Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Members are Exiting Churches

A good walk and quiet commute this morning. The question of why members are leaving is weighing heavy on my mind this morning and for the last couple of days. This morning I give you four reasons why I think this is so and four suggestions on how those of us in church leadership and as members of churches might combat this trend. My thought started after a local TV reporter I follow on Twitter posted, “A national survey shows more people are falling away from organized religion. Why do you think this is happening?” Since reading her question, I have read two articles online (The Christian Chronicle & the Christian Science Monitor ). Both have good information about what might be going on.

While encouraging you to read the above articles, permit me to give my evaluation of why I believe people are leaving churches. From my reading, from conversations, from my observations, and as a member of Generation X (a.k.a. The Baby Busters) who are part of the ones walking out and taking their children with them; I think there are at least four major reasons people leave:

  1. A Mis-Focus on Politics: Churches of all types began shifting their focus about 15 to 20 years ago away from Christ and toward Politics and the creation of an anti-cultural movement. I believe that this was an honest change in an attempt to “keep” the United States a “Christian” nation. Leaders in churches saw that culture was heading in an ungodly direction and began to shout warnings hoping to bring people to hold fast to Judeo-Christian morals. They took this approach out of the pulpit and church buildings to the steps of capitols and doors of legislators trying to beat the Devil at his game. The reasoning was that Christians could no longer be the silent majority letting the vocal minority influence local, state, and national policy. Those of my generation, even many of those who hold to high moral standards do not believe that churches should run government. The recent change in the national political environment may be evidence of this belief. When churches continue to promote candidates and try to push politics from the pulpits the younger sets begin to walk out the door. They are not wanting to be worldly, they want to be godly, and do not feel they are learning as much about God as they are about Washington D.C. Churches do need to teach morals and the truth about immorality, but not with a political tone.

  2. Failure to Teach Doctrine: At about the same time as the above shift in focus, so-called Mega Churches started appearing on the evangelical and fundamentalist landscape. These groups built large communities of adherents by reaching out to the “un-churched” with programs and ministries designed to fill their felt and desired needs. Again the idea was mostly from a pure motivation of trying to reach people for Christ. Many thought that if we reach the physical and emotional needs of the “un-churched” with love then we could reach their spiritual need for Christ. A mantra echoed in the halls of many churches, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The problem is that many have not shifted from this emotional and physical outreach to teaching their converts about doctrine. I suggest that the average church goer does not know the major doctrines of the congregation they attend. There is a time for a baby to have only milk, but a child must have solid food to grow to adulthood (1 Cor 3:2; Heb 5:12). Many are leaving churches because they need a change in diet to help them grow to maturity.

  3. Cultural Shift in the Churches: A result of not growing individuals to mature adulthood as a child of God is that they do not learn to avoid the pitfalls of the world. By not teaching doctrine, churches failed to equip their members to be faithful to each other and to God. There are telling statistics concerning high rates of broken homes within Christianity, higher than non-Christian cultures and even atheistic homes. Churches have let the world get a foothold on their members. A friend and fellow preacher wrote recently about doing an experiment with his sons. He had his boys time how long he could hold a finger in water as it began to boil (I did not say he was bright did I?). When he finally pulled it out he noticed it was pink and on the verge of blistering. He stuck another finger in and realized the water was quite hot. His first finger did not notice the gradual change in the water temperature as abruptly as a finger left outside of the water. What was his point and mine? When we allow worldly culture in our homes via mass media and we slowly incorporate that culture into our lives and churches we lose people to the world. When we use popular programming to “bring people in” we are not offering anything different from the world. Mankind is smart enough to see our inconsistency.

  4. We Cannot Out Entertain the World: Many churches are losing members to various genres of entertainment. One local church leader complained to me that since the “mud-track” opened up on Sunday, he cannot compete,attendance began to dwindle. The congregation he leads has a rock band, uses dramatic performances, etc. to draw people in and to supposedly keep them there. Again we cannot beat the Devil at his game. He has more money and more experience in the entertainment department. I once heard Dan Chambers in a lectureship series say “Entertainment, not religion, is now the opiate of the people.” He is correct. {For more from Dan Chambers read “Showtime: Worship in the Age of Show Business” (Nashville:21st Century Christian), 1997.} If people want entertainment, they will find the best available.

Now the question remains; What can churches do?

