Opinions vary as to how much, depending on who you ask, but most major religious surveys agree on the over-arching (and somewhat alarming) data that shows church attendance is in rapid decline. This trend is no respecter of denominations, as the mainline Christian church across the board continues to decrease in numbers.
I find this data alarming indeed, but not for reasons one might expect from a pastor.
Among the many reasons “experts” offer as the cause for this decline are a shifting morality in our culture, the abundance of negative influences and the overall decay of societal values.
What makes the decline so alarming for me is our reluctance to admit that we in the church might be part of the problem. While all of the reasons stated above may well be true, the church itself bears some of the responsibility. Most of the people who fall into those statistics are what we often refer to as “de-churched.” That is to say, they have had some kind of interaction with the church sometime during their lifetime, but at the present are not currently affiliated with any organized religious group.
At the top of the list of things people cite as being wrong with the church is an attitude of condemnation and judgement. There is a story in the New Testament that brings such an attitude into clear focus. A woman was caught in the act of a terrible sin (of that, even she had no doubt.) For her sin, she was nearly stoned to death by the religious types who were armed with their rules and rocks.
They had already judged, and were well on their way to condemning and executing her when Jesus stepped in and offered an alternate solution. He loved her, most likely embraced her, and then extended to her life-changing grace and forgiveness.
Two very different responses, with two very different outcomes.
I don’t know all the reasons, in some cases excuses, people have for leaving the church. I am, however, willing to acknowledge some of their reasons are very legitimate.
The church is a strange mix of the divine and human. The sacred and the profane come head to head inside the walls of the religious institution. For all the good the church does, and there is much, it also gets it wrong sometimes. When we get it wrong, it often results in people getting hurt.
Such is the potential when a perfect God is represented by an imperfect people. I am sure I have contributed to the hurt along the way. Sadly, with our humanity we sometimes build barriers that hide the holy.
That story I mentioned earlier offers an important lesson. When the time comes that a person senses a desire to deal with his or her shortcomings, there are two responses that potentially can change the outcome of his or her life.
As the faith community we can choose rules and rocks or love and grace. If we choose the latter, more people might be willing to give the church, and thus God, a second chance to love them. The church has to offer love and an authentic, meaningful worship experience that has relevance to a person’s life if it hopes to stop and reverse the downward trend.
Thankfully, there are some faith communities out there that understand this and seek to demonstrate it. It is my deepest hope that people don’t give up looking for one simply because they have found too many that don’t.
(Randy Monk is pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church in Evans.)