Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How Seriously Should the Church Take Exit Interviews?

There are cold hard facts that say young people are leaving “the church” (I have yet to see anyone define what they mean by “the church”). No doubt about it. We live in a day and age when it is socially easier than it’s ever been to stop going to church, and therefore we are seeing a rise in those calling themselves “religious nones.” They aren’t atheists, but they aren’t Christians. They’re modern, spiritual folks who refuse to plant their flag with any institution or group. These are just the facts.

Some people have even done “exit interviews,” if you want to call them that, with some of these individuals. After these folks leave the church, they have an opportunity to pontificate on what it was about “the church” (again, undefined) that made them leave. Now, this data is interesting - there’s no doubt about that. What pastor wouldn’t like the opportunity to find out why so-and-so stopped coming to Sunday worship?

So here we have raw data saying young people are leaving the church, and some data saying why they are leaving. Rachel Held Evans (RHE) has given her sources for her latest opinion piece on why Millennials are leaving the church, and one of her sources is David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me. In this book, as RHE summarizes it, Kinnaman says that young adults are leaving the church for six primary reasons: “they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.”

If you are theologically conservative with views that are rooted in Scripture and in accord with tradition, my guess is that you are generally going to push back against some of these reasons (I’m in agreement that 1, 2, and 6 are problems in many churches). Some of these points are a problem because the church hasn’t engaged in apologetics and has simply told people that “faith” is the magic word and approached questions and doubts in a fideistic way. Some of them are problems because people are simply hostile to the exclusivity of the Christian religion by nature. For the orthodox, this and a couple of these reasons cannot be helped without substantially changing the Christian faith. In RHE’s analysis, this is exactly what needs to happen: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She says this favorably, not critically. And here is where the real question needs to be addressed...who decides what the church is like? Is it wise elders, guided by the Holy Spirit, under the authority of Scripture? Or is it the kids who left?

Who Are We Listening To?
Here’s the problem. If somebody quits your company because they don’t like the way things are run, an exit interview can be helpful. After all, it can tell you ways to improve your company and give you direction in the future. It can give you an idea what you did wrong, and what you need to do differently in the future in order to retain employees and reduce turnover.

But the church is not a Fortune 500 company. She is guided by revealed theology from God. You don’t want to base the substance of your theology on the opinions of those who leave the church precisely because those who leave the church are not in a position to discern spiritual matters. The Scriptures say things about those who disassociate themselves from the church and well... they aren’t nice things. They are things that I have no doubt, will bother people and make them feel judged just by my repeating them here. But the truth is, according to 1 John 2:19 the reason people leave and don’t come back is that “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

If John is right (and I always think he is, given my view of the authority of Scripture), and if I am understanding John correctly, then these people who are leaving “the church” (again, still undefined) are not Christians in any meaningful sense of the word. They have broken off fellowship. No church should base the “substance” (to use RHE’s word) of the faith on the opinions of unbelievers. It is one thing to have a core theology and to find creative, thoughtful, or careful ways of explaining doctrine or helping to answer peoples’ questions. This is part of what it means to “teach and exhort” (1 Tim. 4:13). It's quite another to change the core because it doesn't gel with those around us.

Don’t Change For Them, Change With Them?
Everyone has a theory. If you are... less traditional and more willing to put your finger in the wind and see where the culture is going, your reaction to the cold hard data of young people leaving “the church” is going to still be troubling, but you will tend to be friendlier, more conciliatory, and more willing to bow your theology or ethics to these complaints. Here is how RHE puts it
No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity.
I’m not sure how she defines “historical tenets of the Christian faith,” but the fact that Evans is free to define the “historical tenets” down as far as she wishes and still consider herself Evangelical is a solid demonstration that Carl Trueman is correct:
The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks any agreed-upon evangel. Until we acknowledge that this is the case - until we can agree on what exactly it is that constitutes the evangel - all talk about evangelicalism as a real, coherent movement is likely to be little more than a chimera, or a trick with smoke and mirrors (The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 41).
I’m deeply trouble by what a church whose theology and ethics are decided by the unbelievers within the culture around us will eventually look like. My own suspicion is that it will look much like the mainline denominations in the United States. As Anthony Bradley has pointed out, RHE is really just asking for evangelical churches to become more like the United Methodist Church with an evangelical piety. When asked why she doesn’t just go to a liberal mainline church, RHE says that they aren’t evangelical enough. I wonder (and I haven’t read everything she’s written, so maybe she has pondered this) if she has ever considered that the thing that gives evangelical churches the piety, the energy, the evangelistic attitude that RHE so deeply yearns for is the very exclusivity, the ethics, and the emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture that she and her fellow millennials (lets ignore the fact that I'm younger than her and therefore "one of them") want to downplay.

