- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

“Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It” (Baker Books) is the new book by Julia Duin, assistant national editor (religion) at The Washington Times. In this excerpt, she details her personal experience and survey numbers showing the difficulties evangelical churches have with keeping their members.

“You’re not going to church?” I asked him.

It was his birthday, so we had met for dinner at the Olive Garden, one of our favorite Italian restaurants. He shook his head. “Matt,” I will call him, was legally blind and unable to drive. That and a few other handicaps had not prevented him from having a decent-paying job with the U.S. government, from amassing a world-class library in his home, and from being the go-to guy with answers to all my questions about Reformed theology.

But here he was, disconsolate. A reporter by trade, I dragged his story out of him.

“I don’t mind taking the metro to church, but you know me,” he said. “I’m pretty Reformed, and the kind of church I like is always at least two miles from the nearest stop.”

I named a church in Alexandria, a posh suburb with its own historic district. He’d been going there the last time we talked.

“Oh, they promised they’d find me a family that could pick me up,” he said. “And they did, for a while. Then they started forgetting I was there. It was like Russian roulette. I would get dressed and wait for them, but I never knew which Sunday they’d actually show up at my front door.”

By the time he’d get this family on their cell phone, they’d already be in the church parking lot and in no mood to double back and get him. When he brought this up to the leaders at his church, they told him he was on his own. Finally, he just quit going for more than a year. No one from his church ever called to ask where he was. He contacted some other churches, but none would offer him any help in getting to their services.

Others leave

I was stunned. If anyone was in love with God, it was Matt. He was single and male, rare in church these days. But no one wanted him. In fact, no one wanted a bunch of my friends.

There was Gwen in Salem, Ore., whose pastor would never say more than a few words to her. Struggling to bring up three kids alone, she could have used his moral support. “But pastors don’t pal around with single moms,” she told me. “Too many needs and we’re not big enough givers.” She finally dropped out of her Pentecostal congregation.

Then there were Paul and Ed, two journalist friends in Richmond and Casper, Wyo. Both brilliant evangelical men, they told me they loved the Lord but couldn’t live with the paucity of spiritual maturity in every congregation they visited. Both were now church dropouts.

And there was Maeve, a married friend whose husband had talked back to the elders at their former congregation, a large Bible church also in northern Virginia. The elders kicked them both out. This couple found some refuge in a smaller, evangelical congregation, but, “I go only out of obedience,” she told me over lunch one day.

She was referring to the admonition in Hebrews 10:25 against “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,” a verse commonly used to exhort one’s friends not to skip out on other Christians and, by extension, the Lord. The verse is framed with commands to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” and that Christians should be “exhorting one another.”

Those commands weren’t put to use with people like her.

“The church is not like Christ,” she added sadly.

Slipping out

Those are just my personal friends. As for people I interview in my day-to-day job as a religion reporter, I was discovering that many, many evangelical Christians are slipping out or barely hanging on to their churches. It’s no secret that the percentage of Americans in church on any given Sunday is dropping fast.

Religious attendance fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002, according to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. For years, Gallup polls have shown American church attendance hovering at 43 percent of the population, which would mean 129 million out of an estimated 300 million Americans at the end of 2006. However, two 2005 studies, one by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler and the other by Dave Olson, a researcher for the Evangelical Covenant Church, show that a more accurate attendance percentage is in the 18th to 20th percentile, half of what Gallup shows.

A significantly smaller number of Americans “are participating in the most basic Christian practices: the weekly gathering for worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship,” Mr. Olson said in the April 2006 issue of Christianity Today.

Mr. Hadaway and Ms. Marler faulted the complexities of American life - exhaustion, traffic, two working parents, even children’s soccer games increasingly getting scheduled on Sundays - as the main reason people give themselves much more leniency in skipping church. They have a point, but I remember 30 years ago when America was in the middle of the Jesus Movement. Back then, no one dared miss all the amazing things going on during a Sunday morning service.

How things have changed!

The three fastest-growing church groups, according to the 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, were Assemblies of God, Mormons and Catholics. The Southern Baptists, long a growing denomination, saw its baptisms drop at the midpoint of the decade. A lot of growth in the Catholic Church was due to immigrants. One-third of immigrants switch to Protestant churches within a generation, according to Edwin Hernandez, a research fellow for the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame. However, not all those departing Catholics are ending up in Protestant churches.

Because evangelicals were for a long time the political flavor of the month due to a two-term Bush presidency, most secular pundits paint church members as a large, powerful monolith that moves in time to commands from Focus on the Family and can mobilize millions of voters to act through the words of a few spokesmen. This is hugely inaccurate. It’s true that evangelicals can work powerfully in concert, but their numbers are not growing appreciably. Much church growth is due to transfers from one church to another.

None of this is to say spiritually interested people are not out there. The packed churches nationwide after Sept. 11 show they are. We all know how the terrorist attacks provoked a growth spurt in church attendance, only to have it die down within a month after the seekers melted away, unimpressed.

Because the U.S. population is expanding, evangelical pollster George Barna estimates the number of unchurched Americans is growing by about one million each year. The fraction of Americans with no religious preference increased during the 1990s from 8 percent to 14 percent, according to a 2001 City University of New York “American Religious Identification Survey.” However, of that 14 percent, less than half (40 percent) were atheists; the other 60 percent were merely “religious” or “spiritual.” In other words, plenty of people in this country are interested in spiritual matters. They are simply not going to church to feed this interest.

