Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 27 Oct 2010
Throughout history, movements appear to follow a peculiar 5-stage trend. First, it begins with an uphill struggle for survival among the convicted minority. Second, once a certain critical mass is formed, it becomes a steady climb to reach a state of stability. Third, after the victory parade and the champagnes are shared around, complacency steps in. After all the battles have been fought, people lay down their combative arms and fall into a state of passivity. Why rock the boat? Why create another reason to fight? Live and let live. Fourth, with complacency comes a sense of boredom. Those who cared criticize. Those who don't care, leave. Insecure leaders see criticisms as a form of non-compliance. New battle lines are now drawn INSIDE the once victorious movement. Finally, while trying to maintain the status quo, soon the movement tapers downwards and shrinks in numbers. In some cases, members quit and leave the movement in droves.
Last week, I hear of another Church in the neighborhood that is planning to shut its doors for good. It belongs to a mainline denomination, albeit a shrinking one. The congregation comprises mostly the elderly folks. The young are non-existent. The past structures are there, maintained by a present congregation that is fast aging, moving toward a future that is increasingly non-existent.
On October 17th, 2010, LA Times published an article that gives another angle why people are leaving Churches in droves. It points to religion that dabbles with politics as the key reason for shrinking churches. It says that 'rapidly increasing numbers of young people are rejecting it (religion).' Preferring to choose no-religion as their defacto status, young people are not only not believing, but are finding all kinds of reasons to support their default non-religious affiliation. While the article "Walking Away From Church" hones in on the mixing of religion into political arena as the reason why the young feels turned off, I think the problem is more serious. Politics is not the main reason. It is spiritual apathy fed by religious superficiality.
A) Spiritual Apathy
Why are the young less accepting of religious matters? Why are there more old people than young in many traditional Churches nowadays? Even Churches that try to stay 'relevant' to the young are not getting lots of results. The reason is I believe is 'prosperity.' Francis Chan, in his book Crazy Love, talks about the chief cause of lukewarm Christianity. He identifies 'prosperity' as the main culprit. This reminds me of Jesus' warning to the rich man.
And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." (Matt 19:23-24, ESV)
Twice, Jesus mentions the man as 'rich.' This is so consistent with human nature. Remember the LORD's warning to Israel, 'lest you forget?'
“And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut 6:10-12, ESV)
Spiritual apathy begins with forgetfulness. When people are full, the temptation to look away from the LORD is the greatest. Material satisfaction can dangerously water down or numb our sense of spiritual hunger.
B) Religious Superficiality
This is a big one. In the previous section, when people are filled with riches, and are full, they are tempted to look elsewhere for other forms of satisfaction. Here, the opportunity to fill people with solid foundational grounding is missed when we swim only in the baby pool of religious superficiality. We fail to equip the people to swim in deeper waters. Even though people have a propensity to resist change, leaders need to make earnest attempts to exhort the people toward solid teaching and learning to move beyond their comfort zone. This calls for sacrifice. This calls for diligence. This calls for prayer.
We need to embark upon developing a culture of discipleship. We need to establish role models at all levels. We need to plant strategic persons throughout the Church to be catalysts of change. We need to be prepared to make sacrifices on our comfort levels.
C) Secularism on the Rise?
It seems to me that secularism as an alternative to religion is a poor one. More likely, people who leave Churches and embracing secularism are not simply leaving for the sake of leaving. They are disgusted with the established religious institutions. This is what drives them to choose secularism, and not secularism per se.
The reason why I think secularism is a poor one is because it does not offer much hope for the future. It provides little comfort for pain and suffering in this world. It has no person that is in the same league as Jesus Christ. It has a very short history, and mainly exists as an anti-thesis to religion. Simply put, take away religion, and you would have removed mainstream secularism, often defined as a NO-RELIGION. In other words, its identity still depends on the word 'religion.' I think it is only a matter of time, once secularism runs out of gas, people will be looking for another alternative. Any alternative that does not culminate in the rest of God, will ultimately be futile. The wise man in Ecclesiastes has discovered it the hard way. Learn from him.
So why are people leaving Churches? Putnam and Campbell identified political interference by religious circles. I think that it itself is just scratching the surface. Spiritual apathy and religious superficiality are the hidden huge icebergs below that can sink not only the Titanic but the entire movement.