What To Do About Church?

By Martin Thielen

August 1, 2022

I recently queried Doubter’s Parish readers concerning your relationship with institutional religion. I specifically asked if you are (1) staying in church, (2) leaving, or (3) undecided. I received lots of responses. Many were remarkably transparent and heartfelt. This month’s post attempts to summarize and synthesize your comments.

Some Have Left

A significant number of respondents (20%) have already left the church or are in the process of leaving. Several examples follow:

  • “The institutional church has become part of the divisiveness in our country. The love of Jesus isn’t present.”
  • “When I came out (as gay), the church did not treat me like one of their own. I have no interest in attending a church where I am still a ‘debatable issue.’”
  • “After the 2016 election we decided to forego organized religion seeing that those involved would rather follow Trump than Jesus.”
  • “The church has become too political and obstinate to hear the message of Christ. So much of religion is myth, fear, and superstition. Church rituals have lost their meaning.”
  • “I no longer believe the dogma and can no longer recite creeds that have no meaning. The Church is a construct, man-made (literally), born of power and patriarchy, and has little to do with the Jesus I want to follow.”
  • “The hypocrisy of declaring a Christian ethic while ignoring the teachings of Jesus forced me out.”
  • “I pulled back partly because of politics, partly because of LGBTQ issues, partly because the Bible seems to be worshipped more than the golden rule. Plus, the Bible just doesn’t make any logical sense to me anymore.”
  • “The current state of the Christian church is a mess. It has been heart-breaking to watch it devolve into something unrecognizable to Jesus of Nazareth. The evangelical corruption of faith, the hostile political climate, the rise of Christian nationalism, the right-wing extremism characterized by anti-science and anti-education agendas, and now the misogynist takeover of reproductive rights all feed into my desire to not be associated with the Christian church.”

Most Are Staying

Most respondents (58%) are staying in church, at least for now. Several examples follow.

  • “I was baptized as an infant in a church, and I expect my funeral to be celebrated in a church. The church has had and continues to have its faults because it is full of fallible mortals. But it seems the Holy Spirit eventually nudges us to where we need to be.”
  • “I’m staying because I have long links with my church. Our children were baptised there. Our older son was married there. We have a good fellowship.”
  • “I see some signs that my church is beginning to do things and work toward changing the world to come closer to the kingdom of God here on earth. As long as it goes down that path, I’ll support it.”
  • “I remain in my church because this is where my friends are after fifty-plus years of active membership. Leaving would feel like abandoning my family. This is also where I can do the work that Jesus taught us to do for others.”
  • “Every congregation I have attended has problems. Every unit I served in during my military career also had problems. But I finished my military career, and I expect to finish my church ‘career.’”
  • “I stay in the church because it is a place where I believe I can be a force for change. I am not ready to give up yet. We have been working on racial justice for a number of years. I think we have pushed the needle a little a least, so I will stay and keep trying, even though at times it is very uncomfortable for me to do so.”
  • “My area’s local congregations all lean conservative. That leaves me with no local options. So I have been worshipping online with a church in another state who is progressive. I do not see me leaving the church, but where and how I worship has changed.”
  • “My church is where I find hope amid all the chaos of this world. The church is not perfect and never has been. I don’t see how leaving the church would improve anything. Walking away from a problem never solved it.”

Although the majority of respondents are currently sticking with their church, an important caveat needs to be mentioned. Many of them made clear that their current congregational connection is not unlimited or unconditional. As one person said, “I plan to stay involved, but this is contingent on my church, its theology, and the congregation continuing to remain open, affirming, and progressive.” Many active church members expressed similar sentiments.

Many Are Undecided

A good number of people who responded to this church affiliation survey (22%) are undecided about their future in institutional religion. Several examples follow.

