Book: Lord, What Should I Do?

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Church is supposed to be a haven—a place where one can go for respite, nurturing and encouraging fellowship; a place where one can worship God in comfort and peace; a place where one can be inspired, taught the Scriptures, receive answers to life’s questions—and even be corrected. But for millions of Americans, attending church is a thing of the past. They are among the growing ranks of church “dropouts”—those who choose to stay home rather than waste time and energy on a church that, in their estimation, no longer represents Christ or that has ceased to be relevant in their lives. This “exodus of desperation” has been a long time in the making—and is accelerating at an alarming pace.

Currently the religion editor for The Washington Times, Julia Duin has spent much of her career researching this very phenomenon: Why do faithful churchgoers quit going to church? In her book Quitting Church, Duin points out that many churchgoers are skipping church. “It’s no secret that the percentage of Americans in church on any given Sunday is dropping fast” (p. 11).

How fast? For the past several years, Gallup polls have shown church attendance at around 43 percent. However, according to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002. That’s ten percentage points in 30 years.

Studies conducted in 2005 by sociologists suggest the average attendance is much lower, around 18 to 20 percent—half of what Gallup polls indicate. One of the researchers, Dave Olson, said in a report published in the April 2006 issue of Christianity Today that significantly fewer Americans are actually participating in traditional churchgoing practices. Moreover, growth measured in terms of new baptisms has slowed dramatically. Duin notes that most so-called church growth is “due to transfers from one church to another” (p. 12). From her perspective, the trend is undeniable: “evangelicals, for a variety of reasons, are heading out of church”—they are abandoning mega-churches for home-based mini-churches (p. 21).

According to an Associated Press report filed by journalist Tom Breen, older mainline Protestant churches across the nation are struggling to maintain their facilities due to shrinking budgets—a natural consequence of declining membership. In fact, many churches are losing their sanctuaries because they can no longer pay their mortgage debt. Since 2008, nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks—up from only eight during the previous two years. Some borrowed too much or built too big during boom times and now are under tremendous financial pressure. While rising unemployment and a weak economy are certainly part of the problem, the ongoing drop in church attendance is a major factor. As congregations shrink, so do contributions.

For example, Breen writes that the Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit was completed in 1926; at the time, it was the most expensive Methodist facility ever built. By 1949, it had just over 10,000 members, more than any Methodist congregation in the world. Today, he writes, “membership is at 375, in a city where Methodist churches have fallen from 77 to 16.”

Breen says the Detroit Methodist church’s decline is “mirrored among Protestant denominations like the Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, which have seen memberships drop in recent decades while the average age of remaining worshippers gets older.” He quotes Robert Jaeger, executive director of the Partnership for Sacred Places, who says that numerous mainline churches “have shrunk from 500 members to 100 members, or from 800 members to 200 members” (Breen, Congregations Struggle in Aging, Decaying Churches, July 17, 2010).

But mainstream denominations are not the only groups facing steep declines in attendance. Even the Sabbatarian Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) movement—with some 15 million members worldwide—is undergoing a mass exodus of unhappy churchgoers. According to the group’s own research, SDA membership in the United States alone has dropped some 40 percent over the past two decades—from about 750,000 to 450,000. Worldwide, nearly 1.4 million members left the SDA church from 2000 to 2005. Even worse, only 50 percent of those still “on the rolls” actually attend services. Studies indicate that 80 percent of former Adventists cite “doctrinal issues” as the reason for dropping out (Dr. Pieter Barkhuizen, “Let the Truth Set Us Free,” Biblical Research Perspectives; (no longer available on Scribd.com).

What’s behind all the empty pews? Why are people quitting church? Duin estimates that 78 million Protestants are church dropouts (p. 20). For them, Sunday mornings at church have become too boring or painful. “People are bored witless at church. Skipping a Sunday doesn’t distract from the quality of their week,” writes Duin. Why? “Church has nothing to do with their actual lives. What’s preached and talked about is irrelevant to their daily existence in the twenty-first century” (p. 32; emphasis added). Thus, “large groups of Christians are opting out of church because they find it impossible to stay” (p. 21). Moreover, evangelical pollster George Barna, founder of the influential Barna Group, estimates that the number of “unchurched” Americans is growing at the rate of about one million each year (p. 13). But as we will see, these dropouts have not suddenly become irreligious; rather, they are frustrated by the overall failure of the established church.

