Thursday, October 19, 2006

Shotgun Churches

You've heard of the Victorian, the Cape Cod, the transitional, traditional, contemporary, and the once-fabulous split-level home. There are also the MacMansions popping up all over suburbia. But in the poor, working lower class town where I'm from, the "shotgun house" is pretty popular. That's those little houses of simple design with one main corridor with a couple of rooms off to the side. They get their name from the fact that you could shoot a shotgun through the front door all the way through the back door without hitting anyone or any walls.

I think it's time we christen some churches "shotgun churches." Seems the front and back door of too many churches are wide open. You could fire a sawed-off through one door and never hit a wall or a member. Faster than the speeding bullets can travel through, members enter and leave.

At least that's what we're to gather from a recently published Lifeway Research survey of 469 "formerly churched adults" who gave their top reasons for leaving church. (HT: Pray Connecticut). Lifeway conducted the survey "to better understand why people stop attending church - and what it would take to bring them back.

Part 1 of the survey focused on why people are leaving. The two major categories of reasons for leaving were "changes in life situations" (59%) and "disenchantment with pastor/church" (37%). Between these categories, the top responses were:

  1. Simply got too busy - 19 %
  2. Family/home responsibilities prevented attendance - 17 %
  3. Church members seemed hypocritical - 17 %
  4. Church members were judgmental of others - 17 %
  5. Moved too far from church - 17 %
  6. Work situation prevented church attendance - 15 %
  7. Church was not helping me develop spiritually - 14 %
  8. Stopped believing in organized religion - 14 %
  9. Church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement - 12 %
  10. Got divorced/separated - 10 %

There's much to respond to here. On the one hand, it seems clear that these folks did not understand the centrality of the local church in God's plan of redemption (Eph. 2:11-3:10). When the top reason for leaving is "simply got too busy" and "family/home responsibilities prevented attendance," then someone has never learned or taught that following Jesus means and always has meant, in part, joining the local collection of other followers of Jesus as the people of God. This very basic aspect of the Christian life must be recaptured and emphasized in our membership classes and our public teaching. It must be.

Also, there are the problems with the behavior of some Chrisitians. Certainly, people inside the church are hurt from time to time. Pastors stumble. Members wound. So, part of our teaching must emphasize growing in Christ likeness and the "one another" passages of Scripture. Instead of investing an inordinate amount of time in fancy vision and values statements made popular by corporations, perhaps we should major on that vision and those values expressed by God himself in His Word. Let's hold the Bible's picture of the church up as the vision, and call all our people to enroll in that vision, which includes loving our brothers so uniquely and visibly that others will know we are followers of Jesus.

The respondents described themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" (24%), "Christian, but not particularly devout" (42%), "devout Christian with a strong belief in God" (19%), wavering on Christianity (10%), and no belief in God at all (6%).

These self-descriptions are helpful because they suggest that as much as 40% of the respondents (former church members) quite possibly were not Christians at all (spiritual but not religious, wavering on Christianity, and no belief at all). That's not including the potential numbers of people who are falsely assuring themselves when they say they are "Christians, but not particularly devout." Setting aside for a moment the particular responses given for not attending, it would seem the more fundamental problem is taking care to be sure people understand and profess the gospel before admitting them to membership. In other words, these statistics suggest that what we need to do is close the front door to the church so that only Christians who value and are committed to the local church a priori are admitted to membership. We'll always have these kinds of reasons for leaving and high non-attendance rates if we don't first work to have our membership comprised of informed, confessing Christians.

Here, I think the Lifeway writers got it precisely backward when they concluded, in part, "More than 80 percent of the formerly churched do not have a strong belief in God, explaining why work and family are a higher priority than church. But would they be 'too busy' to attend if they felt more welcome at church?" If the idea that they're "too busy" is a sham, why would we think that the solution is to make them "more welcome at church"? I think we want them experiencing discomfort at church because our emphasis on the corporate life of God's people, drawn from the Scripture, causes them to be convicted and to notice their low valuations. Our aim is not to make the uncommitted comfortable, but to edify the committed saints and thus make the Christian life distinctive and attractive for those who are being saved.

Part 2 of the article, asks whether or not "church leavers" would be willing to return. Here are the results:

  1. 4% are actively looking for another church;
  2. 6% would prefer to resume attending the church they left;
  3. 62% are not actively looking at all, but are "open" to attending;

The average respondent had not attended regularly for the past 14 years. But the Lifeway authors conclude that we should be encouraged that 3 out of 4 are "willing to give it another try." Fourteen years of non-attendance and only 10% of folks looking to attend in some fashion hardly inspire optimism. This reminds me of the SBC's tendency to count non-attending church members as "prospects." They're supposed to be converts! Perhaps a little more pessimism about their spiritual position and a little less optimism about "getting them to come to church is the answer" is warranted.

Among those who indicated some "interest" in returning to church "when they felt it was time to return" (58%) or "felt God calling them to church" (31%), these were some of the reasons they might consider returning:

  • "to fill a gap felt since stopping regular church attendance" (34%) - this is the most promising statistic in the entire survey for my money. Folks are supposed to feel a gap when they've removed themselves from the fellowship of God's people.
  • "to bring me closer to God" (46%). In a survey where most respondents may not be Christians, I'm not sure what this means.
  • "be around those with similar values" (32%). Depending on the values, this is a recipe for cliques and nominalism.
  • "to make friends" (31%). See above.
  • "to make a difference/help others in the community" (30%). This, too, may indicate that folks are not clear on exactly what the nature and primary purpose of the local church is. It's not fundamentally a community service club, though it may engage in many worthwhile community outreach/improvement activities.

At the end of the day, the Lifeway study is interesting and helpful because it points out once again that for the health of the local church and individual Christians, we must recover a high view of the local church, its centrality in the redemptive plan of God, and the importance of healthy church membership practices that close the front door and open the back. Apart from these things, we will always be plagued with constant leavers and non-attenders.

We would be better off if we thought of statistics like these as not so much indicators of opportunities but signs of impending death and decay. These data are just as likely to forecast church decline and church splits as they are opportunities for recapturing former members. If we're not careful in our membership practices, we will invite all kinds of folks with different interests and commitments and will one day look up only to find that we've filled the church with carnality of the sort that only produces strife and pain.

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