I’m Finished Quitting Church

imageI 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.

Fifty Years from Now, Part 2

signexitledrdI noticed a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog site yesterday, and it wasn’t because of the funny Advent story about Donald, or the sobering reminder of the AIDS pandemic, it was because people were reading the post called “Fifty Years from Now, Will We Still Be Doing This?” (or maybe they just wanted to push the button on the nifty polling device).

I’ve been surprised by the results of that poll.  When I last checked, 41 percent of respondents thought we would still be doing church the same way fifty years from now; 39 percent thought the church would be bigger and stronger than ever; while only 20 percent thought the church would have evolved into something else by then, perhaps a collection of house churches.  The results suggest that the people reading my blog are either a) stubbornly optimistic or, b) woefully uninformed (smile).  There is a third option, of course, and that is that my readers are believers who know that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

That’s true.  But let’s take a look at the facts:

According to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002.  In 2005, instead of asking people “Do you attend church regularly?” sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler asked them, “Did you attend church last Sunday?” and got numbers closer to 22 percent of the total population.  You don’t even have to know the facts to know that churchgoing in America has changed significantly in the last fifty years.  How will it change in the next fifty? 

While the movement Jesus started will never die, the institutional church seems to be in trouble.  I remember hearing Biship William H. Willimon report, years ago, that the United Methodist Church was losing 2,000 members each day.  Even strong, evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, once thought to be immune to such decline, have shown a recent downturn in membership.  Those churches that are thriving, mostly megachurches, tend to achieve their success through agressive church growth strategies that often minimize the demands of the gospel.  

First Baptist, Richmond, has been able to maintain its vitality largely through its television ministry, which reaches an estimated 20,000 people each week.  While other downtown churches are struggling, our sanctuary remains comfortably full on Sunday, and the visitors and new members who come to us often say they first saw us “on TV.”  Still, the people who actually come into our building each week represent less than a third of our total membership.   And of those estimated 20,000 people who watch our services now we need to ask how many will be watching ten years from now?  Or thirty?  Or fifty?

I’m still reading Julia Duin’s book (Quitting Church), and I’m still asking people what they think the future holds.  I’m finding that many of them, instead of being depressed by the statistics, are excited about how the church might change.  One of those people is my friend and colleague Amy Butler, pastor of Washington, DC’s, Calvary Baptist Church.  If you’d like to read her thoughts, click here.  If you’d like to join the conversation, click on the word “comments” below and let me know what you’re thinking.  And if you’d rather just click the button on one of those nifty polling devices, try this one: