Six Reasons Christians are Leaving the Church

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart- Jeremiah 29:12-13 NIV 

Recently there has been an upsurge in individuals who have abandoned Christianity and renounced their faith in Jesus Christ. Some have been influential Christians like Joshua Harris, Katy Perry and Marty Sampson. There has also been an uptick in average Joes and Janes who have walked away from the faith. Most Christians know someone (or several someone’s) who were once actively involved in church who haven’t attended church in years.  

Most lay the blame for this problem at the feet of church leaders.  I have personally pontificated on more than one occasion and in more than one blogpost about all the ways I believe the church and church leaders have failed to the last two generations of church goers. 

However.

In the interest of objectivity and because it’s critical I do my part to prevent more spiritual fatalities. I feel it is imperative I point out the fact that with a few notable (and incredibly sad) exceptions’ churches have not driven people away.  People have chosen to leave. Individuals who make a heartfelt commitment to Jesus do not just wake up one day and decide to stop serving God. 

There is a process involved in departing the faith that ends with a hardening of the heart and a defection from the faith (Hebrews 3:12-15). It begins with the adoption of attitudes and behaviors that open the door to apostasy. Christians should be on the lookout for those attitudes and behaviors in their own life and they should be ready to come alongside other Christians that are struggling with behaviors that can eventually lead to apostasy.  Those behaviors include: 

 You put a lot of faith in human leaders- 

Human leaders are, under the best of circumstances, a gift from God. If a human leader is fully obedient to Jesus they can lead others into greater understanding of the faith, provide inspiration and give moral direction to other followers of Jesus. However, human leaders are sinners just like everyone else. They lie, have affairs, are tempted to embezzle, become prideful and they get things hopelessly wrong sometimes. Wise Christians never put more faith in a human being, (no matter how wise or knowledgeable that person is) than they do in Jesus. If our love for Jesus is dependent on the virtue of a human leader our love for God will grow cold at some point (Matthew 24:11-12). 

You don’t pray-

According to surveys most Christians (over half) spend less than three minutes a day in prayer. That means most Christians pray over their meals (maybe) and when they find themselves in dire emergencies.  As Christians have begun praying less, more are leaving the faith (Matthew 26:41). I strongly suspect there is a correlation as well as causation between these two issues (Jude 20-21). 

You never really committed to a local church-

Church attendance cannot and will not save anyone from their sin (only Jesus can do that). That said, a Christian who chooses not to connect in a local church will probably at some point be tempted to leave Christianity altogether. This is because church is the place where Christians build relationships and acquire the accountability necessary to get them through seasons of temptation and difficulty.   (Proverbs 27:17). 

You have not done the work necessary to transform your thinking- 

Because we are all sinners from the moment we are born wrong thinking is an integral part of our human operating system. One of the primary tasks of a new Christian is to begin the process of renewing their mind and changing their thinking about just about every subject under the sun (Romans 12:2, 1stCorinthians 14:20, 2nd Peter 3:1). If your attitudes towards sex, relationships, politics and work haven’t changed since you became a Christian it’s possible you are not a Christian or you are in danger of falling away (Hebrews 5:11-12)  

You love secular advice- 

Christians are called to live life by a different set of rules and values than the rest of the world. Non-Christians and immature believers know very little, if anything about how Christians are called to live (Matthew 5:43-48, Romans 12:12-14, Colossians 3:5-6). When we take most of our counsel or direction from those who are ignorant of Christian values (secular talk show hosts, women’s magazines, non-Christian counselors)  our thinking will remain stuck in a secular mindset. No one stuck in a secular mindset is capable of bringing glory to God or bringing anyone else into the Kingdom. (Colossians 3:1-3).  

You love the world a little too much- 

We “love the world” when we take our cues about how to live, love and function from the world’s system rather than from the Bible (John 2:15, Romans 12:2). Loving the world means the values of the world are influencing us and we are not influencing the people God has put around us.  

Sometimes I am overwhelmed to the point of tears that God loves every human on earth with an absurd and crazy passion. However, people have a responsibility to respond to God’s love in humble faith, obedience and with a heart that is determined to persevere in the faith. It’s imperative Christians remember that no one will get a free pass from Jesus on judgment Day because the church disappointed them (Revelation 20:11-15)

The Idols Christians Worship-

They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them~ Psalm 106:35-36 NIV

Whatever biblical book I happen to be reading tends to have a discernible impact on my writing. Sadly, I usually only see this in hindsight.  Last summer I studied Jeremiah. Looking back, I clearly see that the blogs I wrote during those months tended to be glum, cynical screeds against the evils of the culture. While I was writing a devotional on Galatians I frequently wrote about the wonders of grace and the hazards of legalism, racism, hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

The primary difference between those blogs and this one is that this time I am intentionally connecting a biblical topic I have been studying with a cultural phenomenon we are experiencing in the church.  

