creating an intentional program of Christian education that challenges people at all levels of spiritual growth and provides opportunities to wrestle with significant theological issues, churches give in to the lowest common denominator. Conversation and spiritual depth is absent. Furthermore, churches often become mired in unhealthy patterns of communication, with more energy spent quelling internal squabbles than moving outside the church with hope and Holy Spirit power.
Why are churches declining? Because they have lost their focus. Many churches have decided, often by default, that maintenance is more important than mission. Funding a budget becomes more critical than creating transformational ministries that inspire people to give generously and sacrificially. Church growth is more about numbers than about creating community and a place to belong, nurturing the spiritual growth of disciples of Jesus Christ, empowering them to discover their gifts, then sending them out in risk-taking service.
Our youth and young adults are often the first ones to quit church. Denominational loyalty does not entice them to stick around if the health club provides more community, satisfaction, and wholeness than the church. They won’t stand for judgmentalism and exclusion. Nor will they wait 20 years until they are deemed “old enough” to be church leaders. Revival historian Andrew Strom writes, “New fads and programs come and go, but mediocrity and lack of God just seem to go on forever. And so quietly, sometimes without anyone even noticing, they slowly slip out the doors, never to return.”
Fortunately, there are some very exciting churches on the Grand Rapids District where no one’s thinking about quitting church. You can feel it as soon as you enter the building. There is an expectation that God is here, that something transformative will happen every Sunday, and that if you happen to miss that week, you’ll always be able to watch the service online. Why do people stay in churches?
- The promise of an encounter with God gives them a compelling reason to get up on Sunday morning.
- They find Jesus embodied everywhere, from the preacher to congregation members, to the people they serve.
- They are challenged to go deep: to think, struggle, learn and make a difference in the world.
- They are convinced that when the Holy Spirit is let loose, miracles happen all the time.
- People know that they can bring the broken pieces of their lives to church and receive grace, not judgment.
- The church reflects the diversity of our world.
- Church members are equipped to be self-feeders, nurture their own spiritual life, and be released for ministry.
Can our churches stop the exodus to the health club on Sunday morning?
Can we re-engage the faithful who have fled?
Can we recover the passion?
I believe we can.