The Church Alumni Association is one of the largest organizations in the United States. Except that it isn’t really an organization. In fact, “disorganization” is a better word, if an adjective can be used as a noun. It consists of people who have disassociated themselves from a church or congregation.
There are many reasons people leave a church.
Some no longer believe what the church teaches, such as: God is three in One; or, Jesus is God incarnate; or even, God exists. Others no longer adhere to the ethical expectations of the church: forgive your enemies, tell the truth, do not commit adultery, etc.
A few are like the young man who had been active in our church but stopped at my home a few years ago to announce: “I am quitting Jesus. It doesn’t work.” He dropped two boxes of books at my feet and walked away.
Many simply get too busy with other things, even good things such as family, education and community service. And there are people who must work two and three jobs just to pay the bills, which cuts down on the time available for church things.
Then there are those who do not feel welcome, such as the poor, housebound, homeless, mentally ill, and many convicted of crimes. Celebrities also find it difficult to attend worship without calling attention to themselves.
Many gay and lesbian people are also among those who once attended but quit, primarily because most churches employ some version of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” rhetoric, even though it is not always clear where one ends and the other begins.
Of course, church life can also wear down even a strong person. Churches often evaluate spiritual maturity by how many times a person attends church-sponsored events, which can fill a schedule—fast
Then there are the fights, personality conflicts and sheer pettiness of congregational life. People get weary, offended or outright disgusted by such things and conclude that church is bad for their emotional health. Pastors often feel this way: Some opt out of the ministry and a few give up church entirely.
Members of the Church Alumni Association find other times and places to cultivate their spiritual interests, often in very Christian ways. Television, radio and the World Wide Web are saturated with religious programming. Publishers put out thousands of books and recordings a year.
Church members and alumni alike testify that concerts and conferences frequently surpass weekly worship as a source of spiritual direction and inspiration.
Then there are organizations that harness the moral and spiritual energies of people without expecting attendance at weekly or daily meetings, like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and the Gideons.
When it comes to religion, congregational life is not, as they say, “the only game in town.”
However, twice a year many people in the Church Alumni Association attend what we might call reunions or homecomings. They show up in worship services during Christmas and Easter, filling sanctuaries and sometimes even offering plates. Regular church members kindly greet some as acquaintances and welcome others as strangers.
I attended a Christmas Eve service with my parents. The sanctuary was full. I knew no one. I looked around and wondered how many are members of the Alumni Association.
Regular church people can be critical of those who show up this way. Sometimes we say snide things to them or about them. I once heard a pastor say “Merry Christmas” to his Easter Sunday congregation! This is rude even if it is a well-intended effort to entice them back to church. It rarely works.
Christmas is bigger than church. In fact, it is a powerful way spiritual things permeate our culture. That’s why many church alumni use these holy days to reconnect (however cautiously and even tenuously) with a church.
More importantly, joining us to raise the lit candle and sing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” reaffirms faith in God and faith in the One who was born for our salvation—especially when the world outside seems neither calm nor bright.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.