Many people leave the church or avoid it like the plague pointing to the hypocrisy of the church goers or the damage that believers have done over the centuries, but I maintain that two reasons drive that leave-taking and avoidance: 1) the very humanness of the church is merely a true reflection of any individual’s own imperfections which so many refuse to face up to and 2) many do not want to do the hard work of belonging to a religion. The former reason actually touches the core of Christianity: that if you can love all the people in your church, then you can truly love. Jesus charged us with loving our God with all of ourselves and with loving our neighbor, too. The concept is actually that we love what we see of Jesus in the person in front of us. That is why we love others and why we serve them, thereby fulfilling Jesus’ teaching about serving him whenever we serve the “least” of our brothers and sisters.
As for the 2nd reason there are definitely challenges to belonging to a church, not the least of which is reconciling what an individual believes with what the denomination believes. Like a member of any group there is group pressure to conform and align oneself with the majority/prevailing beliefs. There is a wide range of beliefs in any congregation, but there always seems to be a prevailing vision of what a church “should be doing.”
Another challenge to church membership is that you are expected to work along the lines of available avenues, charities, teaching in the Sunday School. One friend here acknowledged that she loved her large church, because she could hide in all the numbers. In addition there is often a rigidity in churches about what is possible, how change will be managed, what is “right” to be done, etc. In some churches a small group of people determine all policy.
Religions and beliefs are often set in stone and not easily changed or evolved. I contend that we need the more rigid container holding the beliefs and practices of the denomination to balance out the free movement of the Holy Spirit in directing people’s lives. Each of us needs to develop a personal and deep relationship with the Lord, but so few people really do. This is where the dynamism of Christianity lies, in the action of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. How many of us are willing to risk putting our lives in the hands of the Lord?
The other major problem with the church in our culture today is that people in churches and outside don’t want to deal with miracles, healings, and certainly resurrections; we much prefer the rational, we definitely prefer thinking about God and arguing about all the questions surrounding God and our culture to engaging with the Spirit in a real encounter with the living God. I blame the Enlightenment for the cold rationality of our culture today. Gradually over the centuries religion has taken more and more hits as the great deconstructionists have reduced each and every belief to its lowest common denominator, cutting away anything that cannot be scientifically proved to be true.
My answer to the rationality of today is that they have not managed to disprove anything, they might have raised a lot of questions, but have not managed to undo the truths about human nature and God’s call to us out of our captivity into freedom that so permeate the Bible. We are captive, just like the Hebrews in Egypt to the way we think, to the grip that our materialistic, coldly scientific society has on us, enslaved by our inability to free ourselves of the prison walls we live in. We need God’s help to accomplish the true freedom we all yearn for: the promised land of milk and honey. As in the Exodus story it takes time to dislodge ourselves from Egypt, symbolizing the material world, the place of slavery, time spent in the wilderness as we change from one mind-set to another, where new laws are given and then, finally, we find ourselves in the promised land. There life is not without challenges, but God and we are clearly working together to solve them.
This essay has not been an Apologia for religion, but a way for me to explore the issues that affect whether people are willing to join a church or not. It saddens me that so few people today value God’s place in our lives. I think there is so much disinformation about the church and what a religious/spiritual life consists of, that it’s no wonder that the mainline church is losing ground every year. The fundamentalist churches seem to have the most vitality, but to me so much of what they offer is religion light: if you believe, then you are set for life and death afterwards. So many of their churches are filled with young people, but I really wonder if the message captivates those young people throughout their lives. I know that there are certainly many people over 40 years of age who hold fundamentalist beliefs, but I wonder if the rigidity of those beliefs doesn’t preclude a vibrant relationship with God, too, like we find in the more mainline churches, but for different reasons.
I am more and more confirmed in my belief that the central theme of Jesus’ message was a deep relationship with God, so that every action taken comes from the stirring of the Holy Spirit, not from our thinking or our churches’ thinking about what Jesus would want us to do.