Much has been written lately about an apparent upward trend of people choosing to leave church. Last week, Christian Platt posted a number of reasons why he thinks younger adults quit church on Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians website. Author/blogger Rachel Held Evans responded with 15 reasons of her own for why she left the fundamentalist church of her youth. Time Magazine is among many media outlets noting that people who respond “none” for religious affiliation when taking surveys is up to 16 percent, about twice what it was 20 years ago. When Jeff Bethke posted a YouTube screed against organized religion (though in favor of Jesus), it drew more than 20 million views.
That’s just skimming the surface of recent observations on the subject. There are books, videos, network documentaries, all playing up what seems to be an alarming trend of people distancing themselves from organized religion. You can Google them if you want.
I am wondering if more people are actually leaving church, however, or if the real story is simply that more people are wiling to admit it because it’s now considered cool to forsake the pews.
I grew up in a church that had more than 300 members but I rarely saw more than 125 of them at any one time. Almost 40 years ago, when I had just begun work as a pastor, I was called to a church with about 150 members, but was lucky to have 40 present on Sunday. The next several churches I served were of varying sizes, but with similar proportions: on average, about two-thirds of the official membership existed mainly on paper. The only church I served that had more in attendance than on the rolls was a mission church, too young to have accumulated a lot of members who would later go AWOL.
People have been dropping out of church for a long time, and for many of the same reasons being cited today: My feelings were hurt (always a good excuse, and easy to come by). The liturgy/music/sermon was poorly done/boring/too long (choose as many as desired). The offering plate came around with annoying consistency. The services or programs didn’t relate to me. They wanted me to teach a class/be on a committee/help maintain the grounds (take your choice). The new preacher just wasn’t as good as the old preacher. Sunday morning church interferes with sleeping late/the kid’s soccer or hockey schedule/training for the next half-marathon (again, choose one or more).
Any of us can list a dozen reasons for leaving church — or at least, for leaving a particular church. But you can’t expect a progressive-minded Christian to be happy in a fundamentalist church, or vice-versa. And you can’t expect any pastor and worship team, no matter how conscientious they are, to hit the spiritual nail on the head every week. And you can’t expect the church to be there when you want it — for Christmas and Easter, weddings and funerals — without the ongoing financial and volunteer support of its members.
The bottom line for many who’ve abandoned the church, I think, is grounded in the same old temptation to serve ourselves instead of God and others. If I don’t go to church, I’m not challenged to love others as myself, to contribute my tithe, to volunteer my time. Instead, I get to focus my attention, time, and money on me, myself, and I — while affirming that I’m still spiritual, just not religious.
One of the primary bonds still holding many people to church is a sense of community. People who think of church as a family of faith where they belong — where they feel both supported and needed — tend to stay involved. When that sense of family is ruptured, though, whether by conflict or a geographical move or a challenging new stage in life, attending church holds less appeal and all those reasons for leaving come into play.
These dynamics haven’t changed significantly in the past 50 years. If anything, the rise of contemporary worship and alternate times/methods of worship has sought to provide more options and communities in which believers might find a home that fits their changing lifestyles.
I do think there has been a shift in our views toward organized religion in general. Highly publicized sexual scandals involving priests or pastors, denominational statements suggesting intolerance, and pontificating politicians clothed in religious robes have scarred the face of organized religion. This, however, has just provided one more low-hanging excuse for people to leave the church behind rather than trying to make it better.
So I’m wondering, then, if the much-remarked trend toward leaving church is a practical reality so much as a reflection of a culture that gives people permission to admit they’ve dropped out, and even to be proud of it.
I’m also wondering what you think … Comments welcome.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.