Barna posted the results of a new study on why Christians leave the church. (Check out the whole article here: http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church.)
- Churches seem overprotective.
- Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
- Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
- Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
- They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
- The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
These are no doubt the reasons people think they are leaving the church, but I’d like to propose a few reasons I think are the real problem.
1. People don’t trust the church. God commissioned the church and takes care of it, with Christ as the Good Shepherd and pastors as under-shepherds. Nevertheless, we tend to focus on the problems imperfect people bring to the way churches are run. The church is an institution of humans but NOT a human institution. I have personally struggled with this for much of my teen and adult life, and I believe that my faith in God has to translate into faith in the church as His instrument in the world today. We have to learn to trust the church despite its broken nature.
2. People don’t value the church. Evangelicals value personal relationships with Christ, personal Bible study and prayer, “quiet time” (a.k.a. ALONE time), etc. and these are all good things. But I’m afraid we’ve over-corrected in some areas, and it’s part of our legacy as the inheritors of protestant church. We’re so afraid of making the church the source or intermediary of salvation that we take it out of the picture altogether. Again, God organized the church, He instituted it and works through it. To avoid church altogether is to be outside of God’s will.
There are obviously legitimate complaints that warrant leaving a church… I’m not suggesting we blindly follow anyone, especially when there are so few control mechanisms left to ensure churches are properly stewarding the faith passed down from the Apostles. But I do think we’ve gone too far. If our own place of worship crosses that line (where that line is would be another discussion entirely) we are right to leave that church. But our faith in God demands—and I mean this as strongly as I possibly can—that we seek another church, that we continue to value and trust the institution because GOD values it and GOD has entrusted His work to it.
All that being said, here are some quick thoughts on the symptoms surfaced in Barna’s study:
- Churches seem overprotective. Agreed. I have no experience parenting (yet) but I have deep respect for the parents who allow their children to fail within certain safe limits. At some point—and this varies with the maturity of the child—they have to make their faith their own. They need to be exposed to risks so that they learn to make godly decisions by themselves before they leave the home.
- Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow [church is boring, irrelevant, unclear]. This could be caused by any number of reasons: poor leadership, poor modeling in the congregation, bad standards in those polled. Any one of these can make or break the way church is perceived.
- Churches come across as antagonistic to science. This is a hot-button for me. Science is so poorly understood on a popular level both inside and outside the church that you can’t really address this statement. The problem isn’t that the church is too antagonistic; it’s not antagonistic enough. The church LOVES science except when science is antagonistic to the faith. The vast majority of Americans don’t understand the limitations of science and default to trusting that over the church. Antagonism isn’t really the right response—I was being provocative. Healthy skepticism of all science should be the mode of all rational people. For Christians, I ask: why trust God for salvation but trust science for everything else? [Editor’s note: science is good. I like science. Let’s just not be naive about it.]
- Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. Churches are afraid to talk about sex and don’t deal well with questions let alone struggles. Sex is one of the biggest issues in the church in post-60’s America. Premarital sex, adultery, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, self-gratification, pornography, celibacy, cohabitation—and the list goes on and on—all need to be dealt with in the church. We need to know what we believe, teach the truth on these subjects, and deal lovingly with people who are struggling not just with temptation but feeling trapped in these sins. Not talking about it hurts the community AND the individual. (Yes, we can go too far here. But odds are you’re not in any danger of that now.)
- They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. I’m sorry, but this is a personal problem. The Bible is clear. Maybe churches can do a better job of helping people understand what that means and why it’s so important, but the topic itself is not up for negotiation.
- The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. This is a HUGE problem, one that I am also very passionate about. We’re too afraid of questions. There HAS to be a safe place for people to struggle through legitimate concerns. This is part of spiritual growth. If you haven’t struggled with the truths of Christianity, I wonder if you’re thinking about them enough. I don’t think we should seek to doubt or reward it, but doubting is part of the human condition. And I’d venture to say that the person who struggles with doubt and overcomes it is a much stronger Christian than the one who never questions anything.
Again, I think most if not all of these problems boil down to fear and distrust. The value issue is related, but fear and distrust keeps us from addressing these issues in a godly way—both as the congregation and as the individual who leaves. We live in crazy times for the church as an institution. I only hope we take this opportunity to make our churches and our faith stronger.