It’s week 3 of “Burn Those Books” where I’m sharing with you 3 books that made a huge impact on my faith and my thinking in 2018 – books that likely wouldn’t be welcomed in a fair amount of churches – and today I want to share with you a bit from the book Quitting Church by Julia Duin.
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover or its title (put down your rocks, Christians) because it’s not a book that encourages people to quit church, but a book that looks to give some possible reasons as to why people are quitting church.
Before I go any further, though, I have to say – to be honest, I was super torn about what book to go with this week because I have SO MANY books that I’ve read in the last year that would rock the boats of churches. And so that makes me think that I might do a “Burn Those Books” series a couple of times a year. Maybe again in the Fall?
Anyways, Duin writes to inform churches, leaders, and anyone who’s interested that people are leaving the church in droves and tries to pinpoint some reasons as to WHY while also giving some perspective on WHAT we might be able to do about it.
For example (keep in mind she wrote this book in 2008, so over 10 years ago – now you feel old, don’t you?), Duin says that at the current rate “only 4 percent of America’s teens will end up as Bible-believing Christians, compared to 35 percent of the baby boomers and 65 percent of their WWII-era grandparents.” In other words, as every year goes by less and less and less people are grounding themselves in the church so much so that when today’s teenagers are adults, less than 5% of them will be active in church as “bible-believing Christians”.
Read that again:
Less than FIVE percent of today’s teenagers will end up becoming “Bible-believing Christian” adults.
But, why? Like, what’s the deal?
Her book addresses that on a pretty deep level, but one of the things she said really struck a chord with me. And before I tell you what that is, I have to make a confession: the Siepert’s haven’t been going to church lately.
Before you yell at me … to be honest, we just needed a break.
I used to pastor a church, and although there were lots and lots of things that I loved about being a pastor, I felt like the politics of the church very often overshadowed the things that I loved and enjoyed.
Politics, like …
Making sure that person who gives a lot of money each week and always sits in the back right corner – I have to do everything in my power to make sure that guy likes me.
Making sure I don’t tick that guy off so that he threatens to take his money to another church.
Making sure I preach things that everybody is on board with.
Making sure I have “proper theology” and “proper doctrine”.
Making sure that if I do rock the boat with some new ideas, I don’t rock it too much.
Late night board meetings where we spend 3 hours arguing about stuff that doesn’t really matter.
Being told that real pastors preach about hell.
Being told that my understanding of God needs to be updated and that maybe it would be a good idea for me to go back to school.
Knowing that this group of people over here is happy.
But that group of people over there isn’t.
And trying to figure out how to make the unhappy group happy without also making the happy group unhappy so that eventually everyone would be at least somewhat happy.
Being criticized for the way I dressed.
Or how long my hair was.
Or because my tattoo was showing in the pulpit.
Being told that we need more people in the church and that I need to figure out how to make it happen.
Being told that we need more money in the plates and that I need to preach on the importance of tithing.
I swear to you, one time we were in a board meeting until 1AM arguing about whether or not we should have a Christmas Tree in the sanctuary during the Advent Season.
I, of course, said yes; other people said it would distract from the true meaning of Christmas. Because, you know, having a Christmas tree next to the pulpit was evil, but having the American Flag up there 365/24/7 was OK and Biblical and put a smile on Baby Jesus’ face.
Well, sometimes you have to pick a hill to die on and for me all the way back in 2005 it was the Christmas tree hill. I fought and fought and fought until 1AM and, yes, by golly, there was a Christmas tree in the sanctuary a few weeks later, it was amazing, AND I may or may not have referenced in every single sermon that Advent season.
Ahhh the politics of being a pastor. All of these things happened, and then some. I wish I could say I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. And after pastoring that church my wife and I went on to try and plant a church. And then we were involved in another church after that. And both the church we were involved in and our church plant (and the various churches where we interned and volunteered) each had their own sets of “politics” that needed to be dealt with and addressed day after day, week after week after week after week.
