My first experience watching the underbelly of a church took place in high school when fellow student got pregnant. Over the next nine months, tongues wagged, judgments flew, and grace was withheld, despite the fact that she made the courageous decision to keep the child rather than take the more private route of abortion. Since then, I’ve encountered the shadow side of humanity within the walls of a church on so many occasions, I could have abandoned my faith altogether and hightailed it to the nearest therapist’s office to deal with the trauma.
Apparently, much of America has taken that route. Look at any recent poll—Pew Research, Barna, Gallup, Harris—and you’ll find much the same result: church attendance has been declining over time, and lately, at an alarming rate for those trying to reach the masses. A 2014 report from RNS states that, “Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s.” (1)The empty pews and empty churches attest to the veracity of that statement.
Theologians, thought leaders, and even non-believers have provided a wealth of explanations for the continual drop. From worship style to the advent of the digital age, people both within the church and outside of it offer up the usual suspects to blame.
But I’d like to turn the question on its head and ask this: Why are people choosing to stay in the church?Despite the scandals, the negative if not biased press, the internal turmoil and interdenominational battle, why aren’t morepeople leaving?
I’d like to offer a personal explanation, and it’s pretty simple: I choose to stay connected to a local church because I need it. Here are three reasons why.
1. Because I Need Connection
I need relationships with other human beings. We all do. Countless studies throughout the decades have shown the power of human connection as well as the consequences of living without it.
My connecting with others through church is no different than a golfer joining his buddies on the first hole at tee time. The sport of golf can lead a person to the edge of sanity, so there must be more benefit than exercise and perseverance. It’s connection. I’m not equating the two. I’m merely pointing out that rubbing elbows with other human beings is part of our DNA.
I choose to stay within the church because I want to connect with people whose values and beliefs I share, even when I may not always agree with the finer points of their theology. If I left the church every time I disagreed with someone, I’d work my way through every church in my area and still not find a place to call home—and I live in the Bible Belt.
The older I get, the more I recognize that the church is full of people in process, people whose flaws may be hidden but are nevertheless as existent as my own. I cannot disavow people for their human frailty that often expresses itself in detrimental ways. To do so would be hypocritical. And that’s where many churches have gone sideways. Its people forgot the basic human trait of humanity—we’re a bunch of screw ups in need of grace from each other.
2. Because My Faith Waivers
Most people would agree that our world is broken, fractured, bleeding. Evil exists and rears its maniacal head in every news cycle. Against that backdrop, I choose to believe in a God who not only exists, but who also cares deeply for us, the apex of His creation. Such belief takes deep faith, and that faith is emboldened by others who haven’t given up on a God of love in a world of hate. I need fellow believers to carry my faith for me on the days when I doubt. And sometimes those days have extended for months, even years. And so on those days when I believe, I can hold enough space for those who are struggling, and others offer me the same gift when the tables are turned.
3. Because I Need Reminders of the Transcendent
I’ve been in countless places of worship—a Baptist sanctuary; a Catholic monastery; a hospice chapel—and I’ve experienced them all as thin places, space where the temporal and eternal meet. The music, the silence, the worship, the liturgy all take me outside my current circumstances, where I am reminded of a much larger universe than the one I’ve created for myself. I see myself in light of eternity and bow in humility. For a moment, the problems and trials I face dim to darkness and my soul can rest in peace.
I have experienced thin places outside the four walls of a church–in the countryside, watching the snow fall to the ground, seeing a solar eclipse. And I am grateful for those moments. Being a part of a church reminds me to look for those thin places in my everyday life, to give myself fully to them, and to share my story with fellow travelers who needed some extra light on the road ahead.
I know many people have given up on the church. They are my friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and colleagues. I don’t fault them for their frustration, anger, and disappointment. I get it. At the same time, though, I am sad because I know I am missing out on what they have to offer me. Their perspectives give my faith flavor, enhance my perspective, and challenge my assumptions.
And I need them to keep me on the right path when I lose sight of it, too.