I’m seeing more and more articles by churches that talk about why people are leaving the church and what should be done about it. It appears to me that the only lessons learned in the past few decades is that simply changing the music or discussing current events in the sermons is not enough. This formula has actually worked in suburban areas, but it only gets praises for drawing people in, not for being theologically innovative or for improving the image of Christianity overall.
Common reasons for lower attendance are; failure to recognize that people have gay friends or maybe even gay parents so you better not exclude them, not offering any active solutions, not offering any thoughtful answers to complex modern problems and generally being associated with a conservative agenda. Inevitably, in the comments section of articles like these, someone claims that their church supplies all those needs and they are following Jesus correctly. But if there is a right way to do it, and some have figured it out, why don’t we see a trend toward those churches?
Recently I saw this article that had some interesting takes on the subject, but missed the same points that all of them do. My personal conclusion is that if you honestly address the concerns of those who have left the church (or never got there) it will lead to something that is not church. People are looking for community, and traditionally that has been found at churches. So like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, they just go there because they don’t know where else community might be. When they get there, they can identify what they don’t like, but designing a place that nurtures what they want is much more difficult.
The church itself is not structured to build what these people are looking for. There are limits to what they can remove from their celebrations and mission work and still be considered a church. In this article in the Washington Post, Addie Zierman lists 5 of the common suggestions for improvement. Some of her ideas are pretty good, but I’ll show why they can’t work.
The Bible clearly says…
Addie suggests that pastors can gain more trust by admitting that there are different interpretations and competing ideas, not clear answers that work consistently in all cases. No kidding. She just defined the shift in thinking that occurred sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries and led to the scientific revolution and The Enlightenment.
Religion survived just fine while it was discussing Torah in the midrash, or the Koran in the Hadiths and on through the Reformation. People love to discuss where the universe might have come from or what consciousness is. The difference today is, you can’t ignore that people outside of your chosen group have an opinion. One person can’t stand up in front of any room full of people and tell them what is true without at least a few of them knowing it is not.
Many pastors would love to pursue a more rational line of discussion, but the problem comes with taking it to its logical conclusion. That is, pastors aren’t trained in history or physics or neuroscience. They can’t address these questions as well as someone sitting in the pew with a smart phone and a college education.
Most people can’t argue exactly why creationism is definitely wrong, nor do they know exactly which parts of the Bible are historically accurate, or even when Jesus is telling a parable vs a “fact” about the Kingdom. If they really want an answer to those questions, they might ask their pastor first, but they are also likely to do some fact checking.
Perhaps most important is the question of did Jesus atone for our sins. The Bible itself does not provide a clear mechanism for just how salvation works. Ask two Christians and you’ll get three answers. It is somehow “through” Jesus, but exactly how is not clear. It might be faith, or their may be specific actions required to demonstrate that faith. Belief seems to be important, but how do you test for that? It seems we can only know in our hearts. So any sermon that ends with Jesus being the answer is no answer at all.
“God will never give you more than you can handle”
If people claiming to be in your support group can’t get it that you have problems, then they don’t belong in your support group. This gets to the question of just what a community is. If I go to a club for people who like hiking, I expect to be supported in finding places to hike and people to hike with. Once I get to know others there, I might share some intimate details of my miserable life.
If I go to a place for people looking for answers to the big questions in life, I expect to find support for that. I don’t expect to be told that I’m not doing it right if I have doubts or questions. Religion has always had that as it’s ultimate answer. Even at the highest levels, there is nothing that can be done but to keep seeking. At some point, there is nothing left to do but read your Bible and pray.
Wow, Addie understands that love is a back and forth proposition. Good for her. I don’t mean that sarcastically. Not for Addie anyway. I assume she really understands that loving someone does not mean feeling sorry for them because they can’t accept Jesus into their heart, or holding some kind of space for them while they are mad at God because their sister just died of cancer, or even supplying a happy and joyful experience so people will see what God does. If I sound sarcastic it’s because she has to write this in her article and explain it to Christian leaders.
“Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding”
The problem with these terms has always been; knowing what they mean. When there were few choices, either in small towns or as a child, the problem was figuring out how to fit in, or what you could get away with. Now it’s just finding a church that fits what you believe anyway. That is a form of community, but it doesn’t say much about church being able to offer something real.
True believers don’t much care for labels like “fundamentalist” and liberal Christians will go to great lengths to explain what sets them apart. None of them seem to get that “unbelievers” have the same aversion to being labeled. We all have a world view that was developed over a lifetime. Wouldn’t sharing our strengths and weaknesses be a better strategy than trying to create a franchise for one particular view?
God is in control
In this one, Addie uses the now tired phrase, “we like Jesus but not the church”, and tries to explain it. I guess I’ll never get that. She says, “the Jesus we read about enters into the pain of humanity where so often the church people seem to want to float above it.” My guess is she is cherry picking. She likes the passages about compassionate Jesus and ignores the Jesus who says, “I don’t know you”.
The mythology of a God who didn’t just come to earth and take human form, but became completely like us and even died like a human, is somewhat unique. There are other dying and rising gods but they tend to be pretty cardboard characters. They don’t try to work out moral dilemmas, or suggest we do things like love our enemies. They don’t defend women who have had affairs against an angry mob.
But no matter how many great ideas you have, if you tell me I have to follow the laws of Moses to gain your favor, you’re still a bully. If you can’t take the time to sort out just what those rules are, then you are just setting standards that no one can attain and threatening to punish me for not meeting them. I’ll listen to your advice and consider it, but you have no right to demand anything of me. I don’t care who your father is.
And if you are only representing this mythological character who speaks to you through the interpretation of multiple languages and multiple variations of the current language, you have considerably less rights to tell me anything about how to live my life. People used to want to go somewhere where someone “floated above” the pains of daily life and told them everything was going to be alright. If through some miracle, that message had actually made things alright, then they could have kept doing that. But we know what those priests were up to all those centuries, and it had little to do with making a better world.
The improvements in the lives of 98% of the people in the world came through hard work by dedicated people who believed that the laws of the universe could be figured out. They came by people who stopped listening to those who said revelation is just as good as reason. They came from people who asked questions of the people next to them, not the ones who sought simple answers from someone standing over them.