So. 

I have been reading the book of Hosea. A key theme of Hosea is idolatry. This got me thinking about idolatry in general and how contemporary idolatry tends to differ from the standard bow-down-to-a-creepy-little-statue variety of idolatry we see in the Old Testament. 

As I was reading Hosea, Joshua Harris (author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye)and Marty Sampson (writer for Hillsong) both “came out” as unbelievers (Marty Sampson has since back-peddled a bit). The book of Hosea makes a clear connection between the act of idolatry and the act of apostasy (Hosea 13:2, Zephaniah 1:3, 2nd Kings 17:11-13). In the Bible there is not a single case where apostasy occurred in a void. No person or nation just up and decided to stop believing in God. Apostasy followed a lifestyle of idolatry. 

Some idols we worship today are unique to our generation. Some tend to more of an issue among Christian leaders while others affect most Christians in some way. The idols we worship are directly related to the apostasy we are experiencing. When we stop committing idolatry we will see fewer people leaving the church.  

 Christians worship the idols of:

 Ambition- 

Ambition is not sinful until it becomes THE primary motivating force in our lives. If ambition is not kept in check it swiftly mutates into covetousness.  Covetousness then becomes an all-consuming focus on whatever it is we long for.  Ambition is particularly dangerous in the church world because unbridled ambition often disguises itself in Christians and Christian leaders as a healthy desire to see churches grow. However, sometimes ambition for church growth is really just a ravenous appetite for recognition.    

Success-

Christians have merged worldly measures of success with Christianity. Being wealthy, sought after and liked is perceived to be success in our Christian culture. Even though biblical standards for success are vastly different (Isaiah 66:2, Matthew 22:36-40, Hebrews 11:36-38).  A person who has made success into an idol will do anything to hang on to the attention, money and adulation that comes with success. This includes compromising what they believe or even renouncing their faith in Christ so they can increase the size of their audience and number of followers. 

Grace- 

 God is insanely complex. He is good, merciful and kind. Like it or not, God is also unapologetically judgmental.God judges people who refuse to humbly repent and embrace Him as the sovereign Lord of everything (1st Corinthians 6:8-10, Jude 14:16-18, Revelation 20:13). When we insist on making God out to be all sunshine and good vibes we aren’t really worshipping God anymore. We are worshipping the grace God offers only to those who choose to repent (Matthew 4:17, Acts 3:19, Acts 17:29-31). We know grace has become an idol when we buy the lie that a loving God cannot or will not judge people who refuse to play by His rules.   

Judgment- 

There are Christians who really, really want God to smite the daylights out of anyone who has committed certain acts of wickedness. They also want Him to do it without so much as a smidgen of mercy. If the notion that God would withhold judgment from someone just because they have repented bothers you; you just might worship the judgment and wrath of God rather than God (Ezekiel 18:23). 

Marriage-

In Mark 2:23-27 the Pharisees chastised Jesus and his disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath. This was a technical violation of Exodus 16:23. Jesus informed the Pharisees that the Sabbath was intended to be an institution that benefited and blessed people rather than an institution people became a slave to. I am not “soft” on divorce. I believe marriage is critically important and that most marriages could be saved if both people in the marriage would simply stop sinning. That said, I also believe many contemporary Christians make the same mistake with marriage that the Pharisees made with the Sabbath. We worship marriage when we put the institution of marriage above of the welfare of the people in the marriage. 

Freedom-

Freedom (especially where sexuality is concerned) is an idol that has been worshipped with wild abandon in Western culture for decades.  In recent years Christians have followed suit. Those who worship freedom do not believe even God Himself has the right to tell anyone that old-fashioned ideas about gender, sexuality and marriage are true and that some behaviors are simply unacceptable. 

