People Are Leaving The Church To Save Their Faith. What?!

Have you ever heard of someone leaving the church in order to save their faith? That seems so paradoxical, yet it is true for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Countless articles, studies, blogs, and books have examined this phenomenon, the reasons behind it, and what the church could do in response. People keep trying to get the church, especially Protestant, evangelical churches to change. But most churches have turned a blind eye, preferring to blame those who have left, saying they were never true Christians to begin with, or that they prefer their sinful lives. But is that true?

People Have Been Leaving for Decades

Pastors, sociologists, academics, and researchers started conducting surveys and research about this trend decades ago. In the 1990’s, the trend was identified: people were starting to leave the church in large numbers. In 2003, Andrew Strom wrote an online treatise called “The Out of Church Christians” about the phenomenon occurring around the world. He quoted David Barrett, an author for the World Christian Encyclopedia, who estimated that there were 112 million churchless Christians worldwide and that this number would double by 2025.

George Barna was one of the first to study this trend. In 2006, he published a book about it called “Revolution” claiming the trend was growing rapidly and would transform the church.  From 2008 to 2014, the Barna Group interviewed more than 20,000 people trying to understand the American public and they published their findings in their latest book, “Churchless: How to Understand the Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.” They characterize the U.S. population as 49% actively churched, 10% minimally churched, 33% de-churched, and 8% purely unchurched.

The Pew Research Group has conducted their own surveys, and in 2012 they found that “one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.” They call this group the “Nones”, which has now evolved into the “Dones”. Researcher and sociologist Josh Packard, Ph.D., co-wrote a book with Ashleigh Hope, called, “Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why the dechurched left… and what they’re hoping to find.” They identified a group they call the “Dones.” These are people who, it turns out, were very active in church leadership–full-time workers, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, elders–but have left the institutionalized church because they are just “done” with the politics, the power plays, hypocrisy, lack of depth, and performance-based church services.

Leaving the Church but not their Faith

While the statistics paint a broad picture of the current state of the churchless, I think the actual stories by former church leaders and member are more impactful. For example, former church leader, Tony Steward, wrote a blog post about why he left the church. He said, “I’m relearning honesty after being in that world as a profession for more than 10 years. I’m still trying to find out what I think, what it means, and how a real faith in Jesus still exists in my life. I’m detoxing and looking for what remains that is real, that is love, and that is true.”

Another example is Tom Schultz, co-author of the book, “Why People Don’t Want to Go to Church” talks about his own research. He said, “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” He also quotes John Packard, who recounts one of his interviewees as saying, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”

Like Tony and the millions of others, I too left the church. Unlike Tony who is just beginning his journey, I left almost 10 years ago. Why? I couldn’t find God at church in the midst of all the church programs, projects, classes, and ultra structured Sunday services. I was tired of people hiding behind the facade of self righteousness, as they denied their humanity, preferring to quote Scripture than to admit their fallibility. However, I did find fulfilling community in a small home group that was not affiliated with any church. I enjoyed soul quenching conversations about spirituality, faith, humanity, and life with quality people of different perspectives, hurts, joys, foibles, and journeys they were willing to share. Although I moved away too far to continue being a part of this group, I still commune with my Savior.

Perhaps now we can see the churchless differently. They too are people who long for authentic experiences with God, the Creator, and Jesus, the Savior. They don’t want pat answers to questions and they certainly don’t want anyone to just quote Scripture at them. They are young and old, Millennial, Gen X, Boomer, you name it, they are people who long for authenticity, deeper relationships where people can express their doubts, concerns, and questions about God and life. They just couldn’t find what they were looking for in church.

By Guest Blogger, CK Miller

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What Are All These Foreigners Doing In My Country?

Years ago I was invited to teach a workshop at a large denominational convention. I was given an hour to teach on Islam and Muslim evangelism. However, at the last minute I was told I would be sharing my teaching time with a Native American brother who was going to teach on reaching his nation.

In less than 30 minutes, we were each expected to give solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing the American church. To add insult to injury, directly across from our classroom was going to be a very well known mega church pastor teaching a workshop on “church growth”.

Having faced situations like this over and over again for many years, I decided to even out the odds and placed a sign on the other workshop’s door telling the attendees that the room was switched to ours.

Within a few minutes before our class was to start, pastors began to pour in trying to grab any seat they could find. Eventually, the class was filled to its capacity with standing room only. That’s when I calmly got up to introduce myself.

“Hi, my name is Shahrokh Afshar. My friends call me Shah, but you can call me Shahrokh. Next to me is Pastor ‘Pretty on the Top’ and we are going to be your teachers for the next 60 minutes.”

That’s when one of the pastors in the back shouted, “Where’s Pastor Jack?”

“Jack who?” I replied

Needless to say, within a few seconds my class emptied— as if the rapture had taken place and only seven of us were left behind. It was obvious that to most of those pastors, church growth took precedence over evangelism, including Muslim and Native American evangelism, which are two of the least evangelized people groups in the entire world.

Four of the five pastors in the room had intended to be there all along, but after realizing the prank I’d pulled, the fifth guy stayed because he told himself, “Anyone who can pull something like this on Pastor Jack is worth listening to.” Ted and I have been great friends ever since.

It frustrates me to no end to see that even after 9/11 how much most pastors in America still operate with the above mindset—looking for the magic formula that can turn their small fellowship into a mega church overnight instead of doing the work of an evangelist, especially among these two grossly under-reached groups.

Every once in a while, I challenge believers to do the following the next time they are at church:
Before the service starts, request that your pastor ask the church members this question: ‘How many of you were saved at this church and how many of you transferred here from another church?’ If the pastor is willing to ask such a question, you’ll be shocked by the result. You’ll find out that a good 80-90% of your church members have transferred from other churches for whatever reason and are what I call “Recycled Christians”.

By the way, I’ve been to churches where 100% of the members were Recycled Christians.

“Look around you,” I often direct American pastors. “You and your church members can all be missionaries to any people group you desire without having to ever leave your home. God has brought people of every nation and language to your doorsteps for a reason. You don’t need to spend a penny traveling to their foreign lands because they have already spent their own money to be here. You don’t need to learn their languages or cultures (although it’s very help if you do so) because they’re trying hard to learn English and the American way of life. You don’t need to learn how to eat their foods because they’re desperately trying to keep their Big Macs down. All the Lord is asking you is to, in Christ’s name, take a glass of cool water across the street to the guy that may wear a turban and speak with an accent.”

According to some of the studies I’ve seen, the church attendance in America is dropping every Sunday. No doubt there are many reasons for this phenomenon, but as far as I’m concerned there are two extremely prominent causes for this occurrence.

First, a majority of Americans who are born in this country have lost interest in church attendance and don’t consider Christianity relevant.

Second, we’ve finally run out of Christians to recycle. Is it possible that after decades of recycling old disciples rather than baptizing new ones, we’re finally running out of recyclable Christians? Could the answer to the next great revival in America lie not in building another mega church building filled with English speaking believers who have transferred from smaller churches, but in Christian leaders who are willing to build their churches one person at a time by reaching out to those who’ve never heard the Good News and are more open—the internationals God has brought to our doorsteps?