Why people are leaving our churches.
Part III: Doctrinal issues that may (or may not) be a problem
In 1994, I was a part of a church planting “probe” in Santa Maria, California. As our group went door to door, we asked, “What comes to mind when you think of Baptists?” The top three answers at the end of the day were Legalistic, Judgmental, Hypocritical. Ouch! That was how Jesus described the Pharisees. When the same survey was done just 50 miles away in Frazier Park, California two weeks later, the top answers were Family Oriented, Bible Centered, Good People. What a difference the local culture can make! The purpose of that question was to determine whether we should use “Baptist” in the name of the new church. The results should have answered that question, but denominational politics intervened, and Baptist was used in the name of both church plants. The church in Santa Maria never got off the ground, whereas the congregation in Frazier Park was a success for many years. The irony was that the question of using the denominational tag was elevated to a doctrinal level by some church leaders.
The culture of American Christianity continues to change.
Christianity Today’s October 17, 2013 article “Church Stereotypes, According to Google,” noted that the top three Google auto-completes for my denomination, Southern Baptists, were “Why are southern Baptists… so judgemental [sic], so narrow-minded, against alcohol.” The Google results were similar for many other evangelical denominations.
As the culture shift (downgrade) forges forward, it seems to be gaining momentum from some unexpected sources. For example, in the past, a pastor could preach on abstinence from alcohol, dancing and similar social activities without question, providing the congregation with a clear understanding of culturally acceptable behavior for Christians. The new generation of church goers are turning to the internet to validate biblically acceptable positions, and are finding David dancing before the Lord, Jesus dining with wine-drinkers and Paul using what some consider to be course language. Today, if a pastor preaches against a social or cultural activity, members will go to commentaries, lexicons and word-studies previously available only in the best pastoral and theological libraries. Like the Bereans of old, today’s members are “welcoming the message with eagerness and examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Here are some of the recurring themes uncovered during my sabbatical study.
People are leaving churches that do not allow women equal access to meaningful ministry.
The women in ministry issue came up in several books, numerous interviews with members and former church members. Just two months ago, one of the long-term families in my Sunday School class left for another church over the women and meaningful ministry issue. Ironically, this was not an issue that pastors identified as a problem.
People are leaving churches that prohibit drinking wine or other fermented beverages. The days of getting away with saying “Jesus drank unfermented wine” are numbered as members enjoy wine tastings and search the scriptures for both descriptive passages showing use of alcohol as a beverage and serious word studies that support the use of fermented beverages for social and religious purposes. As would-be-leaders discover that leadership positions will require them signing covenants that prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages, they are placed in the unenviable position.
People are leaving churches that are in conflict.
This group is tired of church squabbles over issues appearing to be personality conflicts rather than matters of orthodoxy. Churches and their leaders who do not enforce church disciple upon unruly members can expect an exodus. Most pastors are ill equipped to indentify and deal with antagonists and/or unregenerate members in the church, and yet, that is exactly what Paul instructs the church to do (see Romans 16:17; 2 Tim 2:16-17 as well as Paul’s response to such a person in Acts 13:9-10).
People are leaving churches that are boring. One thirty-something male that I interviewed said he joined the church during James 1 and stopped attending during James 3, a period of one year. The popularity of verse by verse expository sermons may be more in the pulpit than in the pews. There will always be a few pastors who can preach through books of the bible and maintain congregational engagement. However, the goal of preaching is not to attract a congregation of hearers of the Word. Very few churches are providing members with meaningful opportunities to use their gifts, talents, experiences and abilities. As a result, most congregations are plateaued or declining and have more adult women than men attending services. The unchurched men I interviewed and read about say they have better things to do, such as golf, spend time with family or watch television sports. When television sports is more engaging then Christian ministry, the church has problems. Church leaders must rethink what meaningful membership looks like. I don’t have a ten-point list, but I can identify several “anything but boring” activities that I have led churches to embrace for ministry, including motorcycle evangelism, shooting sports, hunter education and motor-sports. Why those things? Because they are the interests and talents I enjoy. The list of possibilities is as long as the list of interests and abilities among your church membership. Additionally, people are leaving churches where the worship services are not meaningful. Ironically, the type of music was not an issue, as I will note in my final comments.
People are leaving churches with ‘isms.”
During my time interviewing pastors, members and former church members, several asked me about my view on the Calvinism and Arminianism debate. I was surprised, as this was not one of my questions; however, it soon became clear that church members are feeling an undercurrent of irresolvable debate taking place in the church and denomination. Once again, these members are turning to the internet for answers, and becoming even more confused as to why 21st century leaders are debating 16th century controversies. Some are so frustrated they are dropping out. One person I spoke with had joined a church whose denomination (Evangelical Free) avoided such debate. However, Calvinism was not the only “ism” on the list. Legalism is a concern, with several of those interviewed complaining that their church constitution or membership requirements would have prevented Jesus and His Disciples membership in their church.
So, what was not mentioned? Not one book read or interview conducted during my sabbatical indicated people leaving churches for holding to the inerrancy of Scripture. I did attend a church in which a member was in vocal opposition to inerrancy, and was witness to the congregations’ quick (but loving) correction. Another surprise was the lack of leaving over worship music. Lack of Quality Worship—yes. Style of Music—no. Finally, the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage did not come up. Most likely, this is related to the adherence to inerrancy of Scripture. Whatever the reason, I was surprised, based on open dialogues promoting the acceptance of gay marriage among Roman Catholics, United Methodists and Latter Day Saints (the 1st, 3rd and 4th largest denominations in America).
In closing, I remind the reader that I’m just the messenger. Your results may vary, which is my hope. I truly hope that you will take time to identify the issues of concern in your community. Time spent exegeting your congregation and community will be time well spent.
Dr. Rodney A. Harrison serves as the Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness, Dean of Online Education and Director of Doctoral Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Harrison served as a church planter in Minnesota, California and Missouri, and is a pioneer in the current church revitalization emphasis. He holds the DMin in Mission Administration from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of two books on church planting.
 USA Today, Growth Stalls, Falls for Largest U.S. Churches, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-02-16-church_growth_15_ST_N.htm, 2/15/2011.