Why do people leave the church?
Someone asked me the other day why people leave the church. It’s “demoralizing,” another said. She was sad that her cell closed and that people who were in it weren’t around anymore. She’s a strong cell leader, and she suffers with everyone who no longer connects. And it’s not because when someone leaves they are “dead to us,” but it’s sad to lose a partner in mission. The intimacy fostered in a cell is real enough to hurt when it’s gone. And sometimes the people that leave don’t know what to do with that pain; they feel bad that their friend is hurt, but they don’t necessarily feel responsible, and they can often hurt their friend back by invalidating their feelings as “wrong,” or just labeling them as judgment and condemnation. The feeling of loss can quickly become judgment and condemnation, though, and I am afraid it has among many Christian communities. It’s OK to feel the loss and feel sad without assigning blame, to yourself and to others.
However, it is still an important question, why do people leave? I had many reasons that I listed: people leave because they move for a relationship, for a job, for education. They leave because of a bad break-up that leaves them scarred and participation in the church reminds them of their relationship and it hurts. But they also leave because they lose faith, and this is where I want to expand.
Someone told me the other day that our church mainly does work for the “malcontents” (such a negative word), the post-Evangelicals, the people burned out on the church they grew up in. I think that generalization is false, but I do think we succeed in stimulating people’s dead faith. But sometimes those who are teetering on the edge of faithlessness are at risk if they don’t deepen their faith by deepening their commitment.
Organized religion has its problems, but so does the alternative
People have a right to be cynical about so-called organized religion. And quite, honestly, Circle of Hope is weird enough that even the cynics find a home with us. But they might become cynical about us, too. As I wrote a few weeks ago, they might deconstruct us. I appreciate the tension that exists between form and meaning, between the container and the content, but I am slow to harshly divorce the two. Form isn’t meaningless, and it helps contain meaning.
Let me put that in another way, what holds you together may actually be critical to who you are. This lack of separation is something that some of the New Testament writers are trying to make clear. There is no distinction between the body and the soul. The body is not merely a container that holds the content of the soul. Without a body, there is no life.
And I think the same applies to our Christian faith. As much as you might hate the organized religion, you can’t be a Christian alone. Or at least it’s hard to. It’s hard to hold faith alone and by yourself. So I’m not sure which comes first, leaving the church or a loss of faith, but I do know that those two are related. You might leave because you start losing your faith, or you might lose your faith if you leave and do not land elsewhere, but I think one is likely to happen. And landing elsewhere does not just mean consuming another church service, listening to the Evangelical do-it-yourself worship music (where you are never led to worship, you just do what you want with some random songs declaring dubious truths about God), or just listening to podcasts from cool progressive Christians. It actually means finding a community, whether that’s down street from us or in another town.
The church helps hold your faith together
One of the main reasons I am committed to being in a church, and being a church at all, even while I listen to the podcasts I just detracted, is because it holds my faith together. It gives me a container. The container just isn’t in my mind or in my heart, it’s in the Body of Christ. We hold each other, in a specific expression, in order to maintain our faith and create an alternative community and vision for the world. It protects our faith while broadcasting an alternative to the world. It creates a container for it to grow. And I really do believe that we need to have that container to develop and deepen our faith. Some people find it in service, so they belong because they found something to do. Helping lead is a great way to maintain your faith, but too soon becomes an obligation, and when we rid ourselves of that obligation the church and our faith go with it.
Mere attendance won’t develop your faith, but having a community and expressions of it in worship and in cells does help maintain it at least. And the discipline of staying connected, despite cynicism, will hold your faith together. Taking a break might be OK, but it often does damage to our faith. And I’m afraid that the worship and idealization of individual experience of God that Evangelical crusaders gave us is ultimately doing damage to our faith. Your personal relationship with God, whatever that means, is not enough. You need a container for that relationship and that container is the church.
You don’t need light shows and smoke machines to accompany your epic worship set, necessarily, although I am basically fine with that. You need a community, you need a body, you need a people, you need an identity. I was reading the annual report of one of our affiliations and they shared a story of a woman who discovered that the church she thought was a show was actually a church service. I cringed, because although the tangible experience of worship matters and “a good product” is important (that’s why liturgy can be so moving even when it’s not sacramental, and why our Holy Week observances are so powerful), I don’t think that consuming a show is enough. Consuming the sacrament in the Eucharist works because the Catholics believe that there is something deeply spiritual happening in that moment; strip away the theology, and you’re left with symbols that need additional meaning supplied to them. It’s not enough to do the worship without the meaning that the identity of the Body of Christ supplies.
Your faith is about who you are, not what you think
I was telling the pastors the other day that Christians are too often caught up in their heads about what they believe. Their ideas and their theology is what is central to their faith, and it is not a matter of identity. That’s one that is so powerful in Judaism. God created a people, a nation, held together by their common desire for a place to live. Their identity is what bonded them together, which is why Jewish people can have debates about theology and still be friends after. Unlike, Christians, who have debates about theology and then they split the church.
Jesus—in his life, death, and resurrection—inaugurates a new reality for us and a new identity for us. We are one in Christ as Paul says in Galatians. That’s what he means. Paul isn’t trying to whitewash everyone; he is trying to bond everyone despite their differences. The bond that we have is deeper than our ideology because it is rooted in our identity.
My argument then is that without a place to express and embody that identity, we will struggle to have faith. Without being a people and a body, it’s hard to have faith. Many Christians simply individualize and atomize their faith as they pop around varying church services throughout town. The radical commitment that many in Circle of Hope make, actually makes a tribe and a family. It makes us something tangible. And that container is where our content grows, where our form finds meaning. It is so tangible that people can leave it and it hurts. But they can come back into it. We’re not trying to create a container that is airtight; it must be porous, you need to be able to get in and out. So I’m not distressed that people can leave us, although it hurts, in a sense, I am happy that we are substantial enough that they can leave.