The End Of The Church As We Know It

Last Fame Day, I mentioned that I typically attempt to avoid discussing religion directly here on the blog. It’s a tough topic to deal with individually, and seeing as how I’m only one of three writers on a blog that’s tries to be at least semi-objective, walking the border between tact, directness, and personal views is no easy matter. Nevertheless, with the massive role that religion and religious institutions play in culture, I might as well start learning how to best address this all.

It seems that most people I meet just assume I’m an atheist. I’m not, but for whatever reason, I seem to give off this heathen vibe- in spite of having written and drawn a weekly religious cartoon for the duration of my time in college.

But I’m not here to talk about that- at least, not entirely.When I was in college (a religious college, for the record), I saw a book added to the new arrivals display in the campus library: Generation Ex-Christian, by Drew Dyck. The book discussed the rising trend in people- young people in particular- leaving the church en masse, offering profiles on different groups, their reasons for leaving, and where they typically wound up. Postmodernists, “rebels,” “modern leavers”- even neo-pagans.

I remember just how utterly condescending the book was. Throughout it, Dyck records the variety of complaints of those rejecting the church and faith (though not always the latter), and he actually does a pretty decent job of it. What I never saw once in the book, however, was this:

An apology.

This character in this gif is an angel, so it’s still technically relevant…

Dyck is more than happy to bemoan the mass dissatisfaction of youth with the church. The term “defection” is used liberally within the first few pages of the book, and any attempt to offer the masses exiting the church is shot down with the quip “They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but don’t be fooled. These are just excuses, smokescreens designed to hide their real reason for going astray.”

Dyck details complaint after complaint with the church- the lack of compassion, the ritualism, the legalism, the hypocrisy, the emptiness, and not once does he offer a shred of credence to anyone. 75% of everyone raised in the church will leave it, he argues, and none of them have any legitimate issues. Dyck calls young leavers “prodigals.” The reality of the situation is, however, that they’re leaving because they don’t want their inheritance.

CNN’s Rachel Evans discusses the same issue in her blog post “Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church.”

Evans, unlike Dyck (who represents a line of thought far more common to Christianity than perhaps anyone would be willing to admit), actually does have the courtesy to not assume every young person leaving the church is utterly devoid of any rationale. Evans, like Dyck, outlines many of the same issues resulting the mass exodus we’re currently seeing:

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Evans describes how she offers lectures on how to combat the rising stream of young people leaving the church, addressing substance, rather than style. And I’m grateful for that. But as refreshing as it is to see someone actually taking the grievances of millennials seriously, I think Evans fails to ask the fundamental question.

Is the church worth saving?

Say the rampant rejection of the church is ended- now what?

We get back to getting together once a week for an hour or two to sing off-key while blonde, stoner-looking worship leader named Trent butchers Amazing Grace with his acoustic guitar solo? We get back to mercilessly speculating on utterly unknowable things and decrying anyone who disagrees with us as (at best) “lacking”?

Exactly what purpose is church serving?

Community? You all know damn well you don’t see these people except for Sunday.

For moral guidance? When is the last time the pastor got up there and actually convicted your conscience?

Loooong time ago, I’m guessing…

The politics of electing elders? And who is and isn’t a member? And who gets to call what shots? And what to do if the national board or high council or cabal of whatever denomination is in charge dictates this or that?

Exactly what here is worth saving?

And I’m not even touching on the issues of tax exemption, the church owning property, managing small economy’s worth of money- heck, managing entire academic institutions like the one I attended.

Don’t even get me started…

What if the hard truth of the matter is that the church does not work? What if the issues that are prompting this exodus are deeper than just the social issues of science, homophobia, and social justice- what if the model itself is fundamentally flawed?

Is it really such a far-fetched idea?

Once upon a time, it would have been inconceivable for the practitioners of the strange, Middle-Eastern religion some mockingly called “Christians” that they would meet together in anything but each others’ homes. Once upon a time, it would have been inconceivable for both serf and lord alike that “church” would mean anything but a towering Gothic cathedral and Latin sermons. Christianity split itself in half before the first millennium of its existence. 500 years later, it happened again.