First churches must return to the basics. When the church at Ephesus became mis-focused after a few years, Jesus encourages them through the Apostle to “return to your first love.” This concept needs proclaiming from the roof tops of churches around our great nation and the world as a whole. We need to be like Paul who said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). To the Philippians he declares that above all he desires to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:10). We need to return to proclaiming the message of Good News – the Gospel of Christ that is God's power to save men (Rom 1:16, 5:1). Once we reach people with this wonderful, awe inspiring, love compelling, disciple making message of hope, then we can move on to loftier and meatier matters. Churches cannot abandon the simple Gospel message for any watered down more “palatable” message. Any thing less would be (is) disastrous.

Next we need to study up on and instruct congregations in the Bible; not modern self-help psychology; not sermonettes on how to avoid financial ruin, but messages that create a firm foundation for faith and hope. We must hear again and follow the teachings of and the teachings concerning Jesus as Christ and not build on the sand (Matt 7:24-27). This teaching begins with a confirmation of the Bible as God's authentic inspired word and therefore reliable as a guide toward obedience. We need to re-establish faith in the inerrant nature of Scripture. I dare suggest that many in the pew do not know the history of the providential preservation of God's word from it's inspiration to the version you hold as you study. We need to demonstrate the relevance of the messages within the Sacred Text to our lives in the 21st Century. Details of life may change, but our nature remains the same. Specifics within the context of a narrative may not always be relevant, but the underlying lessons are still for our learning and instruction (Rom 15:4). We need to return to the pattern of living by the precepts of God in Christ.

We must also remember that Jesus told His immediate followers, and by extension all that belong to Him, that they and we are “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:14-16). We are to lead the world by our example and not follow the example of the world. Paul put it this way in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” When we will live a daily Christian life, the world will take notice and we will be the unique people we God calls us to be (1 Pet 2:9).

Finally, we need to refocus our worship. Too many churches and individual Christians look for a worship experience that moves them as individuals or small groups. Jesus told the woman of Samaria that God is Spirit and those that worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). God is the focus of our worship. When I worship God, I am the last concern, you are next in line, and God is the central figure and the only member of the audience as we each individually participate in cooperate worship. Your edification and admonition are secondary byproducts of my worship and my encouragement is secondary to your worship. The focus is God and His pleasure. We must learn again to worship the Creator and not the created. I find that when you and I focus on God and Christ that I do gain. Notice the Hebrew writer's emphasis in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We accomplish this when we gather together to “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb 13:15).
What will the results of a shift toward a restoration of Biblical preaching, Christian living, and godly worship? Some will still leave, they left Jesus in John 6, and He asked the Twelve, if they would leave as well. They stayed. Some today will stay the course. If we will do the above those who stay will be stronger for it.



Joey said...

Two things that come to my mind (and fit underneath your four areas): lack of submission to authority (cultural shift) and lack of Christian-familial relationships (over-focused on politics, forgetting to build one another up in worship).

First, we live in a time where authority is first questioned unless it proves trustworthy. The Biblical model is contrary to this altogether. So when church leaders make unpopular decisions, members treat the situation like they do every other situation (child's sports team, school, hair sylist, spouse? [ouch], car, etc.): they start worshiping somewhere else. This is to say nothing about obeying Matt. 18 with regard to communicating concerns to elders, etc.

Second, we all know that ugly situations arise within physical families. Many of them involve money, preferential treatment, etc. But at the end of the day, no one stops being family. No one goes to the trouble of changing names...and most importantly, the blood-connection doesn't change. If we fully appreciated the church as family, we'd be more likely to stay with that family even when they make us mad. Most importantly, we'd have the opportunity to work out problems Biblically...which would lead to much inward growth. As Christians...the name and blood don't ever change.

Scott said...

Joey, thanks for adding some great thoughts. What do others have to add?

Ewell said...

Brother McCown; I believe you are totally wrong on your point number 1. When Jesus said "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" He was not telling us to just pay our taxes, and keep our mouths shut. No concerned Christian is trying to "run government." We simply want government to stay out of religion. We want religion to continue to have the freedoms we have had in the past. The "younger generation" with whom you seem to have identified is the kind of attitude which is allowing all vestiges of God to be eradicated from public view. God has always allowed, and charged, his people to speak out against evil, wherever that evil is found - even in civil government. If not, the Hebrew nation would still be in captivity to Egypt, etc.

Scott said...

Ewell, I am glad that where you are leaders are not trying to "run government.' I can say the same about where I am now. We preach and teach concerning moral issues that are "political" in our culture, but do try not to tell people who to vote for.

That said, I am familiar with groups who use the pulpit to tell people who to and who not to vote for by name. That to me crosses the line from preaching and teaching truth and "running government."

Thanks for you comments.