Remember me writing about the church’s inability to deal with the reality of the world rather than clinging to their ideas about the world? Well, if you would like to see what this looks like in action, ask a pastor why people leave church and then ask 20 people who have left church about their experience. The overlap will be non-existent.
Oh, I get where the church people are coming from. It’s easy enough to take “I never felt accepted” and hear “I’m unwilling to engage with people who don’t think like me”. Or hear, “I was turned off by the church’s fixation on sex and politics” and hear “I just want to be able to sin without anyone holding me accountable“. Or “I found peace in my heart when I walked away from the church” and hear “I just want to engage in navel-gazing as spirituality”.
I get the temptation to interpret people’s words in such a way as to affirm our assumption that they are in error. But what if we just took people at their word? What if we accepted at face value that people don’t find acceptance at church, are turned off by the church’s fixations and have found peace by walking away? What then?
I believe that people are being drawn away from the church by God. I think that people are leaving and have peace about it because they know that they know that they know that they are on a path towards God that has taken them out of the church. At least for now. The rise of the nones and the spiritual-but-not-religious types is actually a sign that we are seeing the fulfillment of scripture.
The bible tells us to expect a time such as this:
this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
“They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” ~ Jeremiah 21:33-34
This verse is also quoted in Hebrews 8 where it is declared that this new covenant is now in effect. In the new covenant, people will know God in their hearts directly, not relying on a pastor or other teacher to teach them. How the ever-loving-flibertygibbit are people supposed hear what God has put on their hears in a church with tens of thousands of denominations, all claiming to be the authority on what God wants to tell us? There’s not a lot of room in the middle of all that teaching and religion and condemnation for finding what God has planted on your own, personal, handcrafted-by-God heart. Sometimes the only way to find that is to walk away from the voices saying, “know the Lord”.
I have no doubt that some people are dropping spirituality entirely when they walk away from the church. But if you listen to people, you will learn that as a rule, people who have left the church still say they have a relationship with the Divine, although they aren’t always sure what the Divine is exactly. They are finding that their hearts are a much better guide than they knew. And more often than not, they prioritize love of self and others over any other concern, just as Jesus taught.
The reason people who have left church just aren’t open to all the arguments about why they need to come back is because they discovered truth and freedom away from the church. The truth and freedom that Christians are promised and which many of us found in church. Until the church can make room for people to learn what God has planted in their hearts and minds for themselves without trying to control people, there’s nothing the church has to offer that they can’t find in many other places.
I know it sounds like I’m ripping on the church and I don’t mean to. I get that church can be very good and that the good going on in a lot of churches goes unrecognized. But it’s such a pot shot to find a church that isn’t controlling or unwelcoming or destructively dysfunctional. A lot of people are just too tired and busy to continually shift through haystacks looking for needles.
Good churches which leave room for people to know God as he is revealed in their own hearts and minds need some sort of secret bat signal to identify themselves with. Unfortunately, a lot of destructive churches would have no qualms about using deceit in order to lure people in and could just steal it. Or maybe we need to make the signal something the bad churches would never dream of using themselves. Like a sign out front that says, “it’s better to marry than to burn. Hold your gay wedding here.” (Whatever your view of gay marriage is, you have to admit that churches which support gay marriage tend to produce much less scandal and abuse and aren’t nearly so prone to celebrity worship as those who don’t. Or at least that’s what it looks like to me. It’s just a suggestion. 😉 )
At any rate, I do think the church will survive, although it will be dicey for a while. I suspect that in the end, churches will become less places we go to learn about God and more places we go to celebrate God, the lives he’s given us, and the creation which he crafted for us. And that is not a bad place to wind up, is it?