A question on the minds of millions of followers of Christianity is why the Christian church has been declining. There are a myriad of reasons. Here are a couple of my own observations and suggestions for turning it around.
The most obvious reason is sheer disgust with a religious system, as someone put it, “that would condemn homosexuals for coming out of their closet while hiding clergy pedophiles in its own.”
Others are leaving because they no longer wish to be associated with a religion swallowed up in its own judgmentalism. The church preaches love, tolerance, and acceptance of all people but, in actual practice, it loves, tolerates, and accepts only those who conform to its dogmas and standards of morality. Religious bigotry and intolerance, as well as the more common practices of judgmentalism and condemnation may be more prevalent among Christians today than at any other time in history. But, ironically, Jesus himself said, “Judge not.”
Here’s a poignant example of the kind of judgmentalism that is a scourge on the Christian church today.
I know a married couple who once were very active in the church. Today, however, they rarely, if ever, attend. Although they still consider themselves to be believers, the church is no longer the place they turn for guidance in their spiritual journey.
I have this feeling there may be scores of Christian people just like them. They view the church as this mammoth, inflexible monolith that no longer provides them guidance on their journey or spiritual nourishment along the way. They’re not at war with the church or in protest against it. Instead, they have just quietly disappeared. If asked why, they would give many different reasons but, among them, would be their frustration that the church is obsessed with labeling and judging people who do not conform to or fit in with its narrow view of the world.
Here are the specifics related to this couple’s story.
Each was previously married and divorced and both were nearing mid-life when they met. They were instantly attracted to each other, began dating, and, before long, fell in love. A few months into their relationship, he proposed to her and the two of them made plans to be married. At long last, the wedding date drew near.
They attended several different churches in their hometown in hopes of finding one they could join and attend together. After visiting several, they found a church they liked and, one Sunday, they joined. To request membership in this church required that they walk forward during the invitation time at the close of one of its many weekend worship services. It was a mega-church with thousands attending each weekend.
They did as they were expected and walked forward. They were met at the altar by a minister who warmly welcomed them and then just as quickly handed them off to a church counselor. He led them out of the sanctuary, down a long hallway to a large, brightly lit room where others like them and their assigned counselors were gathering.
After a few brief words by the person whom they presumed to be the lead counselor, they were then separated. Each was paired to a personal counselor whose job it was to determine the candidate’s Christian experience and readiness to join the church. While he was guided by one counselor into a small room, a different counselor guided her to a room across the hall. Given they were intimidated already by the size of this church and its well-rehearsed operation, the separation was more than a little unnerving.
Later that day, as they shared their individual perceptions to each other, it was obvious to them that the counselors had been well coached. Each asked the very same questions, beginning with the expected ones—name, address, phone, and so forth. But then, the questions became more personal and more difficult. “Tell me about your Christian experience?” “When did you join a church?” “What kind of church was it?” “Did they believe the Bible?” “Have you been baptized?” “Was your baptism ‘believer’s baptism’?” “Was it by immersion or were you just sprinkled?” “What are your spiritual gifts?” “Where do you see yourself serving in and through this church?” The whole thing was surprising to them, even a little offensive, but they persevered, deciding to blow it off since they were just glad it was over. They had a church home and that was their objective all along.
A few days later, however, everything changed—and, for the worse. She arrived at her home from work earlier than usual and fetched the day’s mail. Buried in the carnage of junk mail was a letter addressed to both of them. She could tell it was not a form letter since there was no label and a real stamp on the envelope. She opened it and looked first at who is was from. She did not recognize the name but, how could she? It was a large church and there were as many ministers and staff as employees of the church as there are total members in other churches.
Assuming it was a welcome letter, she began to read. What she read, however, was anything but welcoming. She was shocked, embarrassed, hurt, even angered. The ego in her reacted in self-defense. She slammed the letter on the kitchen counter, reached for the phone and dialed her fiancé. “Get over here now,” she demanded. “Why,” he asked, hearing the anger in her voice. “What’s the matter?”
“Just get over here,” she said with no explanation.
He left his apartment across town and drove hurriedly to her house. When he arrived, she shoved the letter in his chest and said, “Here, read this.” But, before he could unfold the letter, she blurted out, “Did you give the counselor who questioned you my home address as if it were your address?”
“Well, yes,” he explained, “but what does that matter?”
“Well,” she explained, “they think we’re living together.”
“But,” he defended himself, “I didn’t think anything of it. I just figured, since I’d be moving in after the wedding, I should give them your address instead of mine.”
They debated the incident over dinner and wondered how they should respond. Their first impulse was to call the church leaders and demand an explanation, as well as an apology. But, the more they thought about it, the more convinced they became, not only of the unjust nature of the letter, but that they had nothing to explain and nothing to defend.
“Who appointed them our judges?” they reasoned to themselves. “Besides, we’re not two irresponsible teens, so what business is it of theirs whether we’re living together or not?”
They concluded the assumptions made by church leaders were ill-informed and inexcusable. But, instead of defending themselves or retaliating, they decided it would be best to ignore the letter altogether and move on. In this respect, the couple acted more maturely than the ministers themselves.
This attitude of moral superiority is common in churches today and it is insane. Only a church confused about its real purpose would engage in such hypocritical and hypercritical nonsense. Given the church’s own sordid and unremitting history of immorality and moral failure, it is hardly justified in setting itself up as anyone else’s judge. But, this how the collective ego works and, until churches and church leaders become aware of this, they will continue the madness of pointing out the toothpick in another’s eye, as Jesus put it, while failing to see the two-by-four in their own.”
