Why do people stop going to church?

I had an uplifting experience in church yesterday but now I can’t recall the main text. Part of the sermon though was about having a compassion for other people, especially the lowly and vulnerable and telling them about Jesus.  An example of a man who is doing this, now approaching his eighties, is someone few will know: Brian Ellis. While his name isn’t mentioned much, you can find out about some of the work in which he is involved, from the website of Christian Compassion Ministries, which operates in the Philippines.

Doing good (in all its manifestations) and preaching the gospel is complementary rather than mutually exclusive, although sometimes it appears to be so, and it is a theme taken up in my last blog article: “Social justice and the gospel – either or both?” This brings me nicely on to a conversation I had with an infrequent visitor to my church. One reason for not going to his church is he is disaffected, deeming it to focus on doing good (and not doing it particularly well) while at the same time neglecting the preaching the gospel. As we talked more, it became evident that there were those close to him, who are believers, who have given up on church altogether, something I could regrettably identify with. By church, I mean one or other Christian congregation. I have pondered on the reasons for this and am of the view these are many and various, and sometimes it is about the individual not obeying the will of God.

In my early indoctrination, I was told people stopped attending church because they were either not Christians in the first place or had backslidden. It should be added that my early mentors had little time for Liberals and Catholics but the tragedy that I have seen is regarding Evangelicals who supposedly have the truth but whose practice effectively denies that truth. A frequent reason for giving up on church is rather than be a place for healing it has become a place for hurting and often those that leave do so to cut their losses and, once out of the habit of church attending, the lure of going back to church diminishes. While it begs the question of being reconciled (the one thing Christians ought to be good at) or finding a church where people feel they are accepted, spiritually nourished and able to operate, sadly, regarding the reconciliation, there is not enough of it and as for being a spiritual home, many churches fall way short. There are some who try different churches and some give up in disappointment. I recall this was my experience when I returned to my home town in 1983. I tried several churches before settling on the one I was at before I left town. I stayed 25 years, before it closed. I then settled on the one I am now at and it is my spiritual home.

When I “googled” the title there was no shortage of hits giving credible answers (here, here and here for my first three), no doubt because it is a question many ponder. My reading of Jesus’ parable of the sower leads me to think seed sowed by the wayside, among thorns and on stony ground was not going to do much even though in the last two cases there was a promising start. I suppose one reason that can’t be discounted is people fail to find God present when they go to church and it is as much to do with seeing a mismatch between what is believed and what is practiced. As for churches that try to give people what they want in their programs, while it attracts for a time, many end up disillusioned because it fails to provide the message that touches their deepest need. Often we want to blame others whereas the truth as far as churches failing goes is often if there is to be blame then we are all culpable. The way people know we are His disciples, according to Jesus, is we love one another; which applies whatever church we belong to, or don’t.

While I am someone who has often felt like an outsider and been deeply hurt, for most of my life I have been an active member of a church,  yet I can see many different reasons why people give up on church and arguments as to whether or not they should. But I return to the example of my unostentatious octogenarian who did good toward the poor and needy while preaching a doctrinally Reformed gospel message, and did so through the church. The text below is a “mystery” but it reveals what The Church should be all about and, despite much in the churches that begs the question whether this true, I encourage true believers to persist with church, and for those that aren’t to bear with and forgive its failings and look for the treasure it is custodian of, which is the Gospel. Jesus prayed just before going to the cross for the Church (John 17), that they be one and thereby the world would know he was sent by His Father.

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ JesusHis intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ephesians 3:6,10-11

I well recall in my youth a picture being painted of a coal which when plucked out of a fire stopped burning brightly, and so it is when we stop fellowshipping with other believers. While there are some churches I would struggle to belong to, e.g. wrong doctrine, hurtful attitudes, lack of authenticity etc., I know I have been called to serve the Church (and by this I mean the company of those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ irrespective of their church affiliation). Serving Christ and serving the Church are virtually synonymous, given the former is the head and the latter is the body and both are needed. And if the Church is the Bride of Christ, to be joined to her lover when He returns, it tells me that God has not given up even if we are tempted to do so. Undeterred, we are exhorted to be:

Update: with reference to the text preached on mentioned in the opening paragraph, I was reminded it was: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:35-38.

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