In case you haven’t heard, there is a growing concern in Christendom these days over the droves of people leaving the church. For years now I’ve noticed articles popping up from time to time that have discussed this trend, but lately they are coming at much greater frequency and intensity. The language used to describe the change is increasingly impassioned, too. Just yesterday I read a blog that said our churches are “in many ways hemorrhaging to death”. Strong words, indeed.
The noise of chatter around the issue is deafening, and opinions are of course as hot as they are varied. This is true not only of those faithful church-goers concerned about the shift, but also among those that embrace it as a move of God. Regardless of where your own leanings are, it is increasingly obvious that a shift is most definitely occurring, and that it’s picking up speed. It’s beginning to turn some heads, and NOBODY really knows where this shift is taking us… least of all me.
I myself have been “church-free” for nearly a year now. My feelings, therefore, are as passionate as anyone’s. While I, like many others, have a great deal to say on the matter, it is not my intent to do so as a part of this post. Instead I hope to point out two particular trends I’m seeing in most of the articles being written, specifically in those posts written by people that are faithful church attenders and supporters.
The Switcheroo: A “Church” and THE “Church”
The first trend I want to draw attention to is a problem with definitions, particularly with the word “church”. Most Christians know and would agree that the word church is not used in the Bible to describe buildings or the events held in them. The Bible refers to the people of God as the church. I personally have a real problem with using the word “church” to refer to a building or program (though I’ll resign to doing so in this article), but certainly can respect that most people do in fact use it in this way.
The problem, however, is when someone takes the definition and justification of one idea to reenforce a completely different one. Let me explain. One article I read the other day spent time reminding it’s readers that the church is the bride of Christ, citing Ephesians 5:25-32, just before making the following statement: “…that’s why you go to church. Because Jesus says the Church matters. He loves the Church, and you love Him.”
So here you have verses talking about the Bride of Christ being used to justify the necessity of attending a program; a program you won’t find anywhere in your Bible, I might add. The author manages to get away with this bait-and-switch because the word “church” is used by many to describe both concepts, but this does not mean the concepts are interchangeable.
In a way, the words “church” and “church” are homonyms; two words that are spelled and pronounced the same that mean two completely different things. One refers to the people of God, and the other refers to the institutions we’ve created to systemize those people. Consider two homonyms for the word “bow”; something used to fire arrows and something used to play a violin. These words are spelled and pronounced the same, but I can’t use them interchangeably because their meanings are different. This means I can’t use the story of Robin Hood and his skill with a bow to try and convince you he was an expert violinist.
Yet that is precisely what is done in many articles being written about those “leaving the church”. Such articles go on and on about how Christ loves the church, established the church, and how important the church is all throughout the New Testament, but then they use that to convince you that somehow God himself has instituted the thing we call church today. This is utter nonsense. When someone uses phrases like “go to church”, “start a church”, “dress for church”, etc. they are speaking of an institution unknown to the Bible. I’d advise you to beware of articles that use this tactic to justify human traditions.
The Presumption: They’re Obviously Wrong
The other trend I see is a simple lack of understanding. This is to be expected of course. If the author of an article is a faithful church supporter they obviously don’t share or understand the opinions of those that no longer are. They are left to make their best guesses at what people with differing ideas are thinking.
But my issue with this isn’t that they don’t understand. Of course they don’t understand. It does bother me, however, that there is very little (if any) room left for even the remote possibility that the move away from our long held traditions could be a positive one. It is presumed that 1,700 years of tradition must be right, and there is no way these people could legitimately see something they don’t. I realize this may be too much to expect, but is it really so far fetched to consider that MAYBE the people that are leaving are being drawn out by God himself?
The prevailing attitude I’ve personally encountered is a total unwillingness to entertain questions about the value of our traditions. The Bible says little (and often nothing at all) of buildings, programs, offering plates, or hierarchy among believers, yet these things are too often treated as untouchable sacraments given to us by God himself.
Those that have stopped attending a church are seen as people that either need to be prayed for or guarded against. Some authors talk about them as though they are a disease in need of earlier diagnoses before it’s too late to stop them from leaving. “Solutions” to fix them are offered left and right, but it seems impossible to find an author willing to grant enough respect to entertain that perhaps those who leave are actually seeing something they can’t.
On a personal note, this trend for dismissal strikes home. There was a time not so long ago I was respected as a teacher and one who passionately loved the Lord and his word. People would line up to say how much they enjoyed what I had to say, and go on and on about how God was clearly moving in my life and was speaking through me to them. This changed of course once the questions I was asking made them uncomfortable. I’ll admit I was completely unprepared for how quickly people can turn on you. It breaks my heart that so many have so quickly forgotten who I am, assuming me to be completely deceived and no longer capable of seeing the most obvious truths of God. NOTHING about my walk with him has dwindled at all; it has only intensified since my departure from the church walls.
And yet it’s so clear to me now how little room there is in modern Christianity for the idea that someone could truly love the Lord and simultaneously want nothing to do with church traditions. Many that have left these traditions wish so badly they were able to share freely with other believers the amazing freedom they’ve found in Christ outside of the structures, but all too often they find they’ve already been dismissed by the ones they’d like to talk to. Most people love these traditions and are afraid to entertain anyone or anything that might call them into question.
If I Could Make a Single Request
Most of the articles grappling with this topic attempt to close with some sort of recommendation. The suggestions are diverse: let them go and move on, be more relevant, be less relevant, watch for and remove them sooner, create more opportunity for their gifts… the list goes on. Nobody agrees on WHY people are leaving, but the suggestions on what to do about it all follow a common theme; they are attempts to make it stop.
But if I could throw my hat in the ring and make a suggestion of my own, I’d call for more openness to the possibility that the “done with church” folks may not be entirely crazy and deceived. Is it really so impossible to believe that perhaps God is legitimately doing something in and through them? Is it really a good move to just dismiss them and look for ways of plugging the leak?
Like it or not, this shift is happening. It can’t be ignored. I’m reminded of a story in Acts where the religious leaders of the day were facing a frightening shift of their own. They, too, were scrambling to find a way of controlling it. In their search to stop the rebellion, one of their own, a Pharisee on the council named Gamaliel, reminded them of past changes that had come to nothing and gave them this advice:
“So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)
Wise words. There is so much fear being expressed about what’s happening, but fear shows only a lack of faith. Isn’t God in control? Hasn’t he said of his bride that the gates of hell would not prevail against her? I would remind those looking for solutions that if they are truly executing the plans of God then there is absolutely no need to fear. The present matter will be a memory before long and things can get back to business as usual.
Nobody knows how this is going to play out in the end, but if it’s the Lord will then there really is no solution and all these attempts to plug the leak are at best a waste of time. If it’s not then it’ll blow over and come to nothing. Either way, my suggestion would be not to dismiss your brothers and sisters that have left by assuming they simply have a problem, or worse that you can solve it. My main request would be that you hear us out and consider what we feel the Lord is genuinely doing in our lives.