Now I imagine that even if you view Dyck and his sympathizers as part of the problem, you might share his concern that the masses of youth are going to be leaving Christianity along with the church. Heck, with Evans’ lectures devoted to teaching church leaders how to retain millennials, I imagine even she might share that view. But as her own research shows (and to a certain extent, Dyck’s), many millennials are leaving not because of rejection of morality but to seek it. I can’t but help be reminded of what feels like something of a parallel:

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

That’s the way it seems to be. You could never lift a finger to feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and so long as you show up at church once a week (exactly how often do you need to attend to “attend,” anyways?) no one is going to question your faith. But if you don’t go to church and feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, the throng of the righteous will be praying for your salvation.

I’d ask if I’m the only one who sees this as literally Pharisaical, but the statistics Dyck and Evans cite would seem to prove that I’m not.


FINAL NOTES: Yes, this clearly addressing a Western phenomenon- obviously this is by no means universal. Yeah, I’m gonna cover the subject more- I’m not saying to not comment, just don’t burn me at the stake just yet.


11 responses to “The End Of The Church As We Know It

  1. I haven’t read the book you refer to discussing the reasons for young people are leaving “the Church”. Nor have I read the blog. So I won’t respond to them.

    As for the question you want to ask and answer (Is the Church worth saving?) I see several problems. I’ll just mention the first in this post and then hopefully circle back later. Now, I take the criticisms made against Christianity seriously and if the author’s of the book you mention and the blog were unwilling to accept criticism of Christians or Christian churches in America, then I would be very critical of that.

    What you refer to as “the Church” is comprised of human beings Christianity itself teaches are deeply flawed. Because of this, obviously there is going to be inconsistency between ideals and practice. Obviously, included in the number of “Christians” will be vast numbers of purely nominal church-goers who haven’t even thought about applying the teachings of Christ to their lives. Obviously, there will exist to one degree or another, depending on time and place and the persons involved, all the evils you describe, and more: bad music, uninspiring teaching, lack of true fellowship, politics, squabbling over leadership issues, too much time spent on unimportant issues while neglecting the weightier matters Jesus talked about. At the same time, there have been churches with beautiful music, there are churches with beautiful music, and there will be churches with beautiful music. The same with inspiring teaching, true fellowship, exemplary leadership and a focus on what is most important. All these exist alongside the other.

    When you run through these evils and draw the conclusion that maybe “the Church” is no longer worth saving, that it serves no function, etc., you’re focusing on problems that exist maybe in an intensified manner at this particular point in time and in this particular culture and presenting them as though they were universal. You’re forgetting that the Church” has been in existence for 2,000 years, is spread throughout the world, that the situation is not the same everywhere and that even where the church IS as you describe, it will not remain as it is.

    You convey the impression that because of the exodus of the “millenniums” the Church may be sort of on its last leg. I quickly Googled the growth of Christianity world-wide and found a laundry list of sites offering stats on the growth of Christianity. Here are a few representative paragraphs from one of them:

    Among the papers findings was that In 1970, Africa was 38.7 per cent Christian (143 million) and by 2020 the continent “will likely be 49.3 per cent % Christian (631 million).”

    Within the Christian population Anglicans in Africa grew from 7.7 million in 1970 to 50.8 million in 2010 and are expected to “reach 65 million by 2020”.

    Between 1970 and 2010 the number of Roman Catholics in Africa rose from 44.9 million (6.8 per cent of Catholics globally) to 197.0 million (15.2 per cent). By 2020 “there will be 232 million Roman Catholics in Africa, or 18.0 per cent of the world’s Catholics.”

    In 1970 Islam replaced local religions as Africa’s largest faith group. But over the past forty years Christianity has outstripped Islam and “by 2020 Africa will be 49.3per cent Christian, 41.7 per cent Muslim, and 8.7 per cent ethnoreligionist.”

    Christianity will likely average 2.1 per cent growth annually in Asia, more than twice the rate of growth for the general population (0.9 per cent) with much of the growth fueled by conversions.

    However many historic Christian communities in Western Asia—notably those in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—have been emigrating because of ongoing conflict and violence in the region. In 1970 Western Asia was 7.3 per cent Christian, but “by 2020 the region will likely be only 5.4 per cent Christian.”

