Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Quitting Church without Quitting God

Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It, Julia Duin (Baker Books, 2008)

Reviewed by Derek Melleby

Journalist Julia Duin’s new book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It has much to say to the contemporary church. Duin contends that many faithful, thoughtful followers of Jesus are not finding a home in local congregations. Using a variety of research methods, from Barna and other pollsters to interviews with friends, family, pastors and theologians, Duin tries to make the case that older, mature Christians are finding it difficult to find and commit to a church. According to Duin, today’s churches lack solid, demanding and relevant teaching, true community life, expectations of the Holy Spirit, pastoral visionary leadership, effective outreach to singles and needed adaptations to the 21st Century, especially as it relates to women’s roles. Commenting on the research, she writes, “So it’s official: evangelicals, for a variety of reasons, are heading out of church – not all of them and not everywhere, but the trend is undeniable. Sunday mornings at church have become too banal, boring, or painful. Large groups of Christians are opting out of church because they find it impossible to stay” (p. 21).

Duin does not claim to be a neutral observer and reporter. This is deeply personal. She is a Christian professional who came to faith during the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She was attracted to a powerful faith that brought meaning to every area of her life. She was also influenced by studying at Labri with Francis Schaeffer and longs for the vibrancy that she and her friends experienced during this time period. Much of her critique is valuable and undeniable. Churches should demand more from their congregations; many churches fail to rely on the Holy Spirit; some mega churches seem more interested in growing in numbers rather than depth; and far too many evangelical churches have settled for a lowest common denominator, catering to the desires of a consumerist age. Duin notes that there is a strong movement of house churches that could become the next big movement of God. Participants appreciate the more intimate community support, heart felt times of prayer, meaningful worship experiences and relevant teaching that doesn’t rely on a professional. Even though she doesn’t see much hope for current, established, institutional churches that refuse to change, she does challenge pastors to tackle tough issues and questions that people face. Issues and questions that often go unnoticed as pastors are trying to attract new members.

While there is much about this book that I applaud, there were times when I was frustrated by her simplistic approach. The pastor of the church I attend recently retired. The church had some of its roots in the Jesus movement and he had been the founding and senior pastor for 37 years. The past few weeks the congregation has been celebrating his service and the stories have been inspiring. What I most appreciate about this man is his humility and honesty. Being a pastor is not easy. There are many ups and downs along the way. But I imagine that if you are a pastor for long enough, if you stay put in one place and not follow “promotions,” if you marry and bury people year after year, if you do your best to shepherd sinners, if you offer consistent daily prayers, and if you see people come and go, a book like Duins can be very tiring to read. Her own story is a bit tiring. She has lived a nomadic life. Lacking a commitment to a particular place, being offended by pastors for not taking her seriously, longing for the perfect church, her own apparent restlessness expressed on these pages, at times, distracts from her critique.

My hunch is that mobility has wounded the American church more than any acknowledged sin. It’s easy to become restless. The stories told in Quitting Church are real and will be difficult for many pastors to hear. I admire Duin’s courage to start this needed conversation. Yes, some things desperately need to be done if the church is going to be the church for the sake of the world. But I don’t think the solution will be found in trying to do better. It will be found when we focus less on doing and more on being. Faithfulness over the long haul is not about going from one high to the next, naming and claiming when things were done “right,” but in daily, small steps with Jesus. A mature church in the 21st Century, will be a church full of people that have attended, through thick and thin, for many many years. I’m sure there are droves of people fed up with the church for good reasons. My hope is that they get so mad at the church that they stay put. Declare: “I’m so sick and tired of this church, I’m not leaving. In fact, I’m so frustrated with this town, I’m not moving.” If the Jesus movement of the 1960s was about anything, it was about being counter cultural. What would be more counter-cultural than groups of mature followers of Christ refusing to flee from beat up, watered down churches?

But don’t let my quibble keep you from reading. The overall message of Duin’s book is a good one. Pastors will be challenged by the research. Restless congregants will gain insight and clarity into their own frustrations. And, if nothing else, Quitting Church should spark much needed discussion in churches that care about faithfully serving God and people. We need books like this one to keep us on track, asking the important questions that are often missed. What is the church and why does it matter? Duin keeps these questions on the forefront and it’s obvious that she cares deeply about finding answers.

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