Why people leave religion, and why we should listen to them

It’s not a new study, but the Pew Research Center recently re-posted on Twitter a 2016 survey of people who identified themselves as religious “nones” — people who didn’t identify with a particular religious group.

According to a 2015 study cited in the article, around 23 percent of the U.S. population identified themselves that way. Seventy-eight percent of that group said they were raised in a religious group before quitting it as an adult. 

Looking at the numbers, some of it is understandable. Forty-nine percent said they left because they didn’t believe anymore, 20 percent said they didn’t like organized religion and 18 percent said they were “religiously unsure/undecided.” The numbers were broken down even further, and it’s those items, as well as some of the open-ended answers, that I wanted to look at in this post.

Focus on power/politics: Four percent of those surveyed said they left their childhood faith because they felt “religion focuses on power/politics.” The open-ended answers included things like “I think religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business…it’s all about money.” Another said that they “see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.” Yet another cited “too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”

Rational thought: There’s no number for how many think religion excludes reason and rational thought, but one of the open-ended answers was this: “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.” Seven percent of responders said their “views (on religion) evolved,” and 1 percent stated they “went through a crisis of faith,” which could come from examining rational thought in light of religion.

No time: This statistic stood out to me — 2 percent of responders said they were “too busy” for religion, and that’s why they left. One stated simply, “I don’t have the time to go to church.” Seven percent of those surveyed said they were “not interested in/don’t need religion.”

Organized religion: Twenty percent of those surveyed said they left because they “dislike organized religion,” with 15 percent saying they considered themselves “anti-institutional religion.” One person said they “no longer believe in organized religion…I just believe that religion is very personal conversation with me and my creator.” Another person, who actually didn’t fall into this category, stated that they believed in a higher power, “but I don’t need a church to do that.”

I know the whole survey wasn’t about former Christians, but you’ve got to imagine that the majority would fit that category. And the reality is that I think faith in Jesus can answer all those questions and provide guidance — and I’ll get there later. But first, we need to think about what we as the institution of Christianity might have done to put people in that position in the first place.

As far as it depends on us

Something that Paul says in Romans has stuck with me since I read it is a simple instruction he gives to his audience with ramifications for us. And while it’s simply put, how it’s put into action seems to be quite difficult. Romans 12:16-18 states:

“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

If we can be honest, the human institution of Christianity has not always done a good job of doing these things. While many Christians and many churches are good, committed and peaceful citizens of their communities, contributing in positive and powerful ways, there are some that take a different approach.

As reported in multiple media outlets, Pastor Hope Carpenter was speaking recently at a church in South Carolina where the pastors, John and Aventer Gray, have come under fire from the Greenville News newspaper for their extravagant spending. Carpenter loudly proclaimed that she was “rooting for” the Grays. Then, almost out of nowhere, the tone shifted.

“I cut people,” she says. “I’ve got a knife right in that pocketbook. Greenville News, come on.”

Shiver.

Not only is that a threat of violence on a free press — which as a journalist bothers me — it’s a self-proclaimed Christian promising violence against people. I don’t know the whole story of the Grays and the newspaper. It’s very possible that the newspaper has been unfair in its coverage or is cherry-picking facts or is making a story out of something that shouldn’t be. But this type of action is certainly not following Paul’s wisdom as shared to the Romans.

I know this is one example, and I’m sure that the Grays, Hope Carpenter and that church in South Carolina have done many, many good things for people, and have represented Christ well at other times. The Grays immediately distanced themselves from the statements, but through a publicist.

But when that’s the image of Christianity that people see, can you blame some for leaving the faith, saying organized religion in general is “more divisive than uniting,” and that “more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area”?

It’s easy for me to cherry-pick Hope Carpenter’s comments, but let’s be real: this isn’t the first time something like that has happened in the same breath as the name of our Savior being said. 

Again, this is not about blaming the human institution of Christianity as a whole, or saying that people should just not be part of a church because of one pastor going crazy one time. But it’s high time we think critically about our role as Christians in how our faith and our religion is perceived. 

