The following is part 1 of a sermon I gave this past weekend. My pastor had to be at a conference and left me in charge. I decided to speak on something that is very close to my heart: friends leaving the church and what Christians should be doing about it. Enjoy!
One of the things that occupies my mind the most when it comes to my faith life is how the faith lives of my friends and family are doing. I think about who needs prayer, who could use some encouragement, or who might be in need of some spiritual direction.
I have several friends who’ve grown up in a Christian environment, but who as adults have left the church for whatever reason. It pains me to see them leave the church, but when I sit down with them and let them tell me in their own words why they chose to leave, I see that their reasons for leaving are very rarely just a rash, impulsive decision, but instead have come from a lot of soul-searching.
That I have several friends who’ve left the church shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. Truth is, people are leaving the church, Christianity and organized religion in numbers never before seen. I’ve seen study after study that lists reasons why and those reasons are ones that my friends have talked about when we’ve discussed their decision to walk away from the church.
Reasons for people leaving the church include feelings of being isolated, and that you have to choose between church or your friends. This is one of the most common reasons given among young people in the studies I’ve read. Another one of the big reasons is the belief that the Bible can’t stand up to the challenges of modern science and therefore faith is irrelevant, especially in such a multicultural society as ours is.
Among my friends, the reason given more than any other is that Christians are too judgmental. In the process of trying to find who Jesus is and what the heart of Christianity is, they’ve been told in one form or another “you must believe what we believe or you’re not a real believer”. It’s one thing to point a new believer in the right direction, it’s an entirely different thing to force them to accept a tenet or doctrine they might be struggling with understanding.
Whether or not my friends were forced to accept a specific teaching or doctrine, or if they simply just didn’t want to do the spiritual leg work required in developing a mature faith, they felt pigeon-holed and judged and made to feel like an outsider. If you feel judged, can you really be honest with those around you? Not really. There’s too much of a fear of more judgement if you do come clean, especially with any doubts or struggles you might be trying to work through in relation to your faith.
I’ve asked my friends if they’ve considered ever coming back to to the church and the answer is often very similar: “Maybe, but I’ve been hurt by the church and there’s a lot of healing I have to do before I’d even consider it”.
Thinking about my friends has made me take a close look at where the modern church finds itself. For every good church there is, quietly going around doing God’s work, it seems there’s another church pushing whatever the latest spiritual trends are, regardless of whether or not they line up to good Christian doctrine.
The push for a church to seem more “hip” and “relevant” is very understandable. More than ever, there are so many things competing for your attention, time, and money that it sometimes feels that unless you have a big, glowing neon sign above your head, or some sort of mascot in a funny suit promoting you, you’ll go unnoticed.
You can see the uphill battle many church leaders feel they face in wanting to keep relevant. If they are not considered hip or cool, people (especially youth) will go elsewhere. Study after study keeps finding the same thing: that youth especially are leaving the church in never before seen numbers.
In trying to stop the ever-increasing flow out of the church, bad decisions have been made. Some churches have taken to cutting out certain parts of the Bible that are deemed uncomfortable or judgmental. The big problem here is that when we start removing the “undesirable” parts out of Christianity, it stops being a valid system of beliefs but instead becomes something akin to wish fulfillment. We do it so our gods are then in our image and thus we can act free from the responsibility required by a true and real God.
In fact, I will dare to say that Jesus could come back, quietly, unannounced, walk into any number of churches here in North America, say word for word what’s recorded in the Gospels, and he would be told to leave because what he’s saying is either making people very uncomfortable, or is seen as entirely un-Christian. Just think about that for a moment. What does that say about where the modern church finds itself?
Even worse than poor or even false doctrine, I’ve seen the Christian walk treated like a chore. “Since our lives are so busy, church needs to be shorter so I can get back to reality faster!” I call this “fast food religion”… we want to be spiritually fed but don’t want to take the time eat. Let me ask you a question: how can you develop a relationship with God if you don’t want to spend any time with Him?
One of the biggest consequences I’ve seen from churches making these bad choices is that one denomination inevitably ends up in a disagreement with another, and unfortunately it’s those in the pews who end being caught in the middle. If the church is supposed to be about showing God’s love and salvation to the world, what kind of example are we giving if we’re seen constantly fighting amongst ourselves?
This is why Christianity is what I call “advanced citizenship”. Its about everyone but yourself, as Christ’s mission was about everyone else’s eternal well-being at the cost of His own life. Not only is it about accepting God’s offer of salvation, but it’s about making Him the center of your life every single day. It’s not enough to come here for an hour or two on Sunday, sing songs, hear a sermon, have a coffee and cookie and then go on your merry way.
Let me put it this way: The Bible says God is love. If the heart of Christianity is then showing divine love, how ridiculous would it be to becoming loving for just a couple hours a week. Put on your Sunday best, get in the car, love those around you at church, maybe even during lunch afterwards if the sermon was really good, but then once you get home, take off the fancy clothes, that’s it! I’m all loved out for the week! It’s just too much responsibility!
It’s something I can honestly say I’m guilty of. We’re told by Christ to “love our neighbors”. Well, my neighbors are very difficult for me to like, let alone love. They party a lot, fight a lot, our apartment smells almost nightly of certain non-medicinal drugs. To be honest, more than once I’ve said to God “I know you told me to love my neighbors, but couldn’t you have given me neighbors that are easier to love!”
Not exactly very Christian of me, huh? So how should we be acting towards those around us?
Turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 5:9-18
I want you to look at verse 11: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up”. The most common reason my friends who have left the church give for why they left is they felt the church was too judgmental. There is a difference between correction and judgement. Correction is done with the hope of helping someone past a stumbling block and on to a brighter future. Correction might be also called “tough love”. Judgement isn’t about anything more than wanting to make yourself feel better at the cost of someone else. Correction takes wisdom, judgement only needs ego.
Sometimes judgement can take on a form that’s very easy to go unnoticed. That form would be when we become self-satisfied that we’ve faced the problems and eliminated them. More likely, the truth is that we’ve found ways to ignore problems and sweep them under the rug.
A good example exists right here in Burlington. I lived in Burlington for 15 years and it always struck me as a solid, stable and even affluent place, and by the statistics I’ve seem, it is. It seems a world removed from the inner city in Hamilton where I’ve lived for the past 10 years. Where I live, there’s a large number of homeless, at-risk youth, and it doesn’t take long to find rows of closed up, broken down buildings. Burlington, on the other hand, is in a building boom. Even in just the decade since I’ve moved the downtown waterfront has changed so much I don’t even recognize it.
Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good. Burlington is booming, the future is looking so bright we’re gonna have to wear shades! So how does it feel to know that Burlington also has 18,000 people living under the poverty line and that the local food banks have seen a very noticeable upswing in the number of people relying on them over the past few years? If you’re trying to imagine what 18,000 people looks like, watch an NHL playoff game. The average NHL arena seats 18,000 fans. That’s a lot of people, isn’t it? Maybe that future isn’t as bright as we thought. It seems that even in prosperous places, there are still a great many in need of help, hope and healing.
Part 2 can be found here.