    The report found Christianity was on the decline in Europe largely because of secularization, but the continent was also becoming increasingly more religiously diverse because of immigration.

    Christianity in Europe experienced growth between 1970 and 2010—492 million (75.0 per cent) to 580 million (78.6 per cent)—largely because of a resurgence of religion in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Between 2010 and 2020, however, the Christian population “will plateau and the Christian share of the total population will decline (to 78.0 per cent), largely because of deaths and because of individuals leaving the faith,” the report stated.
    In other words, whatever the issues in the US at this time that are causing large percentages of young people to leave Christian churches, you make a massive leap when you imagine that this somehow forebodes the end of the Church or should raise the question.

  2. So, point 1: The impression conveyed in your post (“The End of the Church as We Know It) that because at this point in history young people in certain parts of the world are abandoning the Church, it may be on its way out, is, to put it lightly, misleading.

    But point 2: Your critique of the church as “literally pharisaical” (as well as other things) is also misleading – mainly in the same way that it’s misleading to say “Democrats are all…” or “Republics are all…” or “Muslims are all…” or whoever you’re talking about.

    I’ve been closely involved in Christian church life for 37 years and even then I recognize that my experience of “the church” is limited. I’ve primarily been in Southern CA, for one thing. But I’ve seen a good deal and as I mentioned earlier, churches are comprised of people. Men, women, teenagers, kids. And to the degree that people can hold mistaken views, or hold them inconsistently, can be shallow, unloving, selfish with their time or money or energy, enslaved to pleasure or riches or the desire for power and honor, so obviously can congregations of Christians evidence these same faults.

    So yes, “the church” is guilty!

    But it would be unfair to not mention at the same time that there are mixed in with all the rest unknown millions of Christians who strive every day to grow in the virtues of faith, hope and love, to pray, to seek to love God with all their heart and their neighbor as themselves, and to express all of this in the details of their lives. There have been saints of the highest order throughout Christian history, men and women who have given their lives to the service of others, and “the Church” has been responsible for more hospitals and orphanages and schools and other kinds of services to the poor than any other single organization in the history of the world.

    All this to say that while the charge of inconsistency (usually the word “hypocrisy” is wrongly used) is in many cases true, it’s also in many cases nothing more than an escape, because how many who make the charge themselves live lives of consistent love? How many rail against the church for being selfish who spend their entire lives pleasing themselves? Everyone struggles to put into practice the ideals they assent to. You take a guy who is married and attempting to raise a few children and has to work forty or fifty hours a week to support his family, who maybe has aging parents to take care of at the same time, who faces problems of all kinds, health problems, economic problems, who isn’t immune to personal temptations as well — even if he has the most sincere faith in God and desire to live out the teachings of Christ, he may still struggle with feeling he is unable to do much more than make it to Church once a week, pray and read some spiritual book a few pages a day. Churches are made of up people like this.

    In short, I’d be willing to bet that a very high percentage of those young people who leave the church because of the “hypocrisy” of Christians, would find themselves greatly humbled if they attempted to put the teachings of Christ to practice in their own lives.

    Yes there are hypocrites in churches. Judas was a member of Jesus’s inner circle. Yes there are Pharisees who believe they are better than others, look down their noses, strain at gnats and swallow camels and seem to have learned nothing from the teaching of Christ. There are lots and lots of people who believe Christianity is true but in practical terms are consumed by other things, and so their faith never becomes something that changes them or determines how their going to live. Then there are lots and lots who know that their Christianity is insipid and catch a vision at times of what it would mean to give themselves fully, but are enslaved to various vices that keep them spiritually dead. There are those who love the intellectual pursuit and read the great Christian theologians and philosophers but never pray enough to have what they learn become alive in their souls to change them. Then there are those who do pray and apply and fight to overcome their weaknesses and grow and, as Jesus said, bring forth 30 fold, 50, 100.

    There are all kinds in “the Church” but my experience is that the vast majority are like the man I described above. And if someone rejected the church because of him and labeled him a hypocrite or Pharisee because he only gave $300 a month to help feed the poor or support some other ministry… well, how kind would that be?

