My friend Jill was talking on Facebook about an article she read in the Wall Street Journal which addressed the big concern of the moment–why people are no longer affiliating themselves with a local church. It seems as though every third article in my favourite magazine, Christianity Today, is also about this issue. But over and over again the answers miss the mark.
The pithy answer Jill found in the WSJ was that
“when you need a spiritual fix, you don’t necessarily want to sit in for two hours in a pew.”
Which I think is a glib oversimplification. Yes, there are people looking for a spiritual “fix”, a dime bag of glory. We–the American church–spent much of the 1990s building begymmed, becoffeebarred ‘Seeker Friendly’ palaces for them. Consequently the American Church is spending much of the early 2000s over their heads in debt. Which leads me to
In an already tight economy, the place you’d think people would go for answers would be a church. When my husband and I were first fallen on hard times–a few years before other folks–our first stop was church. Every Sunday the message included a good five minutes of prooftexting to guilt people into giving a larger offering. Still, we attended for several years and tried to become part of the community. But the pastor was quite obviously driven by meeting a bottom line. We poor Mennonite kids had never before attended one of these Ponzi denominations where the local church is responsible for not only its own expenses but also sending a chunk of money to the “head office”. Our last Sunday was when the pastor’s sermon was about how we were all going to lose our salvation (!) if the offering wasn’t large enough to buy the church a new carpet (!!) I’m guessing our experience with the Money-Hungry Church was not unique. And I’m further surmising that other people, already stretched to the breaking point with debt, don’t need another weekly bill.
A church is about community. That’s why you go to one instead of watching Two Rivers on TV every Sunday. And that IS why a lot of people who’ve been absent for their early twenties* come back to one. The problem is that a church is about community. Which means that you’ve got all the interpersonal challenges any community has. The older lady who won’t turn over responsibility for an event she sees as “her” thing. The overcommitted young couple whose eagerness bars others from a turn at giving their gifts of time. The suspicious nursery director who won’t let new folks work with children, even when teamed with others. And so on. Most established churches are like small towns and although initially welcoming to newcomers, they ultimately resist change. That leaves newcomers feeling like newcomers even after they’ve been there for three and four years. It robs them of the sense of community that is the essence of church-based worship.
So why are these people leaving in the first place? Why do they find themselves in a position of being a “newcomer” in church? Well, because of the Great Exodus Of The Twenties. As a Great Exoder myself, I’ve addressed this in other posts. The short of the long is that churches are regularly attended by people in their 30s and older who have children. The relatively new phenomenon of the unmarried professional in their 20s is foreign. While the outside world sees these post-collegiate adults as striving and growing, the church infantalises them. The Twentysomethings are met at the door by a long-haired 40 year old who says “Dude” all the time and offers pizza parties with zany movies as a social gathering. Nobody wants to be taken seriously more than a person just out of college, eager to prove themselves. Nobody takes those people less seriously than your modern church congregation. So why not leave? Why not wait until you are in the group they DO take seriously before coming back? That’s why you’ve got people leaving until they’re thirty, married and have children.
This is perhaps the saddest reason to me. But it also more and more common a driver for those who want a church home. As the Evangelical church becomes more political, people who might be good brethren are turned off by the stance of the church itself and/or the more vocal church members. We are letting Caeser and our affection for the hobby of politics ruin our job of discipling others. It happens on both the left and right. And all it takes is one overheard comment to turn someone off that church forever. I know people who have left THE SAME CHURCH because it was “too Republican” AND “too Democrat”. I guess they overheard different conversations. Nevertheless, politics inside the church house–where it DOESN’T belong–is part of what is killing the modern American church.
And there it is. There are the answers, as plain and unpretty as they are. Can they be fixed? Maybe, mabye not. But more importantly–will anyone admit that those are the problems?