NC pastor: People are leaving church — because of churches

The author is pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.

Earlier this week Gallup released polling data showing that less than 50% of Americans report belonging to a faith community. Back in 1970, when Gallup first began tracking this data, more than 70% of Americans belonged to religious communities. As a pastor, when I heard this news, I thought of a little known passage in the 10th chapter of the book of Ezekiel when the prophet watches in horror as the Glory of God leaves the temple.

That’s not the standard response to news like this. The party line is to blame “this generation” for being less faithful, or “the media” for corrupting hearts or “the government” for taking prayer out of school. Once we’ve finished blaming those outside our communities, we turn to those inside and pressure them to give more, work more, sacrifice more to reverse the trend. But I don’t think any of that is a faithful response.

Because, while church membership is declining, people are still as hungry for the things of God as they ever have been. People are still seeking justice, forgiveness, hope, love and belonging. People are still desperate for mercy, for meaning, for second chances. People are still seeking the Holy, and the Holy One is still seeking people. So the problem isn’t with those outside the church, and it certainly isn’t with God. The problem — and it is a problem — is with us. The problem is that most of the church in America looks more like America than the body of Christ.

The church makes the news for all the wrong reasons — seminary leaders who passionately denounce Critical Race Theory but are silent about the white supremacy that forms their curriculum and institutions. Pastors who care more about not being called racist than learning how to meaningfully participate in racial reconciliation. Christians who care more about defending their right to buy a weapon than advocating to end police brutality.

Jesus — whose parents had to flee to a foreign country to save his life — has followers who advocate to close the borders to desperate refugees. Christians shouldn’t be outraged about 666 pairs of so-called ‘Satan Shoes’ but completely resigned to voter disenfranchisement, the school-to-prison pipeline, the resegregation of public schools, the opioid crisis or the epidemic of mass shootings. And speaking of Little Nas X, believers should be horrified by his ‘Call Me By Your Name’ video — not because of the raunchy imagery but because we managed to convince a young boy that he was more likely to find love in Hell than inside the body of Christ.

I love the church. But I love Jesus more, and the church has done a terrible job being faithful to the way of Jesus. When we who love the church see these numbers, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. People aren’t rejecting Jesus — they are turning away from churches that represent him badly. Churches that are full of programs instead of prayer, full of doctrine but empty of mercy. Turning away from church that lies is the first step towards the truth.

Which brings me back to the prophet Ezekiel — who was called by God to prophesy judgment, not against outsiders, but against the egregious unfaithfulness of his fellow believers. In Ezekiel’s day, people loved the rituals of worship more than the God they worshiped, people loved their religious identity more than the shalom of God. And so, in anguish, God leaves their sacred building behind. But God never abandoned the people.

On the cross, Jesus cried out “it is finished.” Injustice is finished, greed and poverty are finished, hatred is finished, violence, enmity and alienation are finished. All of those old powers are condemned and crucified. On the cross, the righteousness of God’s self-giving love was unleashed to infect all the earth with holiness. Resurrection life has come. And the church, the true body of Christ full of his Spirit--the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-generational, full of love, generosity, healing, transformation, forgiveness, joy and mutual flourishing, real church welcomes all.

Local congregations may or may not be about the new thing God is doing. When they are — they are irresistible. When they are not, well, God may leave our buildings — but God will not stop being God.

What the church needs is not more members, but more Jesus — not revival but repentance. What we should fear is not people who refuse to belong to churches, but churches who refuse to belong to Jesus.

Letters to the editor will return Wednesday.