5 reasons people walk away from church

by Jesse Johnson, The Cripplegate

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In my fifteen years as a pastor, I’ve seen my fair share of people who have left the church. Some have left the churches where I’ve been on staff for other churches—the sort of greener pasture mentality, you could say—and others have left the church all together. Its that second category that fascinates me the most.

Why would someone leave the church? I’ve kept a little journal over the years, and when I’ve followed up with someone who has left the church for no church (as opposed to simply transferring their membership somewhere else), I’ve jotted down why. This exercise has served as one-part prayer journal, one-part sociological survey.

Recently I read through those names. Looking back on it, five main reasons stand out why people leave the church for no church:

1. Internet/multi-site/midweek/home group.

I’ve known quite a few people whose initial stop after leaving church has been some sort of “almost church.” What I mean by that is a group that is like a church, without actually being a church. Think anything from a home-group study to a midweek “young adults” group to an internet church.

I say this is their “initial” stop because they generally don’t last long there. Either the group folds, the young adults grow up, or the patient develops an immunity to the internet church virus. These aren’t long-term alternatives to church, but I’ve known a few people who have tried.

2. Relational Isolation

Sometimes people try church for a while, and they just don’t develop relationships with other there. They attend Sunday after Sunday, but after several months, they just don’t feel like they know people there. Others seem so plugged-in, with their friendships, ministries, and long-term relationships. Over time, the new person starts to think, “this just isn’t working.”

I’m not saying the blame for this is on the church. The truth is, the person probably isn’t availing themselves of the opportunities to grow. Its possible they just don’t know where to start though, and I know several people who have simply given up trying.

3. Negative Association

The more the true church gets known as standing against culturally accepted sins, the more likely it is that some people will simply leave. Over the last three or four years (ever since the Obergefell decision), I’ve had people attend church for a few weeks, then simply ask, “Wait a minute…is this one of those churches that is against same-sex marriage?”

I’m actually thankful for that cultural clarity, because it helps reinforce the narrow gate at the front end of a person’s relationship with Christ.

4. Not being fed

This is the  “there are no good churches where I live” crowd, and its always humbling as a pastor to have someone say that after being at your church! These lines vary from the patently untrue (eg., “you never talk about Jesus”) to the truth hurts (eg. “you hardly ever talk about grace”). The common denominator in this that I’ve heard is that the person has in their mind some kind of teaching that they want to get out of church, but they just can’t find a place that scratches that itch.

While in some cases there may be some truth to this (empty pulpits do lead to empty pews), but I think many of these four groups are just reflecting symptoms, when its possible there is a root cause:

5. Unregenerate

The truth is, the underlying heart issues today are essentially the same as in the NT—many people leave the church because they are not regenerate. They simply have never been born again.

For that reason, they don’t love fellowship with other believers, and they don’t feel like they have anything in common with believers who are not their age/ethnicity. So they gravitate toward a group that is more homogeneous, looking for some point of contact with others. Or they simply give up trying to make friendships with people who are friends with Jesus.

In other cases, they are unwilling to stand for truth in a world that is drifting away from it. They have counted the cost, and come up short. They listen to sermons where the law leads to gospel, but they can’t hear the gospel because their ears blocked out the law.

Its not the case in every situation, but many who leave our churches just weren’t saved to begin with. Maybe they grew up in church, or maybe they have been there for days or decades. But at the end of their time there, they didn’t have a relationship with Christ.

I think this basic reality is a reminder of God’s sovereignty in salvation and the pastor’s impotency to save people through is own effort. Often we are prone to thinking, “God, if you just give me a few opportunities to follow up with this person, and answer their questions, become their friend, then they will certainly become a Christian.” Then a dozen conversations later, they walk away. Its not that pastors or churches did something wrong; more likely its that the problem is not one that can be fixed by man.

What about you? What are some reasons you’ve heard people give for leaving church altogether?

Interview with a Missionary in Northern Iraq RE: The Memphis Dialogues

While engaging in my favorite research activity of late (The Memphis Dialogues), I came across an audio file of a segment of an interview with a Christian missionary who lives in Mosul, in the Ninevah Province of Northern Iraq. Here are questions asked and the answers given by Neil, the missionary.

Q: Two things you know living in Iraq. You know how ugly, how murderous, how horrific radical Islam is. You also know how the great majority of Muslims do not share those sentiments. From your perspective as a missionary in a Muslim world, was it a wise thing for James (White) to try to have civil discussions, to bring walls down, to un-demonize certain people, and therefore Christians and Muslims talk face to face, or is this just being a ‘useful idiot for Islam’, and now you basically desensitize people to the dangers of radical lslam. What was your take?

