One of the greatest surprises I have encountered in my almost 4 years of ministry as a lead pastor relates to the practice of leaving church. Growing up in the South, there would be times when people left the church to begin to attend other churches. In the DC area it seems especially in my setting, such is not the case. When people leave the church, they seem to leave the church for no church.
It makes me sad every time it happens especially because the reasons given for such a departure usually aren't things that can be "fixed." These aren't people storming off mad because of some controversal vote at a business meeting. They aren't citing me as a horrible pastor. These aren't people fleeing because they found some other community that meets their needs in a deeper way. They leave simply because they want to leave. And these are some of the reasons they give:
1. I am too spiritual for the church.
2. I don't need a community to live out my faith.
3. I'd rather pray at home and do yoga.
4. I am too busy for church. I travel so much for work and fun. Considering all the time I'm gone it just doesn't seem worth it to come during the couple of times a year that I don't have anything better to do.
5. I don't like ____ person. I can't come to the same worship space as them. I've been hurt. I will not come back. Reconciliation . . . that is out of the question.
6. My life is just too hard right now. I can't be a part of a community. I need space. Lots of space.
7. This ____ project at church didn't turn out like I hoped it would. Since I didn't get my way, I can't come back. It's too embarrassing.
And the list could go on.
At this juncture, the direction of this blog post could go several ways. I could pout. I could suggest a superiority of those church going Christians who keep on keeping on even when unfavorable things happen. I could strive to make comments about the state of American religion and the dying mainline church. I could propose some grand idea about how to reform the church so that such "I quit the church" declarations decrease.
But, I won't do any of these things because I'm just not sure any of them are right or helpful.
The most helpful thing I know to say is to simply talk about my experience honestly. It is always good to start with a clear sense of where you are if you ever want to move to any other place.
People are leaving church for no church. But I don't think this makes the church any less important in society (for example, I do weddings and funerals all the time for those who are without a church who want to celebrate major life events in a holy space with a minister). Nor, do I think that folks are searching spiritually any less. They are just finding what they want outside our walls. They find God in nature. They find God in community seminars. They find God in their relationships. Which begs us to ask ourselves the larger question: what are our walls for?