Why do people leave church?

I read some interesting words a moment ago, and now I want to write some words about the words I read. Then, you get to write words about my words, and I will probably write some words about those words. (A lot of things we do seem silly when you get right down to it.)

The article linked above is a summary of a study conducted by the Barna Group, who style themselves as a “research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.” They asked a bunch of 18- to 29-year-olds who had been active in a church at some point during their teen years why they had then disconnected from their church. Apparently these guys often practice fatalism and spin results to make them sound way worse (and therefore more exciting) than they necessarily are. I’m not going to get into that fight, because I’m interested not in their particular quantitative results but in the qualitative categories of concern they identified. I’m not going to summarize them all in this post, but I will highlight two that I thought were important.

Some young adults left church because their experience of Christianity feels shallow. Such respondents indicated that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough,” or, perhaps even more damning, “God seems missing from my experience of church.” I think that too often, people in church go up and say a lot of words without grounding them in the scriptures or leading their audience closer to Christ. To paraphrase David O. McKay, I figure that no other success can compensate for a church’s failure to facilitate its members’ relationship with God.

I’ll be honest – this one strikes a little close to home for me. The core of my experience at church is the sacrament (if you’re wondering what I mean because you’re not Mormon, it’s like communion, except we do it every week). It’s a time for me of reflection and rapprochement with God, and I (nearly) always feel a connection with the Divine during this time. But then, after that, my enjoyment of church declines rapidly. I’ll grant you that this is at least partly my problem; there is of course more I could be doing to prepare for church and to make my personal experience more meaningful. However, I feel that there is more that could be done on the other side as well, especially to emphasize the scriptures and the words of Christ.

The other concern I felt like highlighting was that the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. Often, the study said, young adults who have doubts about the teachings of their church do not feel safe expressing their doubts in church. Further, churches’ response to doubts is often shallow, trivial, or unsatisfactory.

Honesty time again – there have been times where I’ve doubted but haven’t expressed my doubts, because I feared I would find more judgment than understanding, more dogma than doctrine, more assertions than answers. I hope that when people have come to me with their doubts, I’ve answered wisely and kindly.

What do you think? Are there concerns from the original list that you feel are important? unimportant? Any categories you’d add? And my most pressing question – what can churches do to address these concerns?

NB: I’m approaching this discussion from a position of faith. If you don’t share this position, kindly refrain from assaulting those who do; comments I think are unproductive (to invent an extreme example, “people leave churches because they are dumb, and so are you!!”) will not make it out of moderation.


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