Why People Are Leaving the Church
AUGUST 1, 2018
Yesterday morning as I drove to Palm Coast from Orlando to preach at Epic Church (it’s a fairly long drive), I was listening to the radio.
Have you ever listened to Sunday morning radio? Almost all of it is preachers, politicians, pablum and promoters. I can take only so many sermons; I’m tired of politics; I don’t like most of the music; and the promoters were lying about growing hair. As I was surfing the radio dial, I eventually settled on an interview of a Christian leader from a mainline denomination on why church attendance statistics in America keep falling. The interviewer was obviously not a Christian and seemed rather pleased by the increase of the “nones” (as in “none of the above”) on religious surveys.
Frankly, the Christian didn’t seem to believe much more than the interviewer. He did suggest that religion was a good thing, and people ought to try it more; but other than that, he didn’t have much more to say. The interview was mildly irritating. I thought I would have done better and, if not better, I certainly would have had more to say than he did.
Okay, what would you have said?
First, I would have said, “Ask me if I care.” Well, I do care, but I really don’t care about the statistics or what the sociologists say. Maybe I would have said instead, “Ask me if I’m surprised.” The money, power and leverage the Christian church in America has enjoyed for a lot of years is not the norm. The surprise should be when the church and the church’s coffers are full, not the other way around. Nobody interviewed Christians when we were so popular. Nobody asked, “Why are so many people involved in church?” Nobody did because people thought it was normal, but it wasn’t.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). And he was pretty clear about our minority status when he said, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). That verse, by the way, is one of the most misinterpreted texts in the Bible. The misinterpretation provides Pharisees with spurious ammunition, but at minimum it suggests that Christians ought to be concerned when there’s a big crowd. It’s not that Jesus is against big crowds. In fact he said in John 12:32 that when he was lifted up he would draw all people to himself. The issue isn’t so much the crowd, but why they came.
Now you think I’m going to say that people are leaving because the Christian faith is hard to live—the requirements too many, the bar too high, and the purity unreachable. Only the strong can make it. While it would make me feel good in an interview to say that and it would be a wonderful excuse for the falling church statistics, there’s a problem in going down that road. It’s simply not true.
The Christian faith is for the needy, the sinful and the weak…and who, in their right mind, wants to be needy, sinful and weak? People leave not because it’s so hard, but because it’s so undemanding. In fact there are no requirements that haven’t already been met. If there were requirements, I would not have come; and if I did come, I would not have stayed. Jesus said (and I’m so glad he did), “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Let me tell you something else I would say if someone interviewed me on why people are leaving the church. When the church becomes a “moral improvement society,” you have set up a system for a statistical disaster. First, because the Bible says we’re a sinful bunch. And second, because when we forget that, we become Christians playing a phony role. You can build a good-sized church or denomination on guilt and on her ugly sister, self-righteousness. The problem is that its foundations are built on the sand of lies and eventually the structure collapses.
I heard a Christian speaker recently say, “If you go all out for God, he will go all out for you!” What? If one could go all out for God, God would be irrelevant. The Christian faith is for people who know that, in their wildest imaginations, there is no way they are capable of going all out for God. God doesn’t welcome the achievers but those who, having tried and failed often, have given up. Sometimes that’s why they leave. Those who stay and pretend to be all out for God create a club in which sick people aren’t very comfortable, and Jesus said that he was a doctor who came for sick people (Mark 2:17), not the healthy.
That would be me. You too!
I think I’ve told you about my pastor friend who said from the pulpit that while the Bible’s teaching on sexuality was good and wise, “virginity is not the Gospel.” As soon as he said it, a man on the third row stood up and motioned for his family to stand. “That’s it,” he said loudly. “I’ve had it and we’re out of here.” That man and his family left the church and I assume felt very self-righteous about leaving. Jesus didn’t go with them though. He stayed with the sinners. I hope that man found a church that told him how wonderful he was for standing by his convictions. But he had better hurry because that kind of church isn’t going to be around for very long. That’s why the statistics are falling.
No wonder nobody wants to interview you. You’re a bundle of joy!
Wait. I haven’t gotten to the good part yet.
When the statistics point to a decline in church attendance and involvement, that’s a good thing. Not only that, it probably hasn’t gotten bad enough yet. It’s a good thing because God does great work through people who are sinners, and who are weak and needy. But it has to be bad enough for him to do it. “I wouldn’t worry about it none,” a pastor acquaintance of mine said to his bishop who was worried about so many people leaving the church, “we’re just getting down to the muscle.”
In the statistical drop in church involvement I believe we are witnessing God getting down to the muscle. The metaphor of “muscle” probably isn’t the best one. Better, God is getting down to the place where nobody inside or outside the church has very high expectations of God’s people.
Now let me give you a principle that, if I were being interviewed, I probably wouldn’t mention. There are some things that are so weird, unbelievable and counterintuitive that it’s best to keep them to ourselves. Here’s the principle: When it gets bad enough, you can have a party.
Jesus said that we would do greater works than he did. That won’t happen unless the statistics go south. Do you know why? It is because… “My [God’s] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). And “the kingdom of God” belongs to children (Mark 10:14).
In the First Great Awakening led by men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, the church was almost dead. People were leaving in droves. (There was even a “halfway covenant” for church membership to keep as many as possible.) In another “great awakening” (The Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s), a bunch of nobodies were absolutely surprised and amazed that God used them to change, shake up and revolutionize America. I was reading an article this morning in which a number of worship leaders said that all the signs are now pointing to a “third great awakening.”
That works for me. “Do it again, Lord! Do it again!”
So if I were being interviewed about the falling church statistics, I would laugh. The interviewer wouldn’t understand the laughter and it would be too difficult to explain. The interviewer would think that I was a crazy person. That interviewer would be right.
Crazy like a fox!
He asked me to tell you.
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