I mean, I’m finished with that book I’ve been reading, the one called Quitting Church by Washington Times Religion Editor Julia Duin.
The subtitle of the book is “Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It,” and yet I came to the end of the book without feeling that either question had been answered. That the faithful are fleeing seems clear: religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002. More recent studies suggest that only 22 percent of Americans go to church regularly (p. 11). Why people are leaving is less clear.
Duin’s chapter titles and subtitles give some clues:
1. The Flood Outward: why so many good people are leaving
2. The Irrelevant Church: give them a reason to be here
3. Searching for Community: what we really wish church could be
4. Emergence and Resurgence: adjusting to the twenty-first century
5. The Loneliest Number: why singles over thirty-five are saying good-bye
6. Not So Solid Teaching: why Christians cannot exit the obstetrics ward
7. Is the Pastor the Problem? Or is the whole system broken?
8. The Other Sex: why many women are fed up
9. Bewildered Charismatics: looking for the spirit in a parched land
10. Bringing Them Back: if they want to come
Julia Duin strikes me as a smart, conservative, single mom, who became a Christian during the “Jesus Movement” of the 70’s. Some of her complaints about church seem deeply personal. For example: the church hasn’t helped her find a life partner (chapter 5); she’s tired of getting “baby food” instead of solid biblical teaching (chapter 6); she’s encountered some egotistical, out-of-touch pastors along the way (chapter 7); she is one of those women whose gifts are overlooked by conservative churches (chapter 8); she’s a charismatic who’s had trouble finding a church like the ones she remembers from her days in the Jesus movement (chapter 9). Some of her other complaints, however, are true for everyone, particularly her insistence that the church must deal with the questions people are actually asking (chapter 2); that the church must help those who are starving for life-giving, life-changing community (chapter 3); and that the church must adjust to life in the 21st century (chapter 4).
Duin’s last chapter includes this provocative paragraph: “In the local church, everything depends on the pastor, who must want to reach the more mature Christian and be willing to make the necessary changes to attract this group. I’ve not seen many churches like this, that concentrate on discipleship and leave the bottle-feeding to the megachurches, but I’m willing to bet such a church would do well in this era of dumbed-down, purpose-driven, seeker-friendly Christianity. But the pastor must be willing to tackle the hard questions or this experiment will fail” (p. 178).
While she may be right about most of that, I would say that it doesn’t only depend on the pastor, but also on a church that is willing to ask the hard questions, risk authentic community, and change with the times. I have a feeling Richmond’s First Baptist is one of those kind of churches, or will be. As a member of our staff said last week, “But Jim, people are not quitting this church. They’re coming, they’re joining, they’re giving, they’re serving.”
Yes, thank God. They are. And for their sakes and ours may we never stop asking the hard questions or trying to find the answers…together.