The reality is that as a pastor you need to be good at playing the people game. If you’re a pastor, you’re nodding your head right now. If you’re not a pastor, let me explain: you need to be a people person who can read people, sway people, lower the voices of the loud people, raise the voices of the quiet people, win people over, and keep the boat from rocking too hard. And although I could do those things and although I did them for a bunch of years as a pastor, in internships, and while on staff at other churches … I hated doing it, and it just left me feeling drained, tired, and miserable.
And then we moved down to North Carolina and we just felt like we needed a break. We’ve been to a few different churches a bunch of times since moving down here, but in all of those churches we either …
ONE - experienced theologies and understandings of God and faith and Christianity that are far removed from where our journey has brought us.
TWO – found ourselves surrounded by the same sorts of politics that we experienced in our past churches.
Will we ever go back to church more than occasionally? Of course. Do we still believe in the church? Absolutely. Do we still love the church? A thousand times yes. Do we still love Jesus? Contrary to what some might think – YES, more than ever.
So don’t sent me hate mail, I won’t read it. Bottom line is that we just need a break.
And so during this break from church activity, we’ve been challenging ourselves in the Siepert house to practice instead of just believe. As a pastor I found it extremely easy to get so caught up in what I believed and so caught up in what was good theology vs. bad theology and so caught up in making sure my sermons were doctrinally sound and the way I understood and explained God and faith was accurate, compelling, and tidy … that it was all too easy to let my life and my actions and my words towards and about others become untidy, unsound, and uncompelling.
It was easy to think like a pastor, but act and talk like a total jerk.
And so as we find ourselves in a season where we’re less involved in church life and more involved in the deconstruction / reconstruction that I spoke about last week, we’ve also made an intentional effort to practice our faith in more creative ways. Whether it’s lending a helping hand of some sort to a neighbor or spending extra time getting to know the person who checks us out at the grocery store every week or taking the time to chat with people at work or online about how this podcast / blog has impacted or challenged their faith – we’ve been trying to be creative and intentional with how we bring God to people instead of just trying to bring ourselves and others with us to meet God in church every Sunday.
Same here, with the What If Project. I just had a conversation last week with someone who is very active with the Pride Parade in Charlotte and I’m talking with people right now about either this year or next year setting up a table at the Pride Parade where we serve communion to LGBTQ people who have been burned and shamed by the church – serve them communion, embrace them, tell them that they are loved and welcomed at Jesus’ table.
Again – practicing our faith in creative ways.
I tell you all of this because one of the things that Duin says in her book is that people leave church because church feels irrelevant. In other words, because church doesn’t challenge them or equip them to be difference makers in their real world situations. The church spends way too much time answering questions that no one is asking instead of equipping people and empowering people to change their world.
In an interview that Duin did with Activist, Shane Claiborne, he said …
“It’s not so much what Jesus and His disciples said, but how they lived that was compelling. We must give visibility to Christianity as a way of living rather than just a way of believing. I think that is attractive to people. Most people who have been suffocated by doctrine and theology know there’s more to Christianity than just believing. When people see there are ways of living that don’t conform to the patterns of the world, that’s very attractive.”
I wonder what would happen if as church people we became less concerned with doctrine and more concerned with action? I’m not saying that doctrine and theology are not important. They are and they do have their place. And I’m not saying that churches or people who emphasize their importance are wrong or bad or misguided.
Not at all.
I’m just wondering what the church might be like or how people’s perception of the church might change if instead of lobbing doctrine bombs at people and always insisting that there are certain ways to believe and certain beliefs that must be adhered to … I wonder what it would be like if we (instead) lobbed love bombs at the people in our lives, communities, and world who might not be or feel welcomed in the church? Who might think that God is mad at them? Who might have grown up being shamed by the Bible? I wonder what would happen if instead of suffocating these people with a list of things they need to believe and a long list of things they’ll never be able to measure up to, if we (instead) sought to intentionally model the no string attached love of Jesus to them?
As Pavlovitz’s book challenged us with last week, what if we lived our lives with the intention of making the Table bigger?
Something to think about.
Much love, friends.