Paul’s wisdom to the Romans, principles that would be well-taken by us, is to do whatever we can to live peaceably with all. To live in harmony with one another. To “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” That’s a very practical and helpful piece of advice. 

What have we done — not just one crazy lady, but all of us — that could possibly be putting people off from our faith? What is our responsibility? Some will leave simply because they don’t believe, and that’s fine, there’s not much we can do about that. In fact, 49 percent of those surveyed said they left because they didn’t believe anymore. 

But what about those who gave other reasons?

Meeting people where they are

Another great bit of wisdom from Paul that showed itself in his own ministry is found in 1 Corinthians 9. He writes:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (v. 19, 22-23).

Paul stretched himself to try to understand and relate to his audience for the purpose of salvation, for the purpose of the good news of Jesus. We must must must do the same. We must not be afraid to engage people where they are. We must be willing to accept our own flaws and admit them and try to do better.

In that interest, I think there are good answers to those who have left religion, Christianity in particular, for the reasons listed in that survey. I don’t think the true Christianity, the true faith that saves our lives, excludes them. For example:

Focus on power/politics: The real Jesus didn’t focus on either of those things. Jesus’ life and commands were simple: love God and love your neighbor. In those two commandments, He said, is all the law and the prophets. Being a Christian, a Christ-follower, is not about accumulating earthly power or political influence. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor. 

Rational thought: Paul’s life and writings were full of rational thought. He is more or less the father of intellectual theology. The book of Romans breaks down theology in an intellectual sense, capturing spiritual realities in a human vocabulary. Yes, being a Christian means there is faith in a higher power and supernatural entities. But there is space and room for rational thought.

No time: Being a Christian doesn’t mean you need to be at church from 10 a.m. to noon every Sunday. Those things can be helpful, yes, and there is certainly a need for time with other believers having conversations and being encouraged and challenged in the things of God. But there is time, I promise, to be a Christian, to trust in Jesus. It takes some time, effort and patience to get to that point where it becomes part of you, but it’s worth it.

Organized religion: Jesus didn’t like organized religion either. He spent more time criticizing the organized religion of His day than anything else. He flipped tables and cracked whips in the presence of the organized religion. When Christians organize in churches, we try to provide a human framework and structure to make it easier to access the things we believe we need. But because they are human institutions, they will fail and they will have flaws. We ask that you give us some patience and grace as we figure out how to improve.

Of course those are not in-depth examinations of those topics, but it’s crucial, I think, that we be willing to reach out to people where they are and try to meet their needs on their terms. Of course we shouldn’t compromise what’s really important, what’s really truth to meet their needs, but we don’t need to be so hardline on non-salvation theologies that it cuts off any good conversation or pushes away people unnecessarily.

Being like Jesus is usually a good start

I want to go back to something I said a little bit ago: Jesus was more critical of the religious institutions than those who didn’t belong to them. 

That seems backwards to most church experiences I’ve had. How often has a pastor said something to the effect of “the world has this wrong, don’t they? Haven’t you seen it?” Or “there are some who think God is this or that, and they’re missing the point”? Or “America has gone to hell in a hand basket and we all need Jesus”?

While their point may be well-backed up by facts and ultimately true, that type of attitude engenders an environment where world-bashing is easy and analyzing the human institution of Christianity for flaws becomes difficult. After all, we’ll say, the world does this and that. 

What did Jesus do? He ate and broke bread with the world, He took the world’s children in His arms, He so loved the world that He came to give it the best news it could ever get. He didn’t do those things only for the religious institutions of the day, but for all. 

If we really want people to stay in the human institution of Christianity, we need to be there alongside them as they consider leaving. It doesn’t need to be on this and that condition, it doesn’t need to be with a correcting tone unless Jesus or someone is being misrepresented. It needs to be with “What can I do for you? What questions can I answer? What conversations can I have? How can I love you?” 

Love needn’t be trumped by “right theology.” After all, God is love.

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