Some time ago, Martin Marty was quoted in Tom Clegg’s Lost in America that about 3000 people per day in the West (outside of the Bible Belt in the US South) leave the Christian faith – not the church, the faith. There really wasn’t much evidence outside of his work to support the contention … until last year. In 2007, for the first time in over a decade, the number of USAmericans professing to be Christian dropped from 82%, where it had sat quite comfortably for many years, to 79%. In addition, over the last 10 years, the belief in God dropped from 86% to 78%.
In Martin Marty’s study, the 3000 who were leaving the faith were not just leaving the church … that number has hung around 1 million per year for several years (it slowed a bit in 2007) … they were leaving Christianity. They were Christians yesterday and today they are … Buddhist, Muslim, Pagan, or a member of the fastest growing religions in the US – None.
Do some still “believe”? Probably. But many of the 3,000 have simply given up hope that Christianity has anything to offer. They went to church looking for God and all they found was “church.” They looked at the lives of those who called themselves Christians, even those who were faithful in going to church, and found people whose lives were fundamentally the same as theirs – they spend their money the same, live in the same style, have the same problems, talk the same talk, have the same addictions, and pretty much walk the same walk as they do – and so these former seekers wonder where the “full and meaningful life” that Jesus purportedly promised to his followers has gone … or has that, like all the miracles of the New Testament, ceased since the apostolic period?
It has been said that Bill Graham estimated that only 10 percent of all church goers were Christian … and one of my Christian Sociology professors said he thought Graham was an optimist.
And so, I encourage Christians in my small groups to go back to the Bible. Not the Old Testament … not the book of Revelation … but the Gospels and Acts, and after that wherever they feel led. Not because I think the Bible is to be lifted up, but because the vast majority of churches are not discipling people and the fact is, most people are going to have to get discipled in a small group setting. By getting people to read the scriptures, especially the Gospels, they have an opportunity to meet Jesus in ways most don’t meet Jesus in the church. Add the support of a discipleship small group that helps hold them accountable for prayer, faith-sharing, fasting, and the like, and people have an opportunity to find the relationship with Jesus we talk about so much. It’s not the Bible reading that changes lives, but discovering a relationship with the author. And since most people aren’t finding that in church, as witnessed clearly by the numbers, alternatives are desperately needed. As has been pointed out by Tom Bandy in the past, it takes about seven years to turn a church around … and 80% of all turnarounds fail … we simply don’t have time to wait anymore.
If you want to get an eyeful sometime, take a gander over to www.lettersfromleavers.com/blog. This is a website with letters from people who have left the church. In some cases, the words are angry and hurtful. In others, sorrowful and painful. Either way, it’s one place to get an idea of the reason why some people leave.
…though if we really want to know, there are literally millions upon millions of folks who have left the church out there. We could just ask.