Dropping out of Church
December 21, 2012
Charisma magazine put out an interesting article this week entitled, “Why are so many quitting the church?” In it author Matthew Green justified the house church or organic church movement. In the end he cautioned readers to not come against the Church or to forsake the gathering together of the saints. His treatment of the topic was informative enough to inspire this commentary.
Green provided the usual list of reasons people usually quit church (e.g., wounded or disappointed by leaders, bored with irrelevant church programs or petty conflicts) but at the heart was the feeling of being “relationally disconnected” and asking “whether their Sunday morning ritual of sitting in a pew, singing songs and listening to a sermon is what it means to obey the Scriptures’ command to be the church.”
Green also spoke of the damage the seeker-sensitive and church-growth movements had upon attendance. Rather than becoming a place for discipleship and accountability, the church turned into another “optional consumer product.” For the young, Green said, “this option is just as easily ignored.” They cited a 2007 study by LifeWay Research which revealed that “70 percent of young adults ages 23 to 30 stopped attending church regularly… between ages 18 and 22.”
The Deeper Problem
Green quoted LifeWay President Ed Stetzer who lamented that, “Parents and churches are not passing on a robust Christian faith” or an accompanying commitment to the church. As Green said, part of the problem is that the church does not foster active discipleship. He referred to this problem as an epidemic.
Green introduced readers to United Methodist pastor, James Bradshaw, who resigned his position after 22 years. Green said Bradshaw left to seek an “authentic understanding of the kingdom of God.” Bradshaw explained,
The organized church today has been infiltrated over the centuries by religious things that have watered down the gospel… It started in A.D. 300 with Constantine. The church sold its birthright when the apostles and prophets said to the king, “You govern, and we’ll do the spiritual stuff.”
This author remembers how it felt going into a liturgical church service recently; i.e., one with long-standing priestly rituals. One could plainly see, at this particular church anyway, the priests did exactly that. They took care of all the “spiritual stuff.” That was when the Lord suddenly made me painfully aware of the loneliness He had for His people. They were there to connect to Him but were being prevented from doing so by the traditional thinking of the clergy’s role. This was not done intentionally, of course. But the average person’s perception of their own role in spiritual matters when compared to the role of their go-between, the priest, was seriously limited.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I began to grieve deeply for this loss; their’s and God’s. Many who attend such churches have no idea what joys they are missing! In the thinking of many within these walls, it appeared to me that those who really wanted to get close to God believed they needed to become priests, monks, or nuns. However, the restrictions of their lifestyle of celibacy is not usually something most people are willing to sacrifice. Consequently, it is at this point that they frequently stop pursuing greater intimacy with Christ altogether, relegating their lives to the secular world. Tragically, they come to believe that those committed to the religious life of a priest, monk, or a nun qualify to have fun with Jesus!
The truth is, that outdated thinking came from the Old Covenant priesthood where the priest was, indeed, a go-between. As a matter of fact, the veil in the Temple represented the separation of sin that existed between us and God. Only the high priest was allowed behind the veil once per year to connect with God. However, once Jesus died, God ripped that veil in two and we were granted direct access to Him (see Matthew 27:51)!
This type of thinking doesn’t just exist in the more traditional or liturgical churches. Many people who go to nondenominational or mainline churches often see those in “full-time ministry” as more spiritually connected to God than they get to be. That is because there is a disconnection that occurs when people sit in pews. It is too easy to disengage and become passive, sort of like we did when we were kids in school.
Dennis Reanier from Revival Cry shared the following on TBN,
Many times we say we want revival in the churches today, and yet there’s this structure that we have created over time. Constantine put us in buildings in order to contain us and keep us in the walls of the church. When we say we want to “get back to the book of Acts,” there’s another structure God has in mind. I believe He is rearranging structure today.
It’s not that church is good or bad but God wants us to get outside of the walls of the church because Constantine was trying to keep us controlled, trying to keep… the message [from being spread]. I believe today the Holy Spirit wants a group of people gone viral, gone rogue like Sarah Palin with the creativity of Holy Spirit; as individuals just going out rather than… being contained by an institution. But everywhere the people of God go that there would be signs, miracles, and wonders…
What Reanier is speaking of is part of the Great Commission Jesus gave to all believers. Jesus said, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8, New International Version) Many people don’t have a single clue that Jesus was referring to every believer when He said that. But how many churches today teach Christians to heal the sick and raise the dead? Not many! Why is that? Could it be that they fear their jobs will be put at risk when the hierarchy finds out about it? Are they afraid talking of taking God at His Word? What if their donors get nervous and leave the church? How will they sustain their jobs?
