A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reasons I Sometimes Consider Leaving Church

Between blogs and facebook I have read several lists lately about why people are leaving the church (here is one and another by Christian Piatt and another by Barna Group.)  Most often these are targeted particularly at why young people are leaving the church.  I thought I would weigh in with my own spin on this topic.  I don’t qualify as a young person anymore but I certainly find myself empathizing with the young people and others who are leaving church.  And after reading the slightly self-congratulatory comments from a few mainline folks regarding Rachel Held-Evan’s reasons for leaving the church, I wanted to write about the reasons I (a Lutheran) sometimes entertain the notion of leaving church.  A little disclaimer here: this is not an indictment of my local congregation.  My local congregation, much like other congregations I have experienced, is full of wonderful people.  The pastors I have encountered have often been wonderful people, including my current pastor.  My dissatisfaction comes from organized Christianity in general.
  1. I long for deep conversation about the reality that we might be wrong.  It is possible that there is no god at all, that faith is wishful thinking, or that we entirely missed Jesus’ point.  Admittedly in mainline traditions it is often okay to admit that we have doubts or that we don’t understand a passage or maybe (though not always) that we don’t believe in miracles or don't believe certain scriptures are factual.  But we are still often uncomfortable looking more closely at the doubts and have few venues for really exploring them in any depth beyond a sympathetic pat on the back for those experiencing doubts while going through some traumatic event.  Isn’t church the very place where such questions should be considered?      
  2. The focus of the church seems to be almost entirely upon worship and wringing our hands over why we can’t get more people to come to worship (we label the latter as evangelism.)  I keep reading the Gospels trying to see what I am missing but I cannot see that this is what Jesus calls us to do.  What I read is Jesus being about healing, reaching out to the poor and the outcast.  I don’t think Jesus meant reaching out and handing them an invitation to your church.  A few token service projects or even several, though helpful, still don’t really get to the heart of what I read Jesus calling us to do.
  3. I find myself agreeing more often with my atheist friends and non-Christian friends than my Christian friends. 
  4. I feel a sense of incomplete purpose in my life.  Not purposeless since raising my children and caring for our farm are pretty important purposes.  But I feel like I am being called to more than this.  It is unsettling to me that the church does not seem to be well equipped to help me figure this out. 
  5. I live in a "red" state.  It seems to me that the conversations in church are influenced as much by this fact as by denomination or any other factor.  I absolutely believe that faith should influence our politics.  But if faith were the influencing factor would the results really be along party lines?
  6. Then there is the question of my children.  I love the people in the church and want my children to be surrounded by a loving community.  But is torturing them with worship (time for brutal honesty folks most of our worship experiences are terribly boring for children if not for adults too) really the best way to do that?  Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time working side by side with these wonderful people and actually helping somebody?
  7. Another thing that makes me ponder leaving church is comments like some of those following any of the afore mentioned lists.  It is so easy to dodge the criticism by telling someone he or she is being selfish or to stick it out with the church, or just drive a little further and search a little harder to find “a good fit”.  This isn’t about one particular church or a few bad apples.  This isn’t about not liking the music or the liturgy.  This is about people having real struggles with important issues in the Christian church and needing to be heard.  Simply telling people to try harder is not listening.  People are leaving.  There are many who think the church is dying.  We need to listen.  Or we can stand around the graveside feeling self-righteous satisfaction that we stuck it out until the bitter end but that won’t make the church any less dead. 
These are some of the things I contemplate as I feel a general sense of dissatisfaction with the church.  Though I echo things others have mentioned before, what I have written is personal to me and I am not attempting to generalize this list to anyone else.  Yet, my understanding is that people are leaving all Christian churches: fundamentalist, liberal, mega and tiny.  I have a deep suspicion that the trouble is with the very framework of what we have come to understand as church.  My suspicion is we have strayed far away from what it means to follow Jesus.  I am willing to admit I might be wrong about the underlying causes, the symptoms, the path we need to take but I find it harder to believe that I am wrong about a need for change.  Yet from conservative to liberal to emerging church nothing I am aware of looks to me like more than just changing the wrapping paper on the same empty box.  I know of some glimmers of hope and some shining individuals but mostly just different colored boxes.
So, here is my voice, joining with the others, calling for change.


Charlene said...

Thank you for writing this, Sheri.

I'm reminded of the time a year or two ago when I was at my (conservative, evangelical) parents' house and found a book on the coffee table ironically titled "Already Gone: Why your Children Will Leave the Church and How you Can stop it" (or something much like that). Ironic given the lyrics to the Eagles song "Already Gone".

