Why even the pious are leaving
QUITTING CHURCH: WHY THE FAITHFUL ARE FLEEING AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT By Julia Duin Baker Books, $17.99, 186 pages REVIEWED BY GRACE VUOTO
Julia Duin, a veteran reporter and the religion editor for The Washington Times, has written an eye-opening account of one of the most vexing problems of our time: Americans, even the most pious, are leaving their churches in droves. The author deftly weaves a wealth of data, countless interviews and personal narrative into a mesmerizing account of why many believers find their churches unsatisfactory. The text is a treasure-trove of eye-witness descriptions of Chr istian disenchantment, written by a reporter who has covered the religion beat for years.
Miss Duin, a colleague, cites alarming facts: According to evangelical pollster George Barna, the number of “unchurched Americans” is increasing by a rate of one million per year. A 2001 religious identification survey conducted by City University of New York reveals that 14 percent of Americans have no religious preference — slightly more than double the 8 percent who were without religious affiliation a previous decade. Yet of this 14 percent, the majority is nonetheless “religious” or “spiritual.” These individuals seek alternate ways to express their religious convictions rather than partaking in institutional religion.
The youth, especially, are not finding solace in contemporary churches. The author notes that at the current pace, only 4 percent of America’s teens will end up as Bible-believers. This is a sharp contrast to 35 percent of Baby Boomers and 65 percent of the World War II generation.
Why are many Americans so disenchanted with their church that they simply stop attending? Miss Duin paints the portrait of church organizations that are woefully out of step with the times. Many believers regard their church teachings as “irrelevant” to their daily lives. Going to church is perceived as a “time waster.” The sermons or homilies are “bland” and uninspiring — especially not appealing to the highly educated.
The author also reveals that the sermons or homilies do not address the most pressing concerns of the congregation. Issues such as chastity, pornography, pre-marital sex, marital struggles, divorce and workplace challenges are not discussed in detail. Thus, in seeking to be inoffensive or entertaining, church leaders do not provide enough spiritual nourishment to sustain their most ardent believers.
The author also laments the inability of many contemporary churches to foster true, deep communities of believers. Many of the congregants are disconnected from one another; they are turning to more intimate settings for the expression of their faith in house churches. Others, tired of poor teachers of the Bible, seek in-depth explorations of their faith by their own efforts or in companionship with kin- dred spirits. The author also points to the elimination of the dogmatic and the supernatural in many churches as a major culprit for the malaise: The congregants yearn for the miraculous but are only fed the pedantic and innocuous.
Miss Duin is especially sensitive to the inability of many Christian churches to address the issues that plague a large proportion of the flock — singles. An increasing number of believers are unmarried males and females. Yet, pastors or priests fail to address their needs. The churches are too family-centric, rather than fully taking in to account the concerns of their congregants from different walks of life.
Singles are told to stop “whining” about their single status; perhaps this is simply God’s will for them. Miss Duin correctly points out that Jewish organizations fare better in working as a community to make matches among their single members. The author remarks that part of the “family crisis” in our day is not only family breakdown, but also the growing number of men and women who do not find a suitable mate. They too need help, attention and prayer — rather than being relegated to the sidelines.
Miss Duin is more effective at exposing the magnitude of the problem than at offering a remedy. The problems revealed are so pervasive and profound, that the reader ends up concluding that being “unchurched” — or a Christian struggling alone — is perhaps the best option.
“Quitting Church” is a masterful expose of the Christian paralysis of our time; it is a mustread for all who care about preserving America as a nation rooted in religious values. The phenomenon of an exodus from our churches points to a larger cynicism and lack of confidence in American institutions — a problem that transcends even spiritual and religious matters. In survey after survey, the majority of citizens state that the United States is “on the wrong track;” Americans are ultimately losing faith with themselves. The lingering question remains: When our churches fail us, how can any other part of our society function as it should?
Grace Vuoto is an editorial writer at The Washington Times. The opinions expressed are her own.