By that I don’t mean to ask if believers are justifiable in judging the church as an institution worth leaving. The shortcomings of American Christianity — the hypocrisy, scandal, and oppression that have become almost synonymous with Christian faith — are well documented. Many frustrated believers, like acclaimed author Anne Rice, who made her highly publicized exit from organized religion earlier this year, would prefer to distance themselves from the foibles of organized religion.
A recent Barna study on the changing faith of Americans identified some of the top reasons people give for leaving Christianity. The main points of tension are disagreement with Christianity on hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion, wounds from negative experiences, and a feeling that the church is too controlling. Rice, who reaffirmed her Catholic faith in 1998, left the church for similar reasons, which she shared on a note on her Facebook wall.
For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
For many, Rice’s retreat from Christianity only confirmed what some have suspected all along: the American church is not well. William Lobdell, in the Los Angeles Times, pointed to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating most Protestant denominations are experiencing a decline in members. Christianity Today editor Drew Dyck’s new book, Generation Ex-Christian, explores the reasons why younger adults are abandoning the evangelical church. Dyck observes, for instance, that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22. And Catholicism isn’t faring much better, with 25 percent leaving the church as they grow into adulthood.
Though the numbers may seem bleak, defection from organized religion is not new. Ironically, many believers have given up Christianity in hopes of finding Christ.
Jon Tyson, teaching pastor of Trinity Grace Church in Manhattan, notes that historically Christians have faced a similar obstacle. “In the first century,” he explains, “the movement of Jesus burst into the scene as a prophetic fulfillment of Jesus the Messiah of the people of Israel.”
However, it wasn’t long before people began to use religious power as a means of exclusion and manipulation, and for their own personal advancement. Sound familiar? In time, the expanse between the actions of believers and the core tenets of the faith widened. It was in the midst of this type of hypocrisy that believers struggled to find the line between what was culture and what was Christ.
“What’s happening today for many people is a similar argument is going on,” says Tyson. “People are asking, how much of the Christian culture do I have to bring with me in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus?” Furthermore, if the church has indeed become an outpost of broken religious culture disconnected from its head, Christ, wouldn’t burned believers be better off leaving the body, like Anne Rice, to pursue a private faith wholly focused on God?
The answer, Tyson says, is no. “We still need the church. We should be a part of reforming it from within rather than abandoning it.”
The decision to leave the community of faith is a serious one — it’s an action Jesus himself never took. Despite their bumbling faith, misunderstanding of doctrine, and selfish ambition, He remained with His followers … even unto death. And He’s still with us. Therefore, we must stay because Christ stayed. And we must stay because leaving the church is a not a solution for its hypocrisy.
Built on the foundational truth that people are spiritually fractured absent the presence and restorative work of Christ, it’s surprising we so quickly grow discouraged to find brokenness among the pews. To leave the church on the basis of its failings is in some respect an act of lunacy. In fleeing we become like ill patients storming out of the hospital doors and spilling onto the streets, all the while complaining we’ve been duped because we’ve encountered fellow patients showing signs of the flu. Despite the image of moral uprightness often projected by or attributed to the church, we must never forget that, at its core, the church is a ramshackle organization of the broken, wounded, and needy. The church cannot be judged entirely by the health of its patients but always by the competence of its Chief Physician.
And while believers and non-believers will continue to find fault with organized religion, that is no justification for abandoning the church. Christian faith must be lived out in the context of community, faulty though it may be. The body relies on believers of differing opinions and moral sensitivities to provide balance and reformation, so that the whole can grow to look more like Christ.