I rather felt it was "aimed" at me, since I'm the one who left the church, and also since my mom had recently discovered Sue Monk Kidd's book "Dance of the Dissident Daughter" on my table. After everyone else had gone to bed, I flipped through the book to see what it had to say. And as I did, a weird thing happened. I felt myself disappearing. The more I read about how to "get your kids back to church" (generally by being more strictly Biblical with "the message"), the less I felt like I was real, or my experiences were real.

Until then, I'd thought that I left the church because of the abusive evangelism-major boyfriend who quoted me Biblical passages to justify his abuse. But maybe that was just a catalyst. Maybe I left because if I interpret all my experiences in light of the Bible, as I was taught to do (rather than the other way around), I don't exist. And it's easier to live without believing in the existence God than without believing in my own existence. I can't believe anymore that the Bible addresses every possible human experience...because it does not address so many of mine.

I'm far more comfortable with Christianity as A spiritual path than as THE spiritual path, but that wasn't really an option in the church I grew up in. Maybe it is an option in other churches. Or maybe not, if the biggest concern is how to get everyone (or most of everyone) to "come in and worship just like we do!" People are diverse, and different people need different things from their spiritual paths.

Anonymous said...

Sheri, I empathize with your thoughts. I resonate with the title of this week's blog. Yes, I am even a pastor. I am a collegue of your sister-in-law, Lynn.


Sheri Ellwood said...

Charlene, thanks for sharing. So many horrible things have been done in the name of Christianity. And then sometimes people are motivated by fear for themselves or for their loved ones and fear can really twist things around. Don't know what else to say but I do value your comments and thoughts very much.
Eric, thanks. May you find meaningful ways to follow Jesus even if it unfortunately sometimes has to be despite the church.

Laurie said...

Sharing my comments with the understanding that you want honest feedback. Not trying to pick a fight.

I believe Faith is a gift many have it in different degrees, and some not at all. It is difficult to have faith without the a certain amount of knowledge. The purpose of evangalism is to provide information, not necessarily to persuade. Jesus commanded us to spread the word, not twist arms.

Deep conversations about faith are best in one on one conversations. This could happen with someone from church, but it is not likely to occur at a church service. Small groups and bible studies are a good attempt, but really a close relationship is needed.

I agree the church should be more about works. The problem is, this is difficult. People are busy. I know. I've tried to push this idea many times. Most congregations try. It is easier for bigger congregations.

Most congregations also try to help us find our purpose. I've gone through a number of exercises and conversations at various churches. I don't know the answer, but I suspect it is more of a matter of deep reflection and eliminating preconceived notions.

I have a knack for avoiding political conversations, so I can't comment on blue state vs. red state. However, the local culture definitely has an impact.

It is possible to have services that are not boring for adults or children. It is in fact possible to have services that are inspiring. People have to be willing to let go of traditions and to make the effort.

I can't tell if our church is shrinking. We always struggle to find an empty seat. It would help if we weren't always late, but the building is really full at all services.

I've been part of dwindling congregations, and have left congregations for various reasons. Many leave because of the pastor. Not every church will have the perfect pastor. Perhaps the solution is to make the pastor less of a focal point. This could occur in a number of ways. There could be more people involved in conducting the service, time spent on works in each service, small group discussions, mentorships... This would be a long brain storming session. I think the key is that we are the church. If a change is needed, we must make it. It will take effort, time, energy, and courage. For these reasons, it is probably best to start small.

Just some rambling thoughts from an old woman who has been part of a number of congregations of varying denominations, geographic locations, and sizes.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Laurie, of course I want honest feedback! As long as you don't call me names. That might hurt my feelings:)

I like your description of evangelism. I have my doubts if that is the way it plays out in most churches but maybe I am cynical.

It seems to me church should be all about deeper conversations and works. If we don't have time for those things than what is the point? I like some of the ideas you throw out there. What if we set the sermon outside of the worship context and allowed for deep conversation about topics, put together health kits while we worship, or take worship with us as we worked in someone's yard or something?

When I referred to the decline of the church I meant overall, statistically. I am sure there are individual congregations that are growing. Maybe yours is one.

Thanks for your thoughts. These types of conversations are part of working for change. Part of why I wrote what I did!

Charlene said...

Local culture definitely has an impact. I once attended an Easter service at a Lutheran church in Oakhurst, CA, that was downright inspiring, even to me as an unbeliever. There was so much JOY in that room it was contagious! I'm not any less an unbeliever for it, but I did enjoy it.