Now you see them, now you don’t. The church is losing members faster than it can replace them. Some are newcomers to the faith who don’t stick, but others are lifelong members who quietly check out, leaving the church behind.

Common among these dropouts is disillusionment about the nature and practices of the institutional church. Some are worn out from trying to do it all. Others are tired of the unnecessary pain often inflicted by one church member upon another.

Repetitive waves of conflict mark many churches, and members grow tired of the drama and hateful actions of their fellow members. “Is this what Jesus intended the church would become?” they ask. Often they answer their own question by leaving.

Church leaders of all denominations are duly anxious about this exodus and desperately seek creative, attractive programs to hold attendance. What’s apparent is there is a steady parade of persons dropping out of the church but not leaving the faith. They are not leaving Jesus, but they are leaving the institution that bears his name.

Novelist Anne Rice could not have been clearer about that than she was in a recent blog: “Today I quit being a Christian.” Rice achieved great fame in the last quarter of the 20th century for her erotic “Vampire Chronicles” that inspired the current popularity of blood-sucking cable TV series and movies.

Five years ago, Rice publicly re-entered the Roman Catholic Church, and her work shifted away from the dark vampire themes to biblically inspired novels in order to henceforth “write only for the Lord.”

But the church’s demand that her faith include adoption of conservative church beliefs, such as denouncing gay rights, abortion rights and birth control along with an assortment of other right-wing social and political beliefs led her to reject the church with the following announcement:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being a part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Rice claimed she grew tired of the weight of the conservative Roman Catholic Church’s pressure to adopt social and cultural agendas she did not share. Additionally, the evangelical right adopted her as the poster-child for radical conversion.

Her rebuttal of them was direct and articulated in her new credo: “I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.”

Differentiating the Jesus of faith from the Christ of the historical institution of the church was sharply defined this spring in Philip Pullman’s gospel novel, “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.”

In recasting the traditional story of Jesus told in the four gospels of the Christian Scriptures, Pullman, a nonreligious writer known for “His Dark Materials,” imagines Mary having not one child, but twin boys. In Pullman’s alternative gospel, Jesus, the first-born, is strong and healthy. Christ is the second-born and sickly. Mary lays Jesus in the manger but wraps Christ in swaddling clothes out of pity for him.

Jesus grows up to be the one people follow as the pious and appealing one. Christ, on the other hand, is a more complex character: He is calculating and hopes the faith taught by Jesus might survive over time rather than disappearing with his anticipated death.

Jesus lives a vibrant life of love marked by his teachings that claim God is at work in history’s larger story. Christ lurks among the fringes of Jesus’ crowds and, more cautious than his famous twin, he’s committed to capturing the story so it can be properly nuanced and saved for history.

A shadowy figure known simply as “the stranger” is never clearly identified, but he succeeds in soliciting Christ, and together they plot a vision of institutional religion outlasting the lived faith of Jesus. In the end, Jesus is crucified and Christ is wrongly identified in the shadowy garden on Easter morning as the resurrected Jesus.

Separating Jesus from the church describes the exodus of disillusioned persons who formerly sat in church pews and served on ministry committees and worshipped and faithfully gave of their income as the church asked them to do – all supposedly done as signs of their faith. But faith must go deeper than maintaining the holy habits of membership in an institution bent primarily on sustaining itself.

Implied in this movement is the question at the heart of the church’s anxiety: Will the church survive?

To answer the question, one must reconsider Jesus’ words about wine and wineskins. Church membership numbers are declining across the country, yet there are signs of rebirth as younger believers are passionately refashioning the wineskin of the church. The new will necessarily supplant the old, and the new wine will faithfully live on.

Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He blogs at A Diner at the End of Time.

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