Retired from Religion

Martin Thielen

September 1, 2020

An out-of-state friend called me back in February, before the virus hit. Like me, he recently retired. He knew I pastored a small, part-time rural church and asked about my work there. Then I asked him, “Where are you going to church these days?”

He paused a moment. Then he said, “Actually, I don’t attend church anymore. I’ve retired from religion.” I asked him to explain. My friend, never shy about expressing his strongly felt opinions, let it rip.

He said, “My wife is a Roman Catholic. But you couldn’t pay me to go to her church. All those priests molested thousands of children all over the world. Bishops covered it up. And virtually nobody was ever held accountable. They have no moral authority anymore. Why would anybody go to a Catholic Church after all of that?”

He continued, “I’m certainly not going to attend an evangelical church. They worship Donald Trump more than Jesus Christ. For some tragic reason they love his hate. Given their unyielding partisan support for an immoral and incompetent president who divides and inflames the country, they have lost all credibility.”

Then he said, “I tried a few mainline churches, including a United Methodist and a Presbyterian congregation. But they are so worried about losing members, they’ve become hopelessly politically correct, trying desperately not to offend anybody. They won’t take a stand on anything. I don’t have any interest in milk-toast religion like that.”

I attempted a rebuttal. I explained that all human institutions, including the church, are flawed yet still have redeeming qualities. I also noted how important it is be connected with other Christian believers throughout life’s journey.

He countered, “I have lots of meaningful connections with Christians in my community but without the hypocrisy of organized religion.” Then he added, “I haven’t lost faith in God; I’ve lost faith in the church. I still worship God, love Jesus, pray daily, and live ethically. But I’m done with institutional religion.”

In the end I didn’t move the needle one bit with my friend. He’s still retired from religion and likely will be the rest of his life.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation. Sadly, my friend—in spite of his overly critical sweeping generalizations—is partially correct. Although exceptions exist, he’s right that large numbers of churches, in every sector of American Christianity (including my sector), have lost their way. Instead of following Jesus, many have chosen to follow smaller gods, including partisan ideology, narrow doctrines, and institutional survival.

After devoting over forty years of my life to church work, that reality is painful to admit. So I hope and pray that the American church will reclaim the life, example, spirit, and teachings of Jesus as our core focus and mission. Before even more people retire from religion for good.