Youth- 

1st Timothy 3:6 cautions Church leaders against placing new converts in positions of leadership. This is because when new converts become leaders they also become prideful. Eventually they may even begin to believe that they have more wisdom and insight than other Christians and even God. A twenty-year-old is by the nature of their age a new convert (even if he or she was raised in the church). Joshua Harris was nineteen when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbyeand twenty-one when the greater Christian community dubbed him a leader. Marty Sampson was barely out of his teens when he began leading worship and writing music for Hillsong.  In one sense it is not surprising that these men have decided that they have moved beyond Christianity.  Until we stop elevating every young kid with talent or a good idea into “a leader” we will continue to have problems with those leaders as they age. 

Idols must be cast down. The only way to cast these particular idols down is a return to humble obedience that can only be born out of pure love for God rather than the blessings He gives. Getting there will require ruthless self-examination and honest prayer. 

Why Saved People Still Need to do Good works

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do~ Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV

If you are a Christian and reading this blog-post you can count yourself blessed because God has granted you the privilege of living in the age of Grace.

This simply means that Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection paid the penalty for your sins (Acts 13:38-40, Romans 6:23, 1stPeter 3:18).  You do not have to follow a bunch of rules, preform weird rituals or submit to the Old Testament law to get God to like and accept you (Galatians 2:19-21, Galatians 3:1-6, Galatians 5:6). If you have trusted in the finished work Jesus did on the cross and repented of your sins, when God looks at you He sees the righteousness, virtue and goodness of Jesus and that is more than enough for Him (Romans 10:10, 2ndTimothy 1:9). 

He totally digs you. Happy sigh. 

For the average Christian this is not exactly new news. Contemporary Christians have been inundated with the message that it is grace rather than works that save us from our sins and make us right with God. This is not in and of itself a bad message.  It is critical we remember that good works cannot save anyone from anything (Isaiah 64:6). During the Middle Ages the church lost sight of this vital truth and as a result the church (and the people in it) also lost sight of its purpose in this world. The spiritual and ethical chaos that resulted from this error is still being felt in our world today.

Sigh.

 That being said, humans tend to be creatures of weird extremes. We rarely do, think or believe anything in a halfhearted fashion. As a result, the current emphasis on grace has caused many Christians to view good works as an optional activity for Christians at best and as an affront to the grace of God at worst. Some Bible teachers and Pastors have inadvertently encouraged this flawed thinking by leading people to believe that salvation is an end rather than a beginning. Many Christians sincerely believe there is nothing left for us to do but glory in our salvation and wait for heaven once we have become Christians.  

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

God could not be clearer in His word: we were saved by grace but we were created for the express purpose of doing good works (Ephesians 2:9-10, Matthew 5:16, 1stTimothy 6:18, Hebrews 10:24). Those good works include (among other things) living righteously, building the church (body of Christ), providing for the physical needs of the poor, sharing truth, loving the lost, fighting for fairness in an unfair world and helping Christians and non-Christians who need help. Today I want to make a biblical case for good works. Not so that we can get saved but because we are saved. Christians should do good works because:

Good works reveal who we are- 

In Genesis chapter 24 Abraham sends his most trusted servant to find his son Isaac a wife. The instructions Abraham gave the man were insanely hazy and vague. Mostly, Abraham did not want Isaac’s wife to come from outside of his clan. The servant very wisely prayed that he would find a woman who voluntarily did good deeds (my words) for strangers. He prayed that he would find a woman who would offer him (a complete stranger) water and be willing to water his camels as well (a time-sucking act of kindness that went above and beyond prevailing social expectations). Abraham’s servant understood that our behavior towards others (especially strangers) reveals our inner nature more effectively than words ever could (Matthew 12:35).  When Christians do good deeds for the right reasons (because we love God) it shows the world that there is something different about us and they tend to find that difference intriguing, perplexing and appealing (Matthew 7:18).   

Good works reminds us of who we belong to and what we are all about- 

Anytime we choose to go above and beyond for someone our good deeds also serve as a reminder to us that we are not called to live for ourselves. Rather, we are called to live beyond ourselves for the glory of God and the good of others. 

Good works point people to a good God- 

Human beings are for the most part motivated by selfishness, impure motives and greed. Because humans are self-serving and greedy good deeds that require personal sacrifice are a rare and noteworthy occurrence in our world. When Christians are open about being Christians and they do good things for no other reason than God wants them to do good things, our acts of righteousness inevitably point people to Jesus. 