    Young people should leave “the Church” if they come to believe the teachings of that church to be untrue. But if they believe that Christ was who he claimed to be and that Christianity is (in some form) is true, then it is cowardly to leave because they find inconsistency in others. If you hate the music and find the teaching less than convicting, then look for a Church where you love the music and the teaching. What sense does it make to say, “In the churches I’ve attended the music was bad and the sermons were weak and people didn’t do enough to cloth the naked and feed the hungry so I’m going to leave the church entirely”?

    • Uncle Ken, everything you’re saying is true- it’s also the reason I had a disclaimer at the end of the post reading “FINAL NOTES: Yes, this clearly addressing a Western phenomenon- obviously this is by no means universal. Yeah, I’m gonna cover the subject more- I’m not saying to not comment, just don’t burn me at the stake just yet.”

      I’m not saying Christianity is done for- I’m saying that, in the West, this appears to be the end of the church as was understand it currently.

      • Yes, I didn’t see that final note. Sorry. Yes, this is a Western phenomenon and yes, as Stephen mentioned, the church as you described it is the protestant evangelical church. Catholic and Orthodox churches are a whole other matter.

  3. Since you say there is more on the topic, I’ll wait and see about responding more later.

    But in response to the objection “What sense does it make to say…I’m going to leave the church entirely”: the church is the body of Christ, and the calling of the Church is to be the hands and feet of Christ. If the institution we call the ‘Church’ is not fulfilling its calling, then it is not a matter of leaving the church. It is that the church institution is an empty shell. The body is not leaving the church, it is being the church–more effectively than would be the case were it to stay in the form of the building.

    I know that there many reasons to leave a church group and they are not all for this reason, but it would be a false generalization to say there are no good reasons for not being involved in a [tax exempt, meets on Sundays, has a building, hired a worship leader] church. Saying that those who are living out the church instead of going to a church leaves the definition of ‘church’ far too narrow.

    I look forward to any more posts on the matter. Thanks for a great start.

  4. Wow, so Ken Hensley already said pretty much everything that I had wanted to say, except for pointing out one thing–as far as I can tell from your post, you are questioning the purpose or efficacy of the Protestant/Evangelical church (in America–I’m hesitant to speculate on P/E culture outside of the American continents). However, if you were to ask a selection of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians what they thought the purpose of the Church (and attending little-c churches) is, you would probably get at least two separate answers (the Orthodox and Catholics would likely have comparable answers) which feature a lot of overlap but different cores. Now, I am not officially Orthodox, as I have not yet become a catechumen, and I’m not Catholic at all, so I won’t make a statement on what they actually consider the purpose of church to be, but it is much more than a social gathering of Christians for exegetical speculation or charitable outreaches.

    • It’s definitely something to consider- Evans cites that lots of millenials leaving the church take a look at Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but they don’t seem to be sticking around, and even those denominations seem to be, in the west, losing ground.

  5. “Exactly what purpose is church serving?
    Community? You all know damn well you don’t see these people except for Sunday.
    For moral guidance? When is the last time the pastor got up there and actually convicted your conscience?”

    It was at this point that I realized either (A) this article was not written for people like me who have answers and objections to these questions, or (B) you yourself have not experienced a church that has communal activities outside of Sunday and a pastor who regularly convicts his brothers and sister in the congregation.

  6. I know that a lot of churches are messed up. I had scattered church attendance in college because it seemed hard to connect to people in churches. The lack of community and the hypocrisy ate at me a little. I started being a part of church after I left school. I can understand why a lot of people don’t go, and I feel like it is mainly the churches fault. THey focus on being too technologically fancy, or on worshipping in a certain way without creating community. I returned to church when I was a time when I really needed the support of other Christians, and the church that I am a part of now does an excellent job of being a community. I feel encouraged and challenged by the other Christians that I have become friends with. I also recognize that Jesus took part in religious community even when he was at odds with it, going to read at the synagogue and what not. For that reason, and because I know that an amazing Christian experience within a church is possible, I believe that the church is worth saving. The American church experience might be kinda crappy, but in the spirit of world-wide Christian unity, I think it is worth the attempt to find (or if it can’t be found, to make) a genuine experience of Christ in our churches.

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