  • “I’m out here flapping in the wind. Am I quitting institutional religion? Almost. Yet that doesn’t feel right either. I’m aware the Spirit is moving in this great dust-up across denominations and figure a new model of church-ness is evolving. But meanwhile I am feeling rootless.”
  • “I’m currently sitting on the edge. I will only participate in a totally inclusive congregation. I’m waiting to see what happens on this issue in my church. If it doesn’t work out correctly, I will not participate in organized religion.”
  • “I am rattled by the triumph of right-wing so-called evangelical churches in America, to impose their beliefs on our secular society and re-cloak Jesus Christ in stars and stripes. I never thought I would just hang it all up and say I’m done, but I’m getting awfully close to that. So consider me sorely tempted to leave the church while still feeling the pull to remain associated.”
  • “I struggle with joining/leaving/staying all the time. Some of it is my own faith—I don’t know what I think about God, or Jesus, or the Trinity, or the Bible. Some of it is the institution. We’ve done a lousy job of stepping outside ‘how it’s always been done’ and it shows. And yet I am called back in by a church community that does some remarkable things. So I am still here, tying myself (however reluctantly) to an institution that I tried my darndest to excise from my life.”
  • “I am struggling—a lot. Our minister says “Jesus died for everyone,” but he will not mention LGBTQIA+ issues—or address racial justice. However, many of my friends are longtime church friends, so I am ‘betwixt and between’ as my mother used to say.”
  • “I’m the parent of a gay child. I don’t want to be a part of a church that doesn’t fully embrace LGBTQ people as being just as entitled to God’s love as anyone else, or allow them to serve in the ministry and marry in the church. My spouse and I have talked about trying other churches, and I think maybe that’s something I should do before I completely make up my mind that I’m not a church person anymore. But I sure do enjoy my leisurely Sunday mornings now!”
  • “Most days staying in church is very hard, and I wonder if it would be easier just to be a humanist and give up the effort.”
  • “I am currently undecided. I am a lifelong church member, and my father and grandfather were ministers. But the creeds and liturgy are no longer reflective of my beliefs, and the church’s disagreement over LBGTQ+ is disheartening.”

Four Additional Observations

Beyond the church affiliation responses (leaving, staying, or undecided) summarized above, several interesting conclusions came to light in my survey. A few examples follow.

  1. Theology and church participation are not correlated. I expected theological traditionalists to remain in church and “heretics” to leave. But I was wrong. Plenty of people with traditional theology have left institutional religion. As one respondent said, “I still believe in God and follow Jesus. But I left the church years ago.” On the other hand, large numbers of people with highly unorthodox views (including agnosticism and atheism) remain in church, mostly for relational connections or social justice/ministry efforts. I was struck by how many dedicated church attenders expressed severe doubts about orthodox Christian theology. One active church member spoke for many others: “I do not believe in any traditional religious doctrines anymore.” Yet that person still regularly attends worship.
  2. People are deeply frustrated with institutional religion. Even the most dedicated church members expressed significant disappointment with current ecclesiastical realities. As one life-long active member said, “I’m staying put. But I can think of more than a few tables that need to be overturned in the temple of organized religion.” Most respondents to the survey would concur. Another person said, “Jesus never went to the temple as an adult except once, to shut it down, at least symbolically, and certainly not to offer sacrifice.” A particularly frustrated respondent ended a long rant against institutional religion by saying, “I’m totally fed up with organized religion. But I still go to church every Sunday. Go figure!”
  3. A lot of retired clergy have quit going to church. More than any other demographic in my survey, retired ministers have disassociated themselves from congregational life. After decades of working in institutional religion, most of the clergy who responded acknowledged that they no longer participate in a local congregation. And they don’t miss it. As one retired pastor said, “Retirement has been a liberation, if not emancipation for me!” Another remarked, “I’ve had enough church to last a lifetime. I’m done.”
  4. There is a deeply felt need for progressive Christian communities. A major theme in reader responses was their desire to belong to a grace-filled, open-minded, welcoming congregation. Many respondents said they had been wounded by fundamentalist churches, both Protestant and Catholic. Yet they still seek Christian community. However, finding a viable alternative to religious-right religion is a challenge in many communities. One respondent said, “I’m sure there are wonderful churches out there—churches where love is the main thing, where belief in doctrine isn’t the main thing, and where following Christ is the mission. But they are not easy to find.” Another wrote, “I believe we are created to be in relationship, and my spirit desires a progressive worshipping community, but I haven’t found one yet.” These kinds of heartfelt comments reminded me of the vital role progressive churches play in providing alternative spiritual communities for nonfundamentalist Christians. I’ll have more to say about this crucial topic in an upcoming post.

In conclusion, I want to thank all of you who responded to my informal survey about church affiliation. Although I was only able to use a small fraction of your quotes in this article, all of your comments were helpful. An added benefit was learning more about my readers; I now appreciate you more than ever! In the words of Mister Rogers (one of my all-time favorite people), “I like you just the way you are!”