For more on this subject, visit my blog.
The Christian Church has not only penetrated the world but it has splintered into at least 20,000 different subsets. Today, each subset regards its beliefs, its understanding of truth, to be just a little more right than that of 19,999 others.
This is part of the reason many are abandoning the church. They have concluded that the continual disagreement and fighting within every branch of Christianity is neither profitable nor necessary. For these Christ-followers, the “what” about Jesus is not nearly as important as the “way” Jesus provided for knowing the Ineffable Reality. To know God and to walk in the joy of his presence is all that is important to them.
It would be a misreading of my analysis here to assume I am suggesting that all who leave the church today walk in light of God’s presence. It would be equally incorrect to assume I am suggesting all who stay in the church remain in darkness. I only mean that, if you wish to know why multitudes are leaving the church but not leaving their faith, it is because they have moved on from the pervasive madness found in most churches. They wish to keep it simple. They wish only to do as Jesus himself said, “Come, follow me.” Nothing more. Nothing else. But, nothing less.
There is one other reason I wish to mention as to why many are leaving the church. Involvement has replaced intimacy. Participation in and support of religious functions and activities has overshadowed that which is superior— knowing God. Although Jesus said, “Be in the world but not of it,” most churches and church leaders are more interested in people “being in church as well as not in the world.”
The activities and programs, as well as the personnel and financial resources required to keep them going, are gargantuan in number and complexity. They demand more and more time and attention. It is not that any of these programs are harmful or do not serve a worthy purpose. But, the fact is, there is far too much going on in today’s church. So much so, in fact, if a spiritual seeker is not very careful, the attention he or she must give to the plethora of programs competing for a slice of his or her time ends up sucking the spiritual life from their soul. For many, it has already. They’ve grown weary of having no life, especially no spiritual life, outside of churchgoing. They feel empty, exhausted, and bereft of any sense of the Eternal Presence.
Churches today boast of being a 24/7 operation as if that’s something to brag about. It’s really a warning signal to any serious spiritual seeker. “Do not pass ‘GO’ or you’ll forfeit even your spiritual life!” Instead of finding communion with the Creator, most seekers find only a cauldron of endless and exhausting activity.
The healthiest and most spiritual thing a church might do is to permanently shut down the majority of the time-consuming and energy-draining madness that goes on. The busy-ness in most churches today has nothing to do with the business of the church—which, again, is simply to serve as a guide in the quest to know God.
Instead of the church being a sanctuary into which people might enter to find quietude, reflection, and inspiration, the church has become a theatrical stage filled with noise and nonsense. Instead of encountering the Sacred and Mysterious through solitude and stillness, church leaders have conditioned people to expect entertainment—and, it had better be better than the competition down the street. Churches actually compete with each other for members. This is because the overwhelming majority of them are not reaching the ever-growing, unchurched population, so they have to compete for the few that remain.
The church has developed its own version of “Entertainment Tonight.” You don’t have to be a statistician to know why mega-churches, as they’re called, are about the only churches in America showing an increase in attendance. They are, but it is more likely because they can afford to pay for the best talent and the most professional “dog and pony show” in town. I mean, think about it. Who wants to watch a show on a ten-inch, black-and-white screen when the theatre down the street has one in 3-D, on an I-Max screen, and served up with a Cappuccino?
I have a feeling the day will come, and there are signs it is emerging already, when people will tire of the hype, the noise, and the emotionally-charged, superficial highs generated by religious professionals and their performances. People need substance, something more than a weekly fix that stimulates the emotions but does little to feed the soul. They’re looking for Presence because it is only ever a deep and abiding connection to God that people really need.
If church leaders are motivated more by having the biggest crowds and the loudest applause, more by ratings and recognition and other egoic ambitions, they should not be surprised when people eventually look elsewhere for God. Some have, and many others will. There are indications many Christians have grown weary of the madness and are turning in great numbers to other religions to find what Christianity or, more accurately, the church’s version of Christianity, has failed to give them.
This egoic notion among clerics that numerical growth is a sign of God’s favor is as much an illusion as church decline is a sign of God’s disfavor. A more telling sign is whether anyone is coming to know the transformative presence of God—a Presence that changes how people feel about themselves, how they treat others but especially their enemies, and the care and concern they show for creation itself. When being Christian is more about loyalty to an institution, or to a peculiar way of believing, than it is about a relationship with God, people will eventually walk away from such a church, either emotionally, physically, or both.
In short, American Christianity is as bigoted, busy, and misguided as the religious system Jesus encountered two thousand years earlier. Fortunately, people are discovering, due largely to the church’s failure, as well as the rise of other religions in U.S., that Christianity is neither the only way to know God nor the only way to find and enjoy a worthwhile and fulfilling human existence.
Having said all of this, you might think I have something against the church. But, I really don’t. I’ve given my life to its work and ministry. I am not ready to give up on Christianity, either. To the contrary, I know that, at the core of the Christian faith, there is a pathway that will guide any person who wishes to be connected to God into a transformative experience of Divine grace. I also know there are some churches and church leaders who not only understand the real purpose of Christianity, but seek to stay with it and to shape a church life around it. The church my wife and I call our spiritual home is just such a place to us.
I'll have more to say about all of this in a new book that will be released spring, 2010 entitled The Enoch Factor: Sacred Art of Knowing God.
 Luke 18:22, KJV
 John 17:16
 Read the following report by The Barna Group “Americans are Exploring New Ways of Experiencing God,” June 8, 2009 The Barna Group, Ltd. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/270-americans-are-exploring-new-ways-of-experiencing-god.