Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quitting Church

All the numbers point to it. The clergy (quietly) admits it. Evangelical Christianity is on the verge of a serious decline. It is perhaps only a generation away from the near collapse mainstream churches saw in the 60s and 70s. There is a growing number of books on the subject - I have already reviewed The Fall of the Evangelical Nation - and I have just finished Quitting Church: Why The Faithful Are Leaving And What To Do About It by Julia Duin, the Religion Editor for the Washington Times.

Duin has been a religion journalist for some time, a position that has allowed her access to many people in leadership, and to many people who have left their positions of leadership. The reasons for the decline seem as numerous as the people leaving, but certain themes emerge. The church has very little to do, or to say, to the lives people live through the rest of the week. It concentrates it efforts on winning the lost and consequently leaves the mature Christians to go hungry. What is taught is watered down in order to be inoffensive and the lack of serious teaching is reflected in the unchristian lives so many expressed Christians live. The Church is coming apart at the top with many ministers and leaders burnt out or discouraged. Tired of trying to live perfect lives for others, tired of not being fed, tired of having to find a niche within the existing structure or risk being ignored.

I am not surprised by any of this, having gone to church for almost thirty years. Duin herself came in to the Church through the Charismatic Jesus movement of the 70s and wonders what happened to it. Where is the Spirit now? Has it been completely shut out, locked down in order to allow programs to run smoothly? Her book is long on descriptions, but offers little in the way of solutions. Of course, that may not be her fault. Authors don't necessarily provide their book's subtitle.

Duin makes a lot of good points. One of the book's sharper points is when she makes the connection between sexual struggles, being single, and the Church's need to help unmarried Christian connect. Anyone unfamiliar with the Evangelical community might think that's blindingly obvious, but to too many inside the community its not. They actually are blind to the obvious. The book might have been stronger still if she had spent some time addressing the many conflicting opinions and solutions people have adopted. Some fault the Evangelical movement for not adapting to the world of the 21st century, particularly in its views towards women, but many of the people spoken to have turned instead to churches, such of the Orthodox, who aren't known for accommodating modern trends. Sometimes Reform theology is seen as the problem, but when one minister faults Charismatics for being Arminianist Duin lets the statement stand without comment.

I suspect that the audience for this book are the many Christians who feel isolated. Who wonder if they're the only ones suffering through these discouraging times. Of course, many people feel this way at some time in their walk and then reconnect. My own feelings about the possible end of the Evangelical movement, as we know it today, is mixed. I agree with many in this book that in its efforts to become 'seeker friendly' it has watered down too much of its identity, and that the result is exactly the opposite of what it intended. It has become less relevant, not more. My strongest concern at this time is that its self-destruction will leave behind a burned out generation. One that is so convinced that it already knows everything, that it can't listen to what it wants to hear. Whereas in my review of Wicker's book I said that the Evangelicals will simply adapt to a new reality, I am now wondering if they will have "ears to hear." It may well take the rise of a new generation before we see a broader revival within the North American Church. Let's hope not.