— They’re giving up a lot more than faith.
By Paul Wesslund
Three times in the past six years our pastor has acted out a small drama during his weekly sermon. “This is not the church,” he’ll say, crossing his arms over his chest. Then, unclenching and spreading his arms wide, “This is the church.”
Each reenactment of this open and welcoming gesture strikes me as the kind of message people need to hear, outside as well as inside our stained glass windows. Yet record numbers of Americans have quit going to church. Studies and personal stories describe people either leaving churches or just drifting away for reasons like being too busy or disagreeing on social issues.
The odd thing is that these former churchgoers seem to be searching for some kind of community, and affirmation that love and compassion are good things. It’s odd because in my experience that’s what church offers.
And my experience is not a sugarcoating of reality. I attend a United Methodist Church in Kentucky, where over the past three years nearly half of the Methodist churches in the state left the denomination. Their reasons for disaffiliating were popularly described as based on objections to the ordination of gay clergy and to holding same-sex weddings in the church.
But it’s more complicated than that. After all, while there’s been a lot of internal debate over those issues, the United Methodist Church still does not allow gay weddings or clergy.
Instead, the disaffiliations have more to do with the divisiveness and tribalism plaguing other parts of society. We no longer want to be around people who might be different from us.
Americans are dechurching in droves. What are they leaving behind?
I attended the Kentucky United Methodist Annual Conference this year where disaffiliations were approved for the last wave of the more than 300 churches that left our conference. At the meeting I sensed the hundreds of remaining delegates going through the classic stages of grief, including depression and acceptance. It’s a denomination figuring out how to navigate a new world, working hard at keeping hope alive.
My home church in Louisville is on a parallel path. Attendance is trending back up after COVID. We now livestream Sunday services. The coffee shop where I volunteer is getting back to its lively self. Over the past few years I know of people who have left because our church is too liberal, others because it’s too conservative.
Much of the current commentary on church attendance refers to the new book, The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis and Michael Graham. It takes a deep dive into surveys about why so many have stopped going to church. The studies found plenty of reasons, from wanting to sleep in after being kept awake by a new baby to attending brunch with friends.
Other widely-reported reasons cut even deeper – the widespread child abuse in the Catholic church, use of the Bible to score political points and the too-frequent requests for money.
The reasons are understandable, relatable and even logical. But they don’t take into account the unique combination of what a church can offer that addresses what a lot of people say they’re searching for: friends, and being a part of something larger than themselves.
The U.S. Surgeon General issued a report this year on loneliness and isolation, comparing its health effects to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. He created the report, he says, after Americans repeatedly told him they feel invisible and insignificant. That’s a condition every church seeks to address, however imperfectly.
We overlook defects in other parts of our lives. Who hasn’t had a less-than-perfect experience at what is still their favorite restaurant? Or stayed loyal to their team despite a series of boneheaded plays?
I deliberately chose to stay a United Methodist despite strongly disagreeing with its prohibition of gay ministers and same-sex church weddings. The God I worship loves everyone the same.
My conflict with Methodist church has become an act of faith
Remaining in the church for me was never a serious question. On the one hand there was this difference over a divisive issue. On the other was a wide-ranging mixture of reason and emotion. I grew up with the habit and tradition that Sunday mornings were for church. Each week I get to listen to choral and organ music I don’t hear anywhere else. I see a group of friends who gather on a moment’s notice for family celebrations or tragedies, to bring food and just to be there. I get to know that I’m part of a community that regularly helps build Habitat for Humanity houses. The children’s choir gave my daughter a strong music education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
So I choose to stay because no person – or institution – is perfect. Because leaving a more diverse group of thinkers and believers for people who are closer to being exactly like me seems sad – and even wrong – because it would just contribute to today’s tendency to listen only to ourselves.
My disagreement with one of the church’s policies didn’t drive me away – the opposite happened.
I’m not the sort to just paper over differences like LGBTQ+ rights. So I helped organize a group of church members to hold forums on the issue, to let people know that at next year’s United Methodist General Conference there could be a vote to change those policies. We also branched into environmental action, supporting the city council’s renewable energy resolution. Our group has supported racial justice programs.
My conflict has become an act of faith.
A church’s hold on people doesn’t come with the drama of watching a sport or offer a dinner menu. It’s bigger than that. I can’t help but feel that both the church and its former members are wandering around looking for each other.
Maybe they’ll meet again.
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