Why God's People Leave "the Church" And How To Help Them Stay

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A few weeks back I received a message from a young woman I hadn’t talked to in more than a decade. I knew her as a fresh-faced, eager little girl who never stopped talking and never stopped smiling. Even now I can see her thick, bobbed hair bouncing to the rhythm of her delightful chatter.  And yet, here was a message from a woman, all grown up, gorgeous, staring back at me from a small square profile pic.

The message was long, articulate, and hard.

She said she didn’t really go to church anymore. She wrote,

The church has turned into a man-made, self-sustaining machine of sorts, rather than the spiritual sanctuary and meeting ground that I believe God intended it to be.

She made it clear that she hadn’t left God. She just didn’t really see God in His church.

She sent me a link to an article (one of many circulating online recently) about why people are leaving church and asked me to consider it, perhaps to write about the same subject but through my lens. Maybe I could open eyes…

People send me blog post ideas pretty frequently. My dad usually has one for me every time I visit. I’m honored by these requests. When someone asks me to write about something close to his or her heart, they’re entrusting me with something precious.

But this request was different. It felt heavier.

I’ve been thinking about why people leave church for a few years now, reading books and blogs and magazine articles about millenials, reading the contentious comments section every time someone suggests the church (in my circles the Church of Christ) consider changing practices or patterns. Meanwhile, I’ve seen young people I love, men and women I know love God, struggle to hang on in churches they don’t understand and churches that don’t understand them.

I’ve read that young people leave “the church” because our tradition refuses to allow instruments or to encourage women to participate more broadly in our Sunday worship events.

I’ve read that people leave church because we care too much about a slick Sunday worship service.

I’ve read people leave the church because we spend too much time talking about issues.

Because we don’t seem loving.

Because we do seem angry.

Because we speak a language young people and outsiders don’t understand.

Because we don’t like questions.

Because we aren’t authentic.

Because, as my friend said, church feels more like a machine than a sanctuary.

The list of complaints is long.

And I think it deserves a listen. I think we owe these people, men and women who really do want to find God in our midst, I think we owe them a hearing.

In so many cases, they’re spot on.

The church does need to change.

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My husband is a preacher, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the local church. And I have definite feelings about what the word “church” means.

Few things get the Gerhardts more riled up than when somebody says “The church is so…” or “The church never…” or “The church can’t…” Those phrases bother us, because we wonder what exactly people mean when they say them. They’re an attempt to generalize what is actually very specific and personal.

It’s like when we invite friends over to our house for dinner and they say they can’t come but follow up with “Hope you guys have fun!” And we wonder, “Who is this ‘you guys’?” Because if the people invited to the party don’t come to the party, there is no party.

When I was a little girl, I learned early that the church is the people. All the people.

That’s Church of Christ 101. You don’t go to church; you are the church.

So if that’s true, what do people mean when they say they’re leaving the church?

They mean they’re leaving the people.

They may not think that’s what they mean. It’s easier to leave an organization, a hierarchy, a body outside ourselves. But if you root around for long enough you’ll see:

When people leave the church, they leave because of people.

You may think I’m about to launch in on people who leave, but I’m not. I think we people can make leaving the people an easy thing to do.

It’s easy to leave the people of God when the people of God don’t look like God.

  • When they spend all their time talking about the rules for playing the game but never play it.
  • When they say faith is essential and then never, ever do anything that requires it.
  • When they disrespect you or hurt you, abuse you or oppress you.
  • When they look and act exactly the same today as they did ten years ago, not one ounce holier or kinder or more alive.
  • When they talk more than they listen.

Jesus said to judge a tree by its fruit. A lot of people are looking around at the Christians close by, wondering what happened to the harvest.

Likely they’re not looking hard enough.

But should finding fruit among God’s elect require a magnifying glass?

Fruit isn’t hard for me to find. And maybe that’s why I struggle to counsel the leaving. I look around on any Sunday, and I see fruit everywhere. I see parents, exhausted but trying, driven by Christ’s love to get their kids up out of bed to hear stories about God. I see men and women opening their lives and homes to the homeless, abandoned, and lost. I see people taking giant risks with their money and time, risks that don’t even seem like risks through the lens of big faith.

I sit in a circle with my small group or around a table at women’s Bible study, and I watch people grapple with hard questions and hard decisions, totally committed to God’s plan for their lives.

I see God all over the people in my church family. I would never leave it, because I’m not about to leave the living presence of Christ.

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As I strain to offer wisdom, I’m reminded of that Ghandi quote you encounter so often during graduation season; He said, “Be the change you want to see.” I’d change it to this for our purposes: Be the church you want to see.

The church will never change until the people in it do.

Not the people in some broad, general sense. The church won’t change, until YOU do.

If we really care about the people who’re leaving, we’ll stop pointing fingers at systems and programs, patterns, and methods and we’ll step up and into our full identity in Christ—becoming people who’re full of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God desires living sacrifices, lives lived entirely under His command, and in those lives He works wonders, the kinds of inexplicable marvels that only make sense in light of God’s power and grace. Ours is a gospel of miraculous transformation, of resurrection and freedom and eternal, abundant life, starting NOW. It’s not boring or stale or irrelevent. It changes the way we live every second of every day.

When we live that kind of life up close to other people, they cannot help but be drawn to the light of our Savior.

People don’t leave a Savior they can see.

I know this is true because I have friends who stuck around when all they wanted to do was leave. They disagreed with the preaching. They didn’t buy into the programs. They felt like progress was too slow. They struggled to connect in worship.

And they stayed. Because they were living among God’s people. Because they were loved and challenged, inspired and accepted. because time after time when they encountered the body, they encountered Christ.

If we want people to stay, we should let God transform us into the image of Christ.

"And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus." I John 4:16-17

Comments should refer to the ideas in the post and be directed toward me, the author. I will delete any comments directed toward or specifically about the young lady mentioned at the beginning. We are blessed by her vulnerability, and I’d hate to see it mishandled. Thanks!