I’ve talked to, listened to, and read interviews, blogs, and books by dozens of folks who’ve left the Christian faith. I’ve yet to hear a story from anyone who abandoned Christianity based on anything directly related to Christianity – at least the original version, anyway.
The decline of Christianity in America, the popularity of The New Atheists, and the meteoric rise of the “nones” underscore something that’s been true for generations but didn’t matter much until now.
Many expressions of Christianity are fatally flawed.
Many people see Christianity as anti-intellectual, overly simplistic, and easily discredited. For decades, college professors with biases against religion have found Christian freshmen easy targets.
Much of what makes American Christianity so resistible to those outside the faith are things we should have been resisting all along. While many of us have been working hard to make church more interesting, it turns out that fewer people are actually interested.
Here are five reasons people are really leaving the church.
1. We tell people that the Bible is the basis of Christianity
“Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.”
It’s a line that many who grow up in the church know by heart, and it reflects a problem in modern American Christianity: many of us believe that the Bible is the foundation of our religion.
I recently read a blog post by a former worship leader who left the faith after she read a book “proving” contradictions in the Bible. Apparently, she grew up believing the foundation of our faith is a non-contradicting book.
It’s not. Jesus is.
When our faith stands on anything other than Christ, we put ourselves (and others) in position to fall.
2. They believe suffering disproves the existence of God
Renowned New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman says he lost his faith and embraced atheism because of suffering in the world. And he’s not the only one.
But the foundation of our faith is not a world without suffering. Pain and suffering don’t disprove the existence of God. It only disproves the existence of a god who doesn’t allow pain and suffering.
Whose god is that?
Not ours. Our God promised there would be suffering until he makes all things new.
3. They had a bad church experience
Most bad church experiences are the result of somebody prioritizing a view over a you – something Jesus never did and instructed us not to do either. Self-righteousness and legalism are leftovers of the Old Testament laws, which Jesus replaced through his death on the cross.
Relationships are messy and complicated. But if our actions are rooted in Jesus’ command to love one another (John 13:34), we can prevent many of the experiences that lead people away from his body.
4. We’re bad at making people feel welcome
It wasn’t just his message that made Jesus irresistible. It was Jesus himself. People who were nothing like him, liked him. And Jesus liked people who were nothing like him. Jesus invited unbelieving, misbehaving, troublemaking men and women to follow him and to embrace something new, and they accepted his invitation.
As followers of Jesus, we should be known as people who like people who are nothing like us. When we invite unbelieving, misbehaving troublemakers to join us, they should be intrigued – if not inclined – to accept our invitation.
5. We made ekklesia (the church) a building
The word “church” should’ve never appeared in our Bibles. It shouldn’t have become part of Christian culture, either. It’s more than a mistranslation. It represents a misdirection.
While the majority of your English Bible is a word-for-word translation from Greek, the term “church” is an exception. The term “church” is not a translation. It’s a substitution. And a misleading one at that.
The term “church” is a derivative of the German term kirche meaning: house of the Lord or temple. This term of German origin was used to interpret, rather than translate, the Greek term ekklesia throughout most of the New Testament.
The Greek term ekklesia is translated as “church” over one hundred times in your English New Testament, but in Acts 19:32 – a passage describing a city in uproar – it’s translated differently.
“The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”
Ekklesia was not, and is not, a religious term. It does not mean church or house of the Lord. It certainly shouldn’t be associated with a temple. The term was used widely to describe a gathering, assembly, civic gatherings, or an assembly of soldiers. Or as was the case in Acts 19, an assembly of rioting idol manufacturers.
An ekklesia was a gathering of people for a specific purpose. Any specific purpose. It’s not a building. It’s not a physical location. It’s a group of people.
It’s a lot easier to stop showing up at a place than it is to disconnect from a group of people who intimately know, love, and support each other.
If we want people to stop leaving the church – if we want Christianity to be irresistible again to the world – then maybe it’s time to take another look at the movement Jesus started 2,000 years ago.