People ask me why one leaves a church or, more specifically, our church. This would be the answer which would win one the Christian Nobel Peace Prize, if there were such a thing. Yet, the question is all the while quite valid and reflective. I would like to make some contemplative suggestions in defining an answer.
Number one: Our sub-culture. Now it is quite fashionable to find fault with our culture as it feels stylish to level an indictment against something so ill-defined. However, in this one case, the culture has had a persuasive effect. What I am referring to is the culture that sets the consumer up as the ultimate determinate of quality, success, and viability. It is the patron who writes the review as to the superiority of service or whether wants were anticipated or how well needs were met. Businesses have instructional classes for their employees on how to bolster consumer scorecards. The buyer has the power and is thus the “god” of all transactions. Unfortunately, business dogma becomes church dogma: “Just remember, the customer is always right.”
To our decline, this mentality has become the adopted criteria for ranking churches. “What programs do they have for my family or my children? What policies are in place for the destitute? What are the protocols for child safety? What are you doing for me?” Contrary to the tenor of Scripture, the threesome of “me, myself and I” become an earthly and unholy trinity that demands all others bow to my whims and whistles. The God of heaven thinks and believes in the opposite direction for He actually emptied Himself of all claims for homage and took the human station which ranks at the lowest rung of society (Phil 2:6-7). Yet, a church is held to the same philosophical standards as is a restaurant or a hospital or a hotel. The Christian today either wittingly or unwittingly demands “church to impress them or I will vote with my feet and leave.” As the dominos fall, church leadership acquiesce to compete for each other’s audiences by ever-expanding, super impressive venues of lights and sounds or mesmerizing sermon exhibitions or hipster lobby coffee bars. When the church business plan has run its course, all that is left is an empty shell of a burned-out business model, but no Bride filled with His Spirit. This is hardly the church as depicted in the New Testament. The Christian consumer sets one’s self up as a moving target that cannot be satisfied. Churches simply cannot keep up with the hype.
The Bible uses familial terms, such as father or mother or brother or sister, more than any other to describe its people. Families, real families, come with problems and differing levels of development. Kids do spill milk and babies have diapers that need to be changed.
The second suggestion aimed at answering, “why do people leave” is rooted in the first suggestion: One’s expectations.
The church-goer is searching for an organization that provides the latest and the greatest of Christian gadgetry and gala events. They are looking for the best cut of steak each time and every time. Failure here means that you really are not a five-star church. You are only a three-star establishment and one will not spend one’s money on what is not the best. However, I submit to you the wisdom of only eating highly-rated cuisine is not only unsustainable, but it also is simply not reality. These expectations utilize the wrong barometer. What church life really is, is a family. The Bible uses familial terms, such as father or mother or brother or sister, more than any other to describe its people. Families, real families, come with problems and differing levels of development. Kids do spill milk and babies have diapers that need to be changed. This is true for a family on Elm Street and equally true for the church family on “Saint Street.” Parents gladly listen to the struggling dissonant sounds of their child at the school recital. In contrast, we in the pew have no patience for the Christian kindergartner making discordant tones while playing their gifted instrument of service. We have lost the worth and attraction of what it means to be a family and cheering each other on and watching each other learn to crawl, then walk, then run, then ride a bike, and then run the race like an athlete of God. This is a process that takes longer and has more twists and turns and is full of tear laden failures. Yet its advantage is that it links believers together with inseparable bonds of love. It is by this family unit that our souls become welded as one. Is this not the end goal of Christ’s prayer: “That they may be one as we are one?” (Jn 17:22). Is this not the intimacy that the current day Christian is craving? We are blinded to the family unit designed to cultivate such loving harmony.
The third contributor to church going departures is a fatal assumption. The Christian today makes conjecture that newer is better.
“Tradition,” thus by definition is obsolete and unable to keep pace with the ever-improving lifestyle that the present-day Christian sports. As a result, “what we have always done” becomes a stench to the nostrils of the young and the restless. Such a presumption has all the wrappings of progressive theory but has the stress fractures of short sidedness and immaturity. I have rarely heard this philosophy ask the next logical question: “Why did this tradition come about anyway?” The truth is that most long-term practices began as wise reactions to ancient problems which share the same roots as problems of today. If a causal church-goer would force oneself to look beyond the superficial and ask this same question, then I believe such a person might find the greener grass is not so green. The chances are that a tradition identified as archaic may actually be the kernel that breeds an alternative tradition for the upcoming generation. After all, there is a high probability that what you see as tradition started for very good reasons. Just because one challenges the older, does not make it wiser.
I believe this type of scrutiny will yield far richer results than simply looking for other church grasses that have a prettier shade of green.
The consequences of the above leads the average church-goer to hold it better to be served than to serve. This philosophy is the precise opposite of Christ’s: “I did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45). We end up with more spectators than we do participants. The spectators sincerely believe they are doing their part by spectating and the participants are overwhelmed at the scope of family care. We falsely believe that the way to growth is increasing the percentage of spectators. The Word of God brings a lightening jolt on this one: It is only as each person does his or her active share, that true growth will come from God (Eph 4:16). Bonafide God-driven growth is not via a stealth program to increase people nor contributions. Who will be the adults and roll up their sleeves, get their elbows dirty, and become spiritual caregivers as opposed to fleshly care-observers? If the “missing link” is discovered by your eye, then why are you not looking to resolve the deficiency rather than telling the leadership to fix it?
So, have I qualified for the Christian Noble Peace Prize? Most likely not, but rather raised the ire of the reader. This is not my intention. May I ask you at least, to begin a careful analysis of yourself in the mirror of God’s word. Does the sub-culture of making consumer reviews dominate one’s estimate of a church? Do undone expectations trample the motif of a growing and evolving family? Has the assumption that a tradition is archaic blinded you to its intrinsic worth? Finally, have you slipped from participating to spectating while waiting to be served?
I believe this type of scrutiny will yield far richer results than simply looking for other church grasses that have a prettier shade of green. In any case, we have some grass to chew on. This is not a blogger’s moment to sound alarms and vent apprehensions. Rather, this is time for conscientious questioning by each one about their heart condition in the presence of the Great Physician’s private exam room. Have you lately asked Him His opinion about your version of “doing church?” Possibly, you are afraid to ask the question and hear His diagnosis.
By Steve Price