Reanier, for one, is taking this message outside the walls of the church, organizing public venues with like minded ministers such as Jason Upton, Sean Smith, and Steve Thompson, who have their thumb on the pulse of this generation to teach ordinary Christians how to be the church.
Since Bradshaw’s departure from his pastorate, Green said, that Bradshaw has been…
“detoxing” from organized church and has connected with an apostolic network in Atlanta that shares his views. Although he admits to being tempted to start a nondenominational church, he notes, “It would have been the same thing all over again—the house of Saul.”
Instead, he envisions himself tent making in the secular workplace so that he can pursue relational discipleship among a smaller group of people in hopes of raising up “spiritual sons”—sons he believes are much less likely to be dropouts from the body of Christ.
As Green pointed out, the Lord is moving upon many at the grassroots level to bring about reform to the Church. Heeding this call to raise spiritual sons and daughters, people are forming home groups or planting organic churches that are completely disassociated with any larger governing church body. Their hope is to make the Church what Jesus intended it to be; personal, relational, healing, and equipping. In other words, relevant to people’s individual lives. In the process they are also changing the world.
Interestingly, just as many pastors are stepping down from their pulpits, I encounter many Christians out there like myself who knew they were called by the Lord for some purpose but were placed on the back burner for many years. They have been equipped to arise at “such a time as this.” Far from being inactive in the ministry, they were trained in the school of the Holy Spirit to become spiritual fathers and mothers to those individuals that the Lord has brought their way over the years.
Like them, I spent years in the church wondering what relevance a large congregation could have on a dying and hurting world. While busy reaching out to people in the street I was aware that evangelism and the institutionalized church had very little in common. Sadly, many of those I ministered to could not even walk into a church without feeling a great deal of discomfort. Once they were able to manage that, unless they knew how to negotiate the “system,” it was all too easy for them to fall through the cracks. There were just too many people in the church who took up the pastor’s attention for him to notice when his people were in trouble.
I believe that was why Christ’s model for discipleship took place in a small group. In other words, those called to evangelize the world should probably limit their reach to about twelve disciples. Many churches have recognized this and integrated the care group concept into the structure of their church. (As Reanier stated, the structure of the church is changing). However, care groups often function like mini modesl of the larger church; rarely reconnecting with people when they suddenly disappear from the group, limiting all the ministry that goes on to the weekly lesson. Conversely, the people of the house church movement tend to invest themselves in the lives of their people beyond the structure of the meeting. This alleviates the disconnection people often experience within the larger churches and care groups. As such, each person in the group gets to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Does this mean there is no place for larger church congregations? No! There is something really special about coming together within a larger group to worship. It is a great place to catch up on what is happening in the community and the larger body of Christ. And God definitely called us to live out our faith in community. This just means the larger church needs to be looking into ways to foster relationships and bring together programs for effective discipleship which will equip ordinary believers to go outside the walls of the church to be Christ to the world; helping them disciple the babes in Christ so they, too, can turn around and do exactly the same thing. In the process, however, they can’t foster a conveyor belt mentality and get lost in the numbers of people they bring in thereby depersonalizing the program. If ministry is not done from a place of love and concern for individuals, it is not authentic Christianity.
Green gets the last word on this matter, as he said it all so beautifully:
In this season of uncertainty about what a genuine church looks like, it is essential that we hold on to the historic, biblical concept of the family of God and our membership in it. Although it is crucial for us to reject old, tired models of church that don’t inspire vibrant faith, we must be careful that we aren’t attempting to tear down what God intends to build.
After all, it was Jesus who said in Matthew 16:18: “‘On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ ” In the end, regardless of the opinions of men, the church will stand.
1. Green, M. (2012). Why are so many Christians quitting the church? [Online article Charisma Magazine]. Retrieved on December 21, 2012 from http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/church-ministry/7279-the-church-dropout
2. Reanier, D. (2012). TBN Interview – Dennis Reanier. [YouTube video]. Retrieved on December 21, 2012 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25H2qn0Qonc
© Tracey Nelson, 2012
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