One phenomenon of the Church in the western world is that many people seem to be leaving, a phenomenon that seems to be accelerating. For example, in 2021, Gallup reported that American Church membership dropped below 50% for the first time since Gallup began polling in 1937. No doubt there are a large number of reasons for this, but they seem to me to be grouped into three main areas: disagreement about what the Church teaches, dislike of how Christians behave, and a sense that the Church is not meeting the real needs that it should. Are these valid reasons?
On the face of it, there is some validity to these reasons. For instance, the Church has not always been clear about what it teaches and why, which leads to misunderstanding. It is also a target of misinformation, which confuses people further. And sometimes people do understand what the Church teaches but simply cannot accept it. For me, I have found that each time I had trouble accepting what the Church teaches, I did not understand it properly: further investigation has let me distinguish between what I thought it was saying and what it was really saying, and I have come to see and appreciate the wisdom in it. But my investigations were not forgone conclusions, and they were not always easy. I can understand how others asking the same questions might end up with different answers.
As for how Christians behave, there has been no shortage of Christians behaving badly, from some Church leaders abusing people in their care and others failing to address the wrongs, to people trying to impose rules on others beyond what the Church does, to others trying to waive the Church’s instructions altogether. Some Christians seem more interested in prosperity than Christ, some more interested in politics, some more interested in tribal distinctions or social clubbiness. As far as I can tell, this is not new: even the New Testament tells of various forms of misbehavior of Christians in the early Church. The fact is that Christians in the Church are sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness, and too often the sin persists when it should be taken to God for healing. I see this too in myself: even when I know the right thing to do, I do not always do it. I need God’s help to be good, I cannot do it on my own. The Church is full of people who are in need of forgiveness and healing, myself included. But the fact is: forgiveness is really what the Church is for. If so, it is no surprise to see the need for forgiveness within the Church. A greater recognition in the Church of this need could be helpful, I think.
As for needs in general unmet by the Church, there is a profound need for community in a world where social media often serves more to isolate than unite. I see new sides forming, groups of people who agree on some topic, see themselves besieged by those who disagree, and set themselves up in strong opposition. Too often this opposition involves viewing the other as idiot, as manipulator, as dupe, as schemer. This is not entirely a new dynamic, it is a dynamic that has eroded and divided human communities since the beginning of the human race, but to see it happen on such a wide scale is troubling. The Church in many places has not managed (at least not yet) to find and embrace a good way to preserve and live out community in this modern reality. I, too, long for better community in the Church than we are enjoying today, and readily admit that in this the Church is not what it perhaps should and could be.
All of these are valid and true issues: there are indeed real problems with the Church today. Yet for me, despite the real problems, they are not good reasons to leave the Church. Why? Because these are not the reasons I am part of the Church in the first place. To me, there is only one reason to be part of the Church: Jesus. These other things are real issues, yes, but they reflect the fact that human beings are flawed and sinful wherever we are, even when together in the Church. But I believe the real reason to be together in the Church is not shared ideas, or because we like the people we are with, or because the Church meets our needs, we are in the Church because Jesus is present.
Does Jesus’ presence mean nobody will leave? Sadly, not necessarily. Jesus in his public ministry in Palestine had people leave, when he said controversial things. Once, when he spoke of himself as the bread of life, so many followers left in outrage over his language that Jesus questioned his apostles about whether they would leave too:
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” [John 6:67-69]
For me, like Peter, I stay, because to whom should I go, if not Jesus? There is only one Jesus. That is why I am part of the Church, not because the liturgies are perfect, or the preaching is excellent, or the priest is holy, or the congregation is kind and welcoming, but because Jesus is present. He is the point of the Church, he is the reason for the Church, he is why I stay.
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