Recently, a parishioner who happens to be a former congregational pastor sent me something that he found in the magazine Christianity Today. It is actually a piece of information that I came across in The Christian Century as well. It is a quote from John Longhurst on research about why people are leaving the church (CC: April 16, 2014, p. 9).
Evangelicals are leaving the church because they are angry. Roman Catholics are leaving because they feel betrayed. And mainline Christians? They’re leaving because they’re bored.
That quote appeared on a page that featured a bar graph about the “Decline of Institutions” with all the appropriate sociological descriptions for each age group – Millennials (18-33), Gen X (34-49), Boomers (50-68), and the Silent Generation (69-86). The Builders (WW II generation) have finally fallen off the graph. So there exists only one group (Silent Generation) between my group (Boomers) and the end. I hope the Silent folk hang around for a long time to come – I just hope they can find something to say. Of course, the graph shows that the younger groups are much less inclined to participate in the institutions that the older groups have given much significant time and energy. It is most likely that anyone reading this post is at least somewhat aware of “institutional decline.”
Over the past few weeks, I have also come across a number of stories of people of faith leaving the church because they have felt as if the church was hindering the growth of their faith. Their experience of church was one in which they did not find the presence of Christ. The sense of the Sacred was absent for them within the institution. I read of one person who said that she was actually leaving the church so that “she could find Christ.” The telling of these stories almost always include the painful way that folks have been treated by others in the church.
Well, having been part of the “institutional church” for most of my life, (I have a problem with the way “institution” is most often used and understood in description of the church, but that’s another article) I thought that I would tell you why I have stuck it out. I have written earlier about why I stayed with the life of faith, but this different. This is about why I have stayed in the church. First, however, I want to say that I recognize and honor the reasons others have chosen to leave. I’ll readily admit that some of the ways church has been practiced can leave people with feelings of anger, betrayal and boredom. I’ll acknowledge that some people and groups of people have been treated awful by the church – that the place of love and grace has been toward some a place of judgment and exclusion. Let’s be honest. The church has its fair share of people who can be real jerks (substitute any four-letter description you feel led to use). After thirty years in ministry, I’ve met plenty of them. They are people who, for whatever reason, believe that their obnoxious behavior toward others is something that Christ does not need to transform. Such folks can cause significant damage to an entire congregation if they get into a position of leadership. And they do get into leadership positions because too often the church simply looks for folks who are willing to say “yes,” instead of folks who are truly gifted to lead. So for those who have been mistreated or seen the church mistreat others and feel betrayed and angry enough to leave, I understand. And for those who are simply bored with the fact that too many times the church focuses on matters that don’t really matter, I get it. I know why you have left. Truth is, I have been close, very close, to walking out the door with you. But I haven’t and here is why.
Yes, there are some real jerks in church. I know some by name. But I have also found a lot of really good people in the church too. People who are seriously concerned about doing what is right and striving to follow Christ in this day and time. I was just in a meeting with one of the saints of our present congregation. An 89 year old man by the name of Hoby. Hoby is one of the kindest, gentlest, most honorable people I have ever met. He still gives leadership in our church in many ways and presides at the Lord’s Table. He greets everyone with a deep sense of humility and genuineness. He has a gentle, welcoming hug that embraces all. Not too long ago, in a meeting around an important matter that involved some significant change for our church, I heard this wise old gentleman say, “Well, we better listen to what the younger folks are saying because we want them here.” The meeting went silent after Hoby spoke, because everyone knew he spoke the truth. Throughout my time in the church I’ve met a lot of folks like Hoby – John Ross, Bob and Barb Miller, Bob and Anna McDaniel, Rich Davis, Doc Martin – just to name a very few. I could name many more. People who have blessed my life. People who have helped me to experience the presence of the living Christ. People who have helped me to remember the Sacred reality of life and given me and my family the opportunity to give and receive love. Such folks help to balance out those who aren’t as kind or caring, or just plain mean. I don’t let those folks zap my energy or take my attention anymore. If that starts to happen I think how blessed I have been to have people like Hoby in my life. The place I met Hoby, and all the others like him, is in the church.
Another reason I have stayed with the church is because, as much as I love sports and good weather, I need something else to talk about. I want to talk about meaning and purpose and what really matters in life and the church has been a place for me to do that. In the church we can and should talk about such things as what is right and what is wrong and how we arrive at our conclusions. We can and should talk about our own mortality and what that means for how we live. We can and should talk about what it means to care for each other and all others. We can and should talk about overcoming prejudice and not living in fear of one another. I need some depth in life and maybe because I as a pastor have pushed the envelope at times, the church has been a place where that desire for depth has been explored. Not too long ago, I was leading a class and some of the folks were sharing from a very deep place about their own lives and I can remember being moved to tears. Not so much by their stories, but by the fact that a safe place had been created where they felt it was okay to share that part of themselves. I understand why some folks have left out of boredom. Too often the church steers away from important matters because they are either afraid that someone will be offended or because they don’t want to deal with the different opinions that can arise. But if we don’t talk about matters of importance, I don’t know what it is we are to spend our time talking about.
Finally, I have stayed in the church because, honestly, I don’t know where else to go. I crave human community and a sense of connection. I desire to live life in such a way that I feel like I am making a difference and, for me, that means following Jesus and being a part of that group of people who are seeking to follow him as well. If I were to leave the “institutional church,” I would look for another group of folks who were on this same path and once I found them – that would be church too. I’ve decided to stick it out in the church, because I think, if I left, I’d just find church somewhere else.
So, that’s why I’ve stayed. Folks like Hoby, who truly loves Jesus and strives to love others. Such people in the church have fed my faith, immensely more than others have diminished it. Because I get to have conversations with people on topics that matter. And then, after our conversation, roll up our sleeves and get to the work that matters. And because I don’t know where else I would go. So, I’ve stayed with the church and I think it has been a good decision for me. It has helped me to be a better person and helped me to work toward a better world.
But I want to make something clear, though I have stayed in the church, I have not given the church my heart and I won’t. My heart, the deepest part of me, belongs to another. And I will explain what I mean by that next week.