The Increasingly Irrelevant Church

A sad commentary on the ability of today’s churches to retain members is reflected in the aftermath of 9/11. Immediately following the terrorist attacks, churches became packed, spiking growth charts. Within a few months, however, attendance began dropping sharply as the “seekers” (as Duin calls them) fell away unimpressed (p. 13).

As a reporter covering religion in America, Duin writes that she has been amazed to witness the number of people who have dropped out of church. The most common complaint, she notes, was the banality of the church (p. 16). Churchgoers are tired of stale, “same old, same old” forms of worship; the spiritual gruel offered Sunday after Sunday has become unpalatable; they are troubled by the ongoing watering down of doctrine; and, they are concerned that many Christians, especially the younger ones, do not take the Bible seriously (particularly on issues such as divorce and premarital sex).

“The problem seems to be the [organized, established] church itself. Survey after survey says many Americans continue their private religious practices, such as reading the Bible, praying to God, and even sharing their faith in Jesus Christ. But they have given up on the institution” (p. 18; emphasis added). Duin says that many churches today are “seeker-friendly”—where services are kept not only short, but bland enough to ensure that newcomers will not feel pressured or uncomfortable (p. 16). But this does nothing for the Christian who is starving for substantive biblical teaching. For example, one church dropout wrote that “the local church has become its own culture—from mega-churches with creative marketing campaigns to Christian music, Christian books, Christian clothing, and even Christian weight-loss programs. These things, in and of themselves, are well and good—but they are no substitute for a fleshed-out faith” (p. 20; quoted from Christianity Today, March 2006).

In his book Your Jesus Is Too Safe, Jared Wilson challenges Christians to leave behind their drive-through, feel-good Jesus and embrace the true Christ. He argues that “no message has been more used and exploited and appropriated than Jesus Christ’s…. [No] historical figure has been more marginalized and commoditized than Jesus. For many today, He is a generic brand, a logo, a catchphrase, a pick-me-up” (p. 12). A good example is the “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) motto popularized by young churchgoers throughout the 1990s. The WWJD logo is still proudly displayed by thousands of youths on wristbands and bracelets. But how many young people really know (or even care) what Jesus would do in any given circumstance? Are kids today closer to God as a result of the WWJD marketing fad? As statistics will show, such campaigns are typically ineffective at bringing about real spiritual growth; in fact, worldliness continues to make serious inroads into the church, corrupting our youth. The reality is, clever, catchphrase “Jesus marketing” does not change people’s lives.

Wilson adds: “It’s no wonder the world doesn’t get Jesus, because we’ve spent decades selling a Jesus cast in our own image.” As a result, our popular Jesus “has inspired millions to say a prayer to get His forgiveness—and then go on living lives devoid of His presence…. In much of the church today, we worship a convenient Jesus. We designate Him as our ‘Lord and Savior,’ but this phrase tends to serve as merely a label that, in our superficially spiritual lives, belies His real function—our Great Example” (pp. 13-14; emphasis added). The bottom line is that Christianity’s popular bumper-sticker Jesus is just not relevant to the real problems and stresses people are facing.

The problem of irrelevancy extends even to a large group of unchurched young adults called millennials. According to Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Research, millennials—more than 78 million strong—are those born between 1980 and 2000. The group has already surpassed “Baby Boomers” as the larger and more influential generation in America. In his book The Millennials, Rainer describes the group as being keenly aware of the failings of Christianity. In particular they note that too many Christians have a “low commitment” to their faith, and they see churches as typically “inward focused”—which turns them off. Rainer’s research shows that an astounding 70 percent of millennials believe the church is one of the “least relevant institutions in society” (Michelle Vul, The Christian Post, Jan. 12, 2011; www.christianpost.com/article/20110112/few-millenials-interested-in-religion-study-finds/).

LifeWay Research has conducted numerous surveys in an effort to get a handle on why so many churchgoers are opting out of traditional services. Brad Waggoner, director of the organization’s research team, reported some of their findings in an article titled “LifeWay Surveys the Formerly Churched; Can the Church Close the Back Door?” (www.lifewayresearch.com). Waggoner writes that 37 percent of the “formerly churched” said they were “disenchanted with the pastor or church.” More specifically, such “disenchantment” was related to the following areas: 17 percent of those surveyed said church members were “hypocritical”; 17 percent said they were “judgmental of others”; 12 percent said the church was “run by a clique that discouraged involvement”; and 14 percent felt the church “was not helping [them] to develop spiritually.”

