The modern Evangelical Church in America is facing an exodus of believers.
People are leaving the organized church at a significantly increased rate over any in previous modern history. By one study, 35,000,000 individuals that once identified as Christian will leave the church by 2050 (The Great Opportunity). One of the biggest differences is that people aren’t just leaving one church to join another congregation down the road, they’re leaving the church completely. Disaffiliating. Joining the ranks of the unaffiliated. They’re walking away from organized religion as they’ve known it. Interestingly, by and large, they aren’t walking away from the faith, Jesus, or even a desire to be a part of a larger gathering of believers. No, they’re just walking away from the current iteration of the church that they’ve experienced.
The reasons are many, but a few repeating themes begin to surface…
There’s frustration at the overlap of faith and politics in a way that commonly weds Christianity with conservatism and the Republican party.
There’s a desire for authenticity and simplicity in the midst of a culture that’s increasingly deceptive and complicated.
There’s a desire for real relationships of depth that go beyond the gloss of the lives we present on social media.
There’s a genuine calling to care for the hurting, poor, and downtrodden of our world that the church doesn’t seem to be willing to engage.
There’s a frustration that the church, an organization that actually has a meaningful and hopeful perspective, has largely chosen silence on many significant issues of our times – racism, gender equality, war, guns, etc…
There’s a concern over what oftentimes seems like frivolous or extravagant church spending for things that are often very tangent to the message of Jesus.
Many recent studies show that white believers in their 20s to 40s are the most rapidly de-churching demographics of our nation. They’re walking away from an organization professing faith that they can no longer cohesively synthesize together with their own faith, the Jesus of scripture, and their personal experiences. As Aaron Niequist expressed, there seems to be an ultimatum of sorts that each believer faces – We can give up, or we can give in (The Eternal Current). We can give up and walk away from it all. Or, maybe worse, we can give in and accept that the inconsistencies of scripture and our modern church experience are as good as it’s going to get. We could choose to live in mediocrity and spiritual numbness, but that seems a horrible existence and a disingenuous life.
In an attempt to live consistently with their beliefs, the church is no longer a viable option for many.
You may have read the above paragraphs and assumed that this is really just a liberal purging of the church; a separation of the wheat and chaff from real believers and those who simply want to use Jesus to justify their own inaccurate theology. I’m sure that other issues come to mind – racism, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, etc… that are the divisive issues of our time, both in churches and in the larger conversations of our culture. While these issues are surely at play for many, it’s not the issues themselves that often cause the separation. From many conversations I’ve had with de-churched believers, their qualm isn’t that there were theological differences – for most believers that’s a common experience. No, the dealbreaker for most is the tribalism, arrogance, and judgment of the church that treats the individuals within these challenging topics and people groups as if they are less than human.
LGBTQ individuals, addicts, pregnant women considering abortion, immigrants (both legal and illegal), democrats, pro-choice supporters – they and many other generalized groups are presented by the church as opponents to be defeated or corrected, not individuals to love.
The church has broadly dehumanized people that are perceived to sin differently. We have isolated, condemned, and ignored the pain and struggles of a broken world under the guise of our own self-righteousness.
Don’t get me wrong, the church has chosen to engage culture in competitive ways but it has largely chosen the wrong areas of competition. Even worse, it’s mostly a one-sided competition with culture largely ignorant of the church’s attempts to remain equally relevant. The church has made attempts to compete with culture on media and entertainment. We produce our own music, send our own movies to the box office, write our own books, etc…
Christian media is like Subway – it may be good, but there’s a distinct scent when you encounter it.
Its religious overtones aren’t subtle. Morality is on parade and everything wraps neatly by the end of the song, movie, or book. God is good, all the time (All the time, God is good… old habits die hard, am I right?). Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with any of that – it’s all valid, even if it is a little cheesy. The problem is that it’s really only entertaining believers, not engaging culture. It’s only creating a unique and niche subculture for believers to find alternative entertainment.
It reminds me of being a Chicago Cubs fan living in Cincinnati. As the Cubs have gotten more competitive over the past few seasons, the animosity towards the Cubs has grown in Red’s fandom. When the Cubs come to town, the fans rally around their team and the competitive rhetoric spikes. What I find odd is that for most Cubs fans, there really isn’t a competitive rivalry with the Reds because they’re just not that good. Sorry Reds fans… They’re just not on our radar. Much the same way with the church and modern American culture. Where many believers feel a competitive tension with the entertainment industry, it’s largely one-sided and irrelevant to the world around us.
Meanwhile, modern culture is undergoing some significant shifts. We’re entering an era of unrivaled awareness of inequality around race, sex, poverty, etc… The call for empathy and understanding has echoed throughout our culture. Its brought movements that have ushered in acceptance, love, and the tearing down of walls. Whether you agree with all of them or not, one thing is clear – our culture is getting pretty good at attempting to show love to individuals and people groups that are often targets of hate. There are protests, parades, national awareness days, social media campaigns, support groups, and nonprofits all around us aimed at showing care and love for people that are deemed marginalized yet the church rarely engages, let alone leads.
While the church has competitively pursued culture in creative arts and entertainment, culture has beaten the church at its own game. In John 13, Jesus gives the disciples, and us, a new command – to love one another in the same way He has demonstrated love. He goes on, saying that the way we love one another will be the way that the world identifies us as His disciples.
The church, and Christians, not only have a biblical command straight from the words of Jesus, but a competitive advantage in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to show the love of Jesus to the world around us.
It’s supposed to be our calling card – the clear identifying actions that make our faith and Jesus within us undeniable. Yet for most of the unbelieving world around us the church and its attendees are known to be distant and rigid, sometimes even seen as hateful and judgmental to the world around them. When our primary function is to judge the actions of others and deem them sinful rather than show them the love of Jesus, we have bastardized the path of faith we claim to follow. Until the church begins to put its time and energy into things that matter, and the things that Jesus commands us to engage, we will be stuck spinning our wheels engaging culture in secondary and unnecessary competitions of our own making.
For a growing number of Christians, today’s modern Evangelical church doesn’t look like the Jesus centered gathering of disciples they read about in scripture or wish to be a part of in their own lives.
It’s this tension and frustration that’s pushed many Jesus loving people out the back door of the church.
Much like the Israelites leaving a once peaceful home in the land of Egypt, I pray that God would sustain the exodus of Jesus followers leaving the church now. May they find spiritual quail, mana, and fresh springs of water as they enter this faith desert.
If you or someone you know is wrestling with the challenges of the modern church presented here, I’d love to connect with you. It’s the very reason I started SpirituallyHomeless.com and it’s a safe place for you. You don’t have to wander in the desert alone.
You’re not alone. There’s hope. We can help.
Visit SpirituallyHomeless.com or fill out the contact form on the front page of this blog. Don’t give up. Jesus is worth the struggle, and so are you.