Leaving Church?

By Martin Thielen

January 1, 2022

Over the past year, I’ve engaged in an ongoing conversation with a forty-year-old clergyperson struggling with institutional religion. Like many other pastors, he’s grown weary of church work. COVID certainly didn’t help. However, he felt close to burnout even before the pandemic arrived. It wasn’t just routine congregational pettiness, conflict, and criticism that troubled him. “I can put up with church crap,” he told me. “But I can no longer tolerate the disconnect between Jesus and the institutional church. They don’t remotely resemble each other anymore. I’m not sure they ever did.”

Several months ago he resigned his church, left vocational ministry, and took a job as a social worker. He also quit going to church and doubts he’ll ever return. He explained his life-altering decision by saying, “I’ve finally come to the sad conclusion that if I want to authentically follow Jesus, I have to leave organized religion.”

Get Me Out Of Here

He’s not alone. Huge numbers of people, both lay and clergy, are—in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor’s best-selling book—Leaving Church. Since she wrote that book fifteen years ago, the trend of “leaving church” has rapidly accelerated. And, like Barbara Brown Taylor, people still write about it. A few recent examples follow.

In Religious Refugees (2020, Quoir), Mark Gregory Karris said:

Being in the church has been like staying in a long-term abusive relationship. The problem is I love the girl so much. At least I think it’s love. Maybe it’s infatuation. Perhaps it’s Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure. Anyway, I stayed because I had this stubborn hope she would change. I dreamt of being the valiant hero who came along, swept her off her feet, and dramatically transformed her into the stunning princess she was meant to be. Unfortunately, nothing I did seemed to work. Over the years, things just seemed to get worse. Time after time she abused me. She verbally assaulted me. She tried to control me. She manipulated me. She gaslighted me. She stabbed me in the heart with a rusty and serrated knife. But like a lovesick idiot, I kept coming back. I thought, “Maybe tomorrow it will be different. Maybe tomorrow she’ll love me for who I am, in all my theological quirkiness.” But she didn’t. And after some reflection, I finally came to the realization we needed a break. (p. 15)

In his best-selling book, If God Is Love Don’t Be a Jerk (WJK, 2021), well-known blogger John Pavlovitz speaks openly about his disappointment and disillusionment with institutional religion in America, especially in the evangelical sector: “I am sickened by this thing claiming to be Christianity . . . this monstrosity . . . would be unrecognizable to him. . . . Sadly, the American Church has in many ways become the greatest argument for someone not becoming a Christian, for rejecting organized religion and never looking back” (pp. 136–37).

In the introduction to her most recent book, Freeing Jesus (Harper One, 2021), Diana Butler Bass puts a provocative spin on the theme of leaving church. She tells about a religious experience she once had while looking at an image of Jesus at the Washington National Cathedral. As she knelt at the marble altar, prayed, and gazed at a massive icon of Christ, she heard the voice of Jesus say to her, “Get me out of here.” Diana’s husband still laughs about “that time Jesus asked you to spring him from the slammer.”

If space permitted, many additional examples could be given. Of course, these concerns certainly aren’t new. Over twenty-five years ago, in Leaving the Fold (Prometheus Books, 1995) Austin Miles said: “I lost God in church. Maybe by leaving the church, I will get back to God. When Jesus ministered to individuals in the fields and in the homes, all went well. It was only when He got involved in the synagogues—the organized church—and tried to minister there that He got into trouble” (p. 272).

These harsh critiques of institutional religion are certainly not the whole picture. Plenty of churches genuinely attempt to live up to their ideals. And they provide worship, purpose, meaning, hope, community, and concrete opportunities of service to large numbers of people. Even with their flaws, many churches have done (and continue to do) a lot of good. It’s important to remember that fact. Clergy members must especially keep this in mind, or they won’t survive this difficult chapter in American Christianity.

A Long History of Bad Behavior

However, we cannot deny a stark and depressing reality. Legions of people are disgusted with the sorry state of institutional religion in twenty-first century America—for many good reasons. For example, our country is currently struggling with massive challenges including climate crisis, a pandemic, poverty, hunger, racism, injustice, polarization, and serious threats to democracy. In response, what is the church doing?

The Catholic Church continues to resist transparency and accountability in its massive pedophile priest scandal and coverup, while focusing most of its attention on abortion. The evangelical church demonizes the LBGTQ community, fosters Christian nationalism, participates in partisan politics, and fights endless culture wars over things like mask wearing, vaccines mandates, critical race theory, the second amendment, and transgender bathroom laws. And the mainline church engages in constant ecclesiastical civil warfare over same-sex marriage and gay clergy, carving up its already small and rapidly declining segment of the religious pie into even smaller pieces, completely disregarding Jesus’s command to unite in love.

Sadly, a review of two thousand years of Christian history reveals that today’s bad behavior in the church is not an anomaly but the norm. In response to this never-ending nonsense, a large and growing number of people are leaving church for good. And who can blame them? By and large, the church (past and present) fails to carry out its primary mission to love God and neighbor and advance the kingdom of God. Instead, it engages in constant pettiness, fights endless conflicts over secondary issues, consistently ignores the teachings of Christ, requires belief in outdated theological doctrines, and prioritizes institutional survival over following Jesus. Even the most faithful church members are wondering if it’s worth it anymore. Including a lot of clergypersons. For example, a recent Barna Research survey (November 2021) revealed that an astonishing 51 percent of mainline pastors are “seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry.

A Personal Dilemma

This overwhelming dysfunction of organized religion presents a deep personal struggle for me. After forty years of “in the trenches” ministry, I’m not currently active in a local congregation. So far, I’ve been able to blame my absence on the pandemic. Since my “second retirement” over a year ago, I’ve not been attending in-person worship services. I help provide care for my young (not yet eligible for vaccines) grandchildren on almost a daily basis. In an effort to help keep them safe, I don’t go to indoor public gatherings.

However, before long, my grandchildren will be vaccinated, and I’ll be able to go back to church. But the haunting truth is, I’m not sure I want to return to an institution that consistently untethers itself from the life, example, spirit, and teachings of Jesus. I have no doubt that if Jesus returned today, he would barely recognize the institution that bears his name. Instead, I suspect he would feel overwhelming heartbreak. He would likely say, as he did to Diana Butler Bass, “Get me out of here.”

This existential dilemma about how to relate to organized religion is certainly not unique to me. For example, I belong to a support group of retired mainline clergypersons. Of the six members in my group, only one of us currently attends church on a regular basis. If you do the math, that means 83 percent of us have left church, at least for the time being. Given our overwhelming disappointment with institutional religion, we don’t know if we’ll go back or not. All of us grieve that reality. On the other hand, we still hope that the church, at least small pockets of it, can make the radical changes needed to transform itself into something more Jesus-like, although none of us are optimistic about that happening on a large scale.

A few weeks ago, I talked to an old friend about our uneasy relationship with the church. We’ve both been deeply blessed—and deeply wounded—by institutional religion. Although part of us want to connect with a community of faith, we’re not sure we want to carry the toxic baggage that inevitably comes with it. We both feel deep affinity for Jesus and still seek to follow him. We’re definitely not post-Jesus. However, to our great surprise and deep sadness, we are both considering the once unthinkable possibility of becoming post-church.

During our long conversation, my friend shared a quote attributed to Alfred North Whitehead. The English mathematician and philosopher once said, “Tis a great tragedy to linger in a land through which one has already passed.”  My friend and I wondered aloud if we had already passed through the land of institutional religion. Neither one of us is sure if we want to linger there much longer. Part of us wants to. But part of us doesn’t.

For now, the question remains unresolved.

(To be continued . . .)


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