Duin and other researchers have discovered that many disillusioned churchgoers were facing difficult, trying circumstances in their personal lives when they decided to opt out. Some were in desperate need of real help. Their pastors, however, were useless at giving meaningful counsel. The corporate church had let them down. As a result, they were having trouble personally “connecting with God” (p. 22). Duin’s research suggests that many churchgoers are simply not being pastored. “Often ministers are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground … [and fail to address] the serious problems many [Christians] face.” It is no wonder, then, that many people are “no longer content to waste part of their Sundays on an institution that gives them nothing” (p. 23; emphasis added).

Waggoner also notes that pastors often fail to clearly articulate what God expects of Christians, causing them to eventually drop out of church. He quotes Greg Ogden’s book, Transforming Discipleship: “Christian leaders seem to be reluctant to [proclaim] the terms of discipleship that Jesus laid out. What are the reasons for our reluctance? We are afraid that if we ask too much, people will stop coming to our churches. Our operating assumption is that people will flee to the nearby ‘entertainment church’ [those with an emphasis on music, drama and praise-type services] if we ask them to give too much of themselves. So we start with a low bar and try to entice people by increments of commitment, hoping that we can raise the bar imperceptibly to the ultimate destination of discipleship” (emphasis added). Waggoner said it appears that some of the formerly churched left because the “destination” was too slow emerging.

A similar “out of church” phenomenon is occurring in other countries, such as the UK. According to a 2007 study conducted by the Tearfund organization, only 15 percent of the British population attends church regularly (“Churchgoing in the UK,” www.whychurch.org.uk/trends.php). Where are the remaining Brits? Thirty-three percent consider themselves to be non-Christians, and another 33 percent are what the study calls “de-churched”—those who claim to be Christians but choose not to attend church. The study pointed to “poor church experiences” as the main reason so many Brits are de-churched.

Likewise, in New Zealand, historian Andrew Strom notes that would-be churchgoers have been frustrated by a “lack of God.” He wrote: “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, [people] slowly slip out the doors, never to return” (Duin, p. 19). Ultimately, Duin has concluded that Christian leaders as a whole have no idea of the magnitude of the trend of opting out of organized religion (p. 19).

The bottom line: Americans are finding that church is simply no longer relevant to their lives. As Duin says, “what’s preached and taught is irrelevant to the questions on the ground” (p. 29). There is a disconnect between what is coming from the pulpit and people’s real lives. As one church dropout put it, “One reason churches don’t satisfy is that they don’t take the gospel seriously…. [They’re] not really helping [churchgoers] figure out how to live in a way that is glorifying to God in contemporary society” (p. 64).

The church, it seems, has conveniently ignored the raw realities of life. “They’re not preaching on real issues—divorce, chastity, cohabitation—that people are facing,” says Mike McManus, a syndicated Christian writer. “There’s an avoidance of the big issues people are facing…. The church is a big zero when it comes to [educating people on] marriage [issues]” (Duin, pp. 113-114).

For example, Lauren Winner, a former senior editor for Christianity Today, has studied the lifestyles of Christian singles (who, as a group, are often neglected by the corporate churches). She found that “the typical church is clueless about the sexual temptations that flourish” in today’s society. “Well-meaning preachers use platitudes, if they say anything at all, to remind their singles to stay celibate.” But, more often than not, they ignore the thousands of unmarried “Christians” who disobey this injunction (Duin, p. 34). While Winner’s outspoken approach has won her few friends in the field of religious journalism, her message is relevant to the lives of struggling Christian singles. As Duin notes, sexual issues are especially tough, and church pastors are woefully negligent in teaching that it is possible to live up to biblical standards of fidelity. They are just not up to dealing with the messiness of life. With such a disconnect from reality, is it any wonder that many single churchgoers “drift off out of shame or frustration” (p. 36)?

In his 2005 book Revolution, George Barna writes that a new kind of Christian—he calls them “revolutionaries”—is emerging out of the established church. He says these are serious believers—about 20 million strong—who “are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s Kingdom.” Rather, “they are people who want more of God—much more—in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it”—including leaving organized Christianity (p. 7). He adds that today “millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith…. They have no use for churches that play religious games … [or indulge in] worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit.” Such revolutionaries, he adds, “eschew ministries that compromise or soft sell our sinful nature” and are “embarrassed by language that promises Christian love and holiness but turns out to be all sizzle and no substance” (pp. 11, 13-14; emphasis added).

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