A: I love that James White did this. I think it was a beautiful example of who we are supposed to be. Of course we’re supposed to be wise, but we come with love. The demonstration of the Kingdom of God comes with humility and love, and if I’m debating or arguing it’s not going to sound like love to the person I’m arguing with. This is what we do all the time. We sit down with people who are on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of belief and faith, and we have a choice. I’m either going to argue with you about who Mohammad is and what the Quran is, how evil and vile it is, the expression of Islam and what it’s done in the Middle East, OR we can talk about Jesus. We can talk about the Kingdom of God and we can talk about what that looks like. And I can demonstrate that for you even in the way I interact with you as a human being – my tone of voice, the way I honor you and respect you as an individual created in God’s image.

The last thing we want to do is tear somebody down; what, so we can prove our theological point? That’s not going to convince somebody of anything. At best, it may convince their mind, but it’s not going to lead to a genuine conversion in the heart.

I applauded James White for doing that.

Q: Neil, have you yourself interacted with devout Muslims; you said that perhaps 75% are not devout in praying five times a day, and many of the younger people are more alienated from Islam because of ISIS, as you live there in Northern Iraq. Have you interacted though with very conservative Muslims as well?

A: I’ve sat down in the middle of Mosul and had lunch with Imams who I KNOW were leading prayers for ISIS in the Mosque. I’ve sat down with young men who lived their entire time through ISIS and are now studying to be Imams. And I can tell you that the best fruit we have ever seen is when we sit down and we discuss Jesus.

We don’t want to talk about the Quran. We don’t want to talk about Mohammad. Let’s talk about Jesus. Let’s talk about the truth, because they’ve never heard these things.

As for us, when we cross the boundary into deb ate and argument, it’s never going to end up good. But when we can introduce something to them that they’ve never heard before, there’s something inside of them that longs for the truth. And when we can give it to them, that’s when there entered into the Kingdom.

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That was it. Two intelligent questions and with some ‘background’ to put them in context and a missionary’s answers.

Listening to that interview gave me flashbacks to my service in Special Forces and what we did to prepare to infiltrate behind enemy lines to conduct military operations of one sort or another. Whether those operations were short or long term, we performed detail country studies to learn all about a country, their customs, language, religion, etc.

Once on the ground it was necessary to establish good rapport with the indigenous population. Some of how we went about accomplishing that was described by the missionary in the interview!

I can only ask any reader who might stumble upon this little blog “If it’s necessary to earn the respect of indigenous peoples working with them for a common cause, how much more vital is it when you want to present a religion they inherently hate?”

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The best thing about all this talking about James White is that it has afforded me the opportunity to improve my own thinking about touchy matters, and hopefully it helped me in the interpretation and exegesis of scripture.

May God bless you richly as you also travel along the way to the Celestial City.

A Mid-Week Bible Study and the Memphis Dialogues

I attended an interesting lunch time Bible study today. It meets once a week on Wednesdays here where I work. The leader said that since they were still working out technical difficulties, we would talk about what is on our minds. I took a question with me:

“Was James White ‘unequally yoked’ with Yasir Qadhi in Memphis?”

I just happen to be in the middle of a study in 2 John and already have some good notes (I am blessed to teach the class)! Talk about timing!

There were four of us and none of the others knew about Memphis, so it was perfect, as far as I was concerned. No chance of the others already having made up their minds.

I provided the necessary background and then read from a really good and fair article that was published by a Christian news outfit.

One of the other men had no problem with a general discussion about two religions, and did not see any ‘yoking’ going on (I shared the definitions from 4 separate commentaries.) One of the men had some of the same issues brought up by those who have already aired their ‘issues’ with James White. The last of the three other men didn’t give an opinion.

It was a good time of ‘dialogue’.

I learned something else that was disturbing. I heard Jimmy DeYoung, one of the regulars on Brannon Howse’s program (from the July 7 show) say

“James White does not believe the word of God and is a heretic. We should mark him and just forget about him. . .the man’s a heretic.”

Then Shrahram Hadian chimed in and said that Dr. Andy Woods said in a conversation with him that Dr. White should be given over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Fine Christian men, these!

And last but not least, in his latest podcast, at about the 1:20 mark, there is an interview with an actual missionary in Iraq that is quite illuminating and should be listened to by all of those who are ‘rebuking’ (bashing) Dr. White, especially the fellow on another blog that told me my missionary analogy was ridiculous.

My point was that the answer to being unequally yoked can be yes, no, or maybe, and maybe is probably the best answer.

Anyway, this whole ‘Christian’ fiasco has been a vehicle for this guy to dig a little deeper into His work to sharpen the few exegetical skills I might have, as well as taught me a bit more about ‘Christian’ behavior and humility

On Christian Behavior Toward Christians

This came to me by way of a friend:

“Oh that Christians would learn to censure less and pray more and instead of speaking OF one another speak more TO one another and one FOR another…. But now the tender praying, healing, restoring spirit is departed and if Christians stir not up themselves to call it back again it is a sad sign that God is departing….

  • We judge before we inquire.
  • We reject before we admonish.
  • We conclude vain assumptions upon our brethren before we come to them as Christians and fellow members.

