- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

If Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright's evangelistic come-on of the 1970s "I Found It!" has a latter-day doppelganger, it might be "I Lost It!"
The number of churchgoing Americans who have quit attending has grown to 14 percent of the population in the past decade, up from 7 percent, and millions of them are baby boomers who were part of the "Jesus movement" of the 1970s.
Church-growth experts say religious bodies that are losing parishioners either don't want to hear about the problem or elect to seek new recruits instead of trying to win back those who have left.
Of 16 million Southern Baptists on the rolls of America's largest Protestant denomination, plus another 4 million "adherents" who attend but haven't joined the church, only 8 million are in church each week, says Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
He knows of a certain large congregation that epitomizes this "back-door revival." While it added 1,800 names to the membership roll over the course of the past decade, its weekly Sunday attendance remained steady at 1,000 people.
"For over six months, they chose to deny the truth of this," he said.
While much effort in the evangelical world is placed on bringing in new members, church leaders often ignore the issue of departing souls, he said, preferring to add fresh replacements for these lost members.
"The harsh reality, once they leave, is that it's anywhere from five to 10 times more difficult to get them back than to get them first in, by any measure of resources," Mr. Rainer said. "Therefore, many churches, once they've gone out the back door, take a very pragmatic approach.
"It is something for which [Christians] should be very much in agony over."
The issue of losing faith is gaining attention in church circles. This summer, InterVarsity Press, one of the most respected evangelical publishers, released "Walking Away From Faith." The author, Calvin College professor Ruth A. Tucker, is a veteran missiologist and author of a dozen books on church history and apologetics, the branch of theology dealing with the defense and proofs of Christianity.
Many Christian converts, she says, decide that their earlier choice was no longer right. One of the most famous examples in the book, Charles Templeton, was a friend and early associate of evangelist Billy Graham's, only to later break with Mr. Graham. He details this estrangement in his 1999 memoir "Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith."
As his doubts about the Scriptures festered over the years, Mr. Templeton decided he could not intellectually vouch for Christianity. Whether he returned to the faith before dying last year is uncertain.
Ms. Tucker, who says she had her own "dark night of the soul," notes that those who leave have often put in years, even decades, of dedicated service. Others who "drift away" from their earlier faith often cite logical contradictions between belief and everyday experiences.
"They say, 'Christianity doesn't make sense,'" Ms. Tucker said. "Of course it doesn't. It never did."
Referring to author Madeleine L'Engle, who once said that in her "naked intellect, I cannot believe," Ms. Tucker says those who stick with Christianity do so through a decision of the will. Many are felled by a crisis of faith that sends people into agnosticism or antagonism. Others say their faith is irrelevant to their daily lives.
Others have an ongoing battle with the Almighty. Ms. Tucker recalled a long e-mail correspondence with a man in Wales who "believes in God but really hates Him."
The most common reason people leave church, Mr. Rainer says, is that it's too similar to their everyday lives. They are searching for a spiritual community, radically different from their workaday environment, that demands a higher commitment.
Or, says the Rev. Allison Moore, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Fort Lee, N.J., churchgoers fail to connect with the message.
"One person I knew just found they were continually spacing out," she said. "They had gone to church with their young child for six months, but realized one Sunday they weren't paying attention and they stopped going."
Neither parent nor child particularly missed the weekly ritual once it ended, she added.
In her Episcopal diocese, retired Bishop John Shelby Spong did not place as much emphasis on "pastoral care and the boring, unsung, nitty-gritty work of leading a parish" when he was in office, she said. His successor, the Rt. Rev. John P. Croneberger, is reversing that situation.
Such attention or inattention to personal matters is important, Ms. Moore said, adding, "If a pastor's response to the death of [a parishioners] mother is lackluster, it can be part of their saying it doesn't work anymore. That dimension of effective caring can help people stay in."
But are Christian leaders even interested in listening to the views of the departed member? Ms. Tucker says that, when she does interviews on talk radio, fully half of her callers "call in very offended" that she is even bringing up the notion of a person's crisis of faith.
Editors of Charisma magazine, based in Lake Mary, Fla., received a stream of protests after their April 2002 issue featured a report on why people aren't interested in the church and why some have left it.
"We had a certain degree of negative feedback, people who would be saying, 'Why are you listening to these people in the first place?,'" senior writer Andy Butcher said. "Our point was: This is the world we live in and the world we desire to reach. We need to hear where they're coming from and what they're saying."
Nevertheless, the magazine is planning a longer feature next year on the same topic.
"What we did find, particularly within younger people, teens will have had some experience of church, then drifted," he said. "The church they see is a world away from the rest of their week. It's a foreign culture to them."
The most important factor in retaining converts seems to be the use of "member preparation" classes before a church enrolls or baptizes a newcomer. Churches that have such classes, Mr. Rainer said, "have a retention rate 14 to 20 times higher" than those that do not.
And the member who walks out the back door never to return may be a good candidate for similar church, Mr. Rainer added.
"If I am in the position of such a pastor who lost a longtime member, what I am going to do is to notify a pastor of a similar faith church and encourage that pastor to try to reach that parishioner," he said.
"In fact, I did this in my first pastorate. I swapped the inactive list with a Methodist pastor, and we each had tremendous success in reclamation of others."


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