Good works are a way to say thank you for a gift we could never earn-

It is simply a fact that no quantity of good deeds could ever make up for our innate sinfulness and pride. We needed Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins so that we could enjoy the benefits of salvation both now and in eternity. When we choose to do the good deeds God commands us to do (Deuteronomy 5:33, Matthew 25:31-40, Luke 6:27-36, Romans 12, 1stCorinthians 10:24, Galatians 2:10) it is a small way to tell God that we appreciate the sacrifice that was made on our behalf. 

Five Things That Must be Done Right Now to Make the Church Healthy-

We can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth~ 1stJohn 2:2-4 NLT

 It’s been a long depressing week.

 A cursory glance at the news would quickly convince anyone that the whole stinking world has lost its mind.

 The rabble-rousers at ANTAFA have been protesting racism and fascism by lighting things on fire and punching strangers in the face. The news media is aiding and abetting this chicanery by openly defending ANTAFA’s methods and claiming that some punches are more “moral” than others (What?). Several American universities have begun stocking their men’s bathrooms with tampons in the name of gender equality and fairness (seriously, I am incapable of making this stuff up).    

 Sadly, that carnival of dysfunction pales in comparison to the news that came out of church world this week. Bill Hybels, guru of all things evangelical and lead Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church resigned after allegations of adultery, duplicity and ongoing sexual idiocy were confirmed. The resignation of the entire board of Willow Creek Church quickly followed when it was disclosed that they had dismissed and covered-up allegations of abuse from dozens of women over the years. Immediately following the news of that flaming-hot-dumpster-fire it was revealed that the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania lied about and aided in the systemic sexual abuse of thousands of children over the course of several decades.

Sigh.

 All this would be less worrisome if it weren’t simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shady behavior, sketchiness and sin in the church. It is not unusual for local church leaders to openly behave in ways that are questionable at best and downright sinful at worst. It is even more common for Christian laypeople to totally disregard clear instruction given in the Bible. Some have taken to treating bad behavior by other Christians as if clear-cut cases of sin were simply a matter of Christian freedom or lifestyle choices (1stPeter 3:16).

 This is not about freedom in Christ or the right some post-modern Christians think they have to be uninhibited by any and all rules (1st Corinthians 6:20, 1st Corinthians 8:9, 2nd Timothy 2:5). This is about people who do not know Jesus and probably never will because too many Christians flatly refuse to control their baser urges. It pretty much goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that it is highly unlikely that even one of those little kids who were molested by their parish priests grew-up to become Christians. If we want to turn things around we need to do five things fast:

 We must redefine what qualifies as suitable entertainment for Christians-

 Recently, I watched a television show that was wildly popular twenty-plus years ago. Fifteen minutes in, I realized the real success of that program was in normalizing sin, especially the sins of pornography and homosexuality. When the devil can get us to giggle at behaviors that God forbids or to identify strongly with characters who are openly sinful and deeply flawed we are well on our way to accepting those behaviors as normal and even healthy. Over the course of the last two decades Christian attitudes towards sin has changed dramatically. Our entertainment choices are at least partly to blame.

 We need a return to church discipline-

 I get that this a touchy issue. I also get that we live in a ridiculously litigious society where few people (including most Christians) are willing to accept correction anymore. I also understand that Christians should be slow to judge and quick to forgive. I also know that too many churches have abused the notion of church discipline and used it as a means to bully, control and intimidate other Christians. That being said, Paul made it clear that certain behaviors are not be tolerated in Christian churches. He also gave clear-cut instructions on healthy church discipline and restoration of the repentant (1stCorinthians 5, 2ndCorinthians 2) 

 We should less time fretting about legalism and more time focusing on obedience-

 About two decades ago believers went on a crusade to eliminate every possible hint of legalism from the church. This is not a bad thing, so long as we do not equate obedience to New Testament commands with legalism. Until we recognize this has become a problem the church will continue to struggle with sin.   

 We need to stop thinking that attendance is the measure of a leader-

 Since the emergence of the first mega-church in the late 1980’s the ability to draw a crowd has become the gold standard for Christian leadership.  There is nothing wrong with having a guy on staff who can put butts in the seats and bucks in the offering plate. However, it is critical we remember that nowhere in the New Testament are those things considered a requirement (or even a consideration) for biblical leadership. Rather, we are told to look for leaders who serve as examples of morality, love, grace and human decency for the rest of us (1stTimothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:6-7)

 We need fear God-

 Seriously.  God knows everything and someday He will judge everything. Including the things people fool themselves into thinking are being done in secret (Hebrews 4:13, Revelation 20:12-13)