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

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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