Not just mainline

Why? I have sensed for several years something is not right with church life, especially with evangelical church life. It’s been reported many times that most Americans have fled mainline Protestant churches in the past half century, cutting denominations such as the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church USA by half. But in the past decade, it’s the evangelical churches that are losing ground.

These are not the large megachurches on which all the media are fixated. Ten percent of America’s 331,000 congregations have more than 350 members, but more than half of those attending religious services go to those 33,000 or so churches, according to the University of Arizona’s 1998 National Congregations Study.

Or, as the study said, although most churches are small, most people are in large churches. For instance, 28 percent of all churchgoers are Roman Catholic, but only 6 percent of all congregations are Catholic. Catholic congregations have always been huge, partly due to the shortage of priests. Their large, often impersonal nature - one priest to every 3,640 Catholics - makes it easy for smaller Protestant congregations to pick them off.

Yet not all Protestant churches are doing well. Seventy-one percent of all congregations, said the Arizona study, have fewer than one hundred participating adults. A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations, published in 2002 by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, put it this way: America is like a hypothetical town of one thousand, divided among ten congregations. Eight of the 10 would be small and more than half of the people would worship in two large churches, one of them being Roman Catholic.

It’s an odd pattern. Americans like small groups but prefer big churches. And in recent years, they’ve found more and more churches, big and small, that aren’t relevant to their lives. I was born again in the Pacific Northwest during the Jesus Movement, so I was used to burgeoning churches in Seattle during my teens. When my parents moved to the Washington, D.C., area, I spent my college summers there. At the time, the metro Washington area was bursting with lively evangelical, charismatic, even messianic Jewish congregations. Christian radio stations and Jesus music festivals were hot. The Catholic charismatic prayer meetings all over the D.C. area were powerful and evangelistic. Every Tuesday night, some two thousand college-aged people packed into Christ Church on Massachusetts Avenue for a powerful evangelical Protestant service called TAG (for “Take and Give”), filled with powerful preaching by men not much older than I. During the service, amazing prophecies were given. Converts poured out of that place by the hundreds.

The 1980s

Returning to Portland for my first newspaper job, I began to notice how the best congregations suffered bizarre splits, how often pastors got trapped into horrendous sexual situations, and how much of the fallout landed on the members.

One of my reporting specialties was Christian communities, having lived in a radical one in downtown Portland - we pooled salaries even - during the community heyday in the 1970s. Yet by 1990 nearly every Christian community in the country had dissolved or dramatically shrunk in numbers.

Lots of folks ended up in regular churches, their once radical Christian lives domesticated and tranquilized. By the late 1980s, I was a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, spending much of my time covering the televangelist scandals that followed one after another in 1987 and 1988. Although Pat Robertson’s run for the presidency in 1988 bespoke a new evangelical political power, the spiritual power so evident in churches I attended in the 1970s had evaporated. Church growth techniques were substituted. Everyone was into inner healing.

Meanwhile, books like Phil Yancey’s 1988 book “Disappointment With God” and Ron Enroth’s 1992 “Churches That Abuse” (which he followed up with a sequel in 1994) were coming out, hinting at a darker reality undergirding American “churchdom.”

In 1990, I began writing a history of Houston‘s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, for years a bright light in the worldwide charismatic renewal. Its pastor, Graham Pulkingham, was a major founder of the movement, and the flood of music that poured out of that church still echoes in many congregations today. As I traveled the country interviewing former members, I was amazed to find, over and over, people who had dropped out of church. The most common theme was the banality of the local church, especially after having experienced so much supernatural power in Houston. Redeemer, people told me, ruined you for life at any other church. There they had experienced fabulous worship, great preaching, spiritual gifts, and sacrificial giving so that newcomers were converted almost as soon as they walked into the place. Once they left Houston, it was hard to find anything close.

These people were experienced believers. Many had joined other churches, then slowly dropped out, when either a pastor saw them as a threat or the spiritual gruel offered Sunday after Sunday just became unpalatable. At the time, I wrote off a lot of these people as just not trying hard enough to find a good church. After all, when I had left Houston to attend seminary near Pittsburgh, I had found several good churches.

However, my next move, to northwestern New Mexico in 1994, helped me to understand their frustration. The local Episcopal Church was 20 years behind the vibrant churches I was used to. I taught Sunday school there but was unable to make friends. Finally, I fled to an Assemblies of God congregation and chalked up my church-hunting difficulties to the isolated corner of the state I lived in.

But my next move, to Virginia, turned up worse problems in finding a church. The Washington region, a spiritual powerhouse in the 1970s, had shifted dramatically 25 years later. Once spiritually powerful churches had become “seeker-friendly” congregations, and their main aim seemed to be to make the service as short as possible. Everything seemed packaged. TAG had morphed into a megachurch that had dropped its freewheeling charismatic distinctives for a much more staid service that emphasized writings by Charles Spurgeon and other Reformed theologians. The bookstore was stocked only with books personally approved by the pastor.

The once vibrant Catholic charismatic prayer meetings in the area had vanished, except for one very quiet group meeting in a Maryland suburb. There were a number of large Protestant congregations, but most revolved around the personality of their pastor. A 1994 Canadian revival known as the “Toronto blessing” livened up some church services for a few years, but by 1997 the biggest spiritual event going was the Promise Keepers meeting on the Mall. And within two years of that, the national men’s group was scraping for funds and downsizing. And then a promising revival in Pensacola, Fla., degenerated into splits among its leaders. Dryness was everywhere.

Julia Duin’s “Quitting Church” is reviewed by Grace Vuoto on Page 30 in the Sunday Read.

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