The Barna Group published results of a study they did on young adults and faith. One of the articles about their research was entitled, “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts.” It is a worthy and helpful read that examines young adult dropouts from several perspectives. Three comments caught my attention—riveted me, actually, to the point where I had a hard time catching my breath. In three different places the article said:

Two out of ten young Christians feel lost in the gap between church and society, saying things like, “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” or “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me.”

and

Only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests.

and

[Young believers] require a more holistic understanding of their vocation and calling in life—how their faith influences what they do with their lives, from Monday through Saturday.

Yes, I took these three comments out of context. There is much more to the Barna report than just this. But (as I said) these three came together for me in a breath-taking way.

I’ve been known to say lately that recent research on why people leave the church often lists as one of the top reasons, “Because the church doesn’t connect with the rest of my life.” This Barna report set me on an extended journey of looking for that research. I was surprised that I couldn’t find it, at least I couldn’t frequent mentions of this particular reason.

Most of what I found is along the lines of this:

Someone offended them, God disappointed them, they don’t have time (read: they’re not committed), they want a different style (music or preaching), they never put down roots, they need to hide a problem (pending divorce or drug problems), church members were judgmental or hypocrites, they didn’t like a change that was made, they have doubts about God and/or the church, or they want a church that offers a ministry their former congregation doesn’t.

A sample of some of the books that deal with people leaving the church.

First, it’s interesting to note that most of these reasons relate to “why I left a congregation” rather than “why I gave up on the church.” Second, I was intrigued that just about all the information I encountered came from evangelical/conservative leaders or institutions. With few exceptions, it seems that this isn’t a topic that respectable mainline leaders talk about. As I said, this is intriguing. Perhaps it’s because evangelical/conservative churches are focused like a laser on “saving souls” and “winning the lost.” Perhaps they are distraught over people who leave; maybe it’s seen as a personal failure.

Nevertheless, I did find one blog that cites British academics who researched why people leave church. Of the 18 reasons listed, the seventh highest (at 46%) was people who said the church “failed to connect with the rest of my life.”

Maybe it’s not the most frequently mentioned reason for leaving the church, as I had thought. But the Barna Group’s report certainly puts the Sunday–Monday disconnect in front of us in a way that is hard to avoid.

If you’ll allow me to engage in some unsubstantiated speculation, it seems the indicators that the Barna Group found about young adults could easily be applied to older adults as well.

  • We want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with our daily lives.
  • Only a small minority of us have been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture.
  • We all require a more holistic understanding of our vocation and calling in life—how our faith influences what we do with our lives, from Monday through Saturday.

And yet the church persists in focusing on what happens in the church. What counts in our institution-centric way of thinking is what our members do in and for the church—and if we’re forward-thinking, how we can attract more people to join us. We value Sunday school teachers, board members, Bible study participants—we call them active members—and we count them because those numbers tell us whether we’re successful, if we’re growing, and how effective our leaders are. (In a related vein: I quipped recently that we need to ban talk about “how many people we worship on Sunday” because we worship God, not the people who participate. One person responded, “Maybe we do worship the people, that is, we place our trust in and we judge our faithfulness by our ability to attract people to our churches.” Ouch.)

One comment I ran across on this research journey was, “People on the outside see the church as candles, pews and flowers, rather than people living out their love for God by loving others.” That sounds like a simplified way of saying that people on the outside only see our love affair with life in the church rather than our embodied love of God in all of life. On another site, a comment in response to a blog about why people leave the church was much more to-the-point:

For the most part…leaders and staff of a church are often primarily concerned most, above all other things, about keeping people coming on Sunday mornings and catering to what the people want in order to sustain a consistent congregation. This is because the church has been “professionalized,” and the leaders of a church are driven to do things in a way that will keep the tithe money coming in. They aren’t believing that God will provide what they need (NEED–not want), and therefore their decisions and leadership are consumed by their own efforts in their own strength to keep themselves afloat. On the whole, “professional church” is lifeless, stale, and in many ways nothing like what the church was intended to be. People know this and feel this.

And, I would add, at least in part (according to the Barna Group report) they are looking for something that isn’t ghettoized in the church.

On a different but wholly related topic, I’ve been struck lately by the persistent theme of busyness and how it’s destroying the church. In fact, the research journey I’m describing started with several friends posting the Barna Group article on Facebook. One thread of comments that followed one of those posts went straight from the Barna research to lamenting that families don’t make the faith community a higher priority than sports, music, and other “competing” interests. I’ve heard pastors say (a lot!) that they “can’t ask their members to do anything more.” “They’re already so busy that the church just can’t burden them further.”

If we’re serious about the connection of faith and life in the world, if we’re serious about empowering and supporting ministry in daily life, why are we “competing” to take people out of the world? Shouldn’t we, instead, be working to help them “be a Christian without separating from the world around us”?

I have a vision of a church that sees its purpose in terms of forming followers of Christ who are ready, equipped, empowered to be his agents of love, care and compassion in the world (not just in the church). It is a vision of a community that gathers on a regular basis to hear “reports from the front lines,” and to engage the ancient practices of the church (scripture, worship, prayer) around matters of relationships, calling, and culture. I have a vision of a community that actively discerns how God’s presence influences what we do with our lives from Monday through Saturday, and then sends us back out into the world, in peace, to serve the Lord. This vision, if enacted (it seems to me) would make our congregations incredibly exciting and vibrant places, and we would finally have an answer to the question, “Why are so many people leaving the church?” Why, silly, they’re just heading back out into the world as God’s agents of hope, faith, and compassion.

[First published in December 2011 on a previous blog.]