We think this well becomes us as we take a kind of pride and contentment in it, but oh to inform, to convince, to exhort, to pray, this is to act like the disciples of Christ. This is to show ourselves Christians in deed, professors not of the letter but of the spirit that would gain our brothers instead of blasting them.”

– Thomas Case (1598-1862)

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – Jesus

Hearing God and Sharing With Others

When I want to hear God speak, I open the Bible and read it. If I want to hear God speak audibly, I read it out loud. B. B. Warfield, eminent Princeton theologian of the 19th and 20th centuries, is known for saying “When the Bible speaks, God speaks!” I agree.

If God’s revelation of himself in the Bible is everything we need to live a godly life and equip us for every good work, I have the best possible standard by which to order my life; ALL of my life within it’s pages. If my God spoke the universe into existence, he is more than capable of ‘breathing out’ scripture (writings) into the minds and hearts of men and ensure his infallible and inerrant truths are transmitted to us. Compared to speaking the universe into existence, transmitting his inerrant word to us is probably on the order of ‘chump change’.

And if the Bible is completely sufficient for my life, I don’t need ‘private revelations’ whispered into my ear. What I do need is the ‘illumination’ of God’s word to my heart. Isn’t that the role of the indwelling Holy Spirit? If it is, then we DO receive ‘revelation’ from God as the Holy Spirit illumines (sheds light upon) God’s word and sends it straight into our hearts.

At the same time, I need to choose my words carefully when I share what God is teaching me. We hear a lot of people say to us “God spoke to me…”, or “I had a revelation…” followed by the details. While both statements might be ‘technically’ true when the Holy Spirit teaches us, using those phrases might might not be wise. Here are a few reasons.

For one thing, most, if not all of the big name televangelists use them often and frequently to mean they have a special private communication link to The Divine – a virtual private network (VPN) to God, so to speak. And we are to receive what they say as the direct word of God, no matter how outlandish or theologically vacuous are their pronouncements.

Both phrases are also often used by ordinary, everyday believers. And because they are used so much by spurious televangelists and various false teachers peddling their snake oil, I feel the need to ask the “what do you mean” question and am suddenly hit with some version of the “why are you questioning me” demon.

Also, why would I use words that cause “issues” when I can just talk about what I believe God is teaching me? Am I trying to communicate that I am somehow special or am a more mature spiritual Christian? Maybe or maybe not, but why take a chance on there being any confusion because of how I express myself. I might not have evil intentions, but Satan sure does and he loves to pounce.

Lastly for now, claiming to have a VPN to God leads to the tendency to be declarative and assert as gospel truth what we share with others. I know some who will hardly ever say “I think”, “I believe”, or “it’s my opinion”, if they begin the conversation with “God told me” or “I had a revelation”, or if they are just convinced in their minds of same.

Am not judging (please stay off of that horse) but I’m old, sometimes tired, have listened to, read, and watched much in the last 40 years. It is was it is. And please note the frequent use of the hypothetical “if” in the above.

I pray you all have a blessed Lord’s day!

It Has Pagan Roots!

Let’s talk about decorated trees and nativity scenes for a minute. Forget the Christmas ‘culture’ wars that we sometimes make too much of, what about the Christmas ‘pagan roots’ wars? OK, maybe calling the whole ‘Christmas is based on a pagan holiday’ thing doesn’t deserve ‘war’ status, but it does surface every year about this time.

Like many children I grew up with Christmas trees, nativity scenes and traditions of gift giving. For our family everything ‘Christmas’ focused first and foremost on the birth of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. I knew absolutely nothing about ancient pagan idolatrous practices, festivals or holidays. It was about Jesus’ birth, love and exchanging gifts.

Are Christmas trees and nativity scenes examples of ‘Christianized’ pagan idolatrous activity? I really don’t know. Was Martin Luther thinking of old Egyptian and Roman traditions associated with false gods when he thought of adding decorations to evergreen trees already used by Christians as a symbol of Christmas? I don’t know that either.

Were the painters of nativity scenes thinking about pagan idol worshippers dancing around statues in the woods, or were they thinking about the description of Jesus’ birth given to us in the Bible and wanted to use their God given talents to put on canvas a remembrance of a special moment in history? I don’t know that either.

Well Dan, what DO you know?

I know that there was an issue a long time about food offered to idols and being a stumbling block to brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s in 1 Corinthians 8:

1Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor 8:1-9, ESV)

There are ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ believers. Those who know that idols are really ‘nothing’ are not to get puffed up about it, and are not to cause a ‘weaker’ brother to stumble. In Romans 14, Paul said that it is better not to do anything to cause another brother to stumble. It seems that the real issue here is spiritual growth and health. That’s what I know.

If I want to get into a ‘pagan roots’ discussion that might actually matter, it might be about something like ‘glossolalia’, or the ‘speaking in tongues’ that is not the Biblical gift of speaking in unlearned real languages. There’s some really interesting history in that one!

But actually, rather than debate ‘pagan roots’, I think it might be more helpful to take a cue from Paul and stick to discussing Christ crucified for our sins.

Merry Christmas, everyone!