What I do want to point out is that whatever you think the answer to these six “problems” for the church are looks an awful lot like one's own pet issues. According to Ross Douthat (a Roman Catholic) religion in the United States is in decline because it needs to become more creedal and traditional. According to an old classmate of mine who hates creeds, the reason “nobody wants anything to do with the church” is that we recite the Apostles’ Creed in public worship. According to libertines, the problem is that the church represses their sexual urges. According to inclusivists, the church is too exclusive, etc.

An Uncharitable Suspicion
I have a feeling that this whole conversation gives way too much credit to the millennials leaving church. I have yet to hear anyone say the thing we're all thinking: people don't believe and would rather not go to church. The shortest distance between two points. The simple answer.

After all, who wouldn't want to sleep in on Sundays, lay around in their pajamas until noon, eat a block of cheese the size of a car battery and play around the rest of the day? I have this uncharitable suspicion that people like having their Sundays to themselves. When you combine unbelief with this strong temptation to the "Selfish Sunday", it's easy to suspect that millennials give critical statements about the church after the fact to make their departure feel like it had some deep idealistic meaning.

A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that my job in going to church was not to be blessed, but to be a blessing. To contribute, to share my gifts, to make it a better place and to love and build up the people who are there. To teach Sunday School and watch little kids in the nursery. There are critics of the church everywhere. But why should the church listen to those who refuse to contribute to it any more or make it a place that they would consider worthy of their own presence? Or, put another way, maybe it's just time for the kids to grow up.


  1. Your suspicion at the conclusion of this article is right on, IMO.

    1 John 2:19 comes to mind, as does the daughter of Matt Slick, who got a lot of attention and analysis for basically that she left the faith so that she could sin without so much guilt.

  2. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

    With John, you know that the "US" is the true Church. Too many American churches see people leaving because those churches don't accurately look like Jesus. People could have said the same thing of the Apostles leaving the Temple, or Luther leaving the church. Did the Apostles leave because "they weren't of" the true church? The Apostles represented the true Church, and those in the Jewish Temple, the false church ( though I'm sure there were good and godly people there ). Sometimes, the only thing a moral person can do is to leave the false and search for the authentic. The authentic Church is becoming hard to find these days. Unfortunately, many have given up on their search for the authentic. They have lost hope. If my faith weren't already deep and established, I would have left the church decades ago.

    Both sides bear responsibility here.
    - Those who leave, should follow Jesus because of who Jesus is. They should be able to look beyond the falseness of many in the church and still see Jesus.
    - The American church should repent of its cultural idolatry, political allegiances, greed, worldliness, pride, adoration of political ideologies, violence, disrespect for truth and knowledge, and apparent inability to see the necessity for personal and corporate repentance. It's sad that so many are leaving the church, but there's a reason that they are. The church in our nation appears largely impotent and incapable of offering a meaningful alternative to the world's system.

    Since you brought up the apostle John, there is a traditional story that when he was old, that there was a young convert who walked away from the faith. That young man fell into a gang of thieves who lived in the mountains. John grieved his loss, and followed him into the mountains to win him back. Instead of simply blaming those who leave, we should examine our own lives, whether our church and the philosophies that we espouse reflect the character of Jesus. After correcting ourselves, we should follow John's example and follow them into the mountains and win them back. Some who leave are rejecting Jesus. Some who leave are simply trying to find a place where they see the Jesus that they don't see in the places they left.

    We should not change to accommodate anyone who leaves. We should change to be more like Jesus. The early Church created creeds. They did it to point out what was and wasn't fundamental. The American church has elevated issues which are by no means fundamental to a place of supremacy.

    I have never heard anyone say they left the church because of problems with the Trinity. I have heard people leave because they held a different political view and were made to feel unwelcome.
    I have never heard anyone leave the church because they didn't believe that God was "Maker of heaven and earth". I have heard them leave because they were told that one particular interpretation of how the earth was made, was the only valid interpretation.

    The problem is not with the church not holding on to the fundamentals. The problem is that today's church is far too much like the church of the Pharisees, who ignored the fundamentals and focused on the peripherals. The reason that you don't find liberals in the evangelical church is not that they reject Jesus. It's that they are simply not welcome.
    I've been fortunate to find a small church where both liberals and conservatives are welcome. We don't always agree but we recognize what really binds us to each other. Our shepherds don't condemn or promote personal views which will simply divide us. They challenge us to read the Word, reach out to the lost, and to love one another, even when we vote for different candidates or disagree on divisive social issues. For that, I'm grateful.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, James. Unfortunately, your thoughts are so scattered, I wouldn't know where to begin.

    I would only ask one question (it's a two parter):

    How does anyone know who is the "true church"? What is your standard for calling any church a "false church"?

  4. Adam, sorry, I tried to be clear. Only God knows who the "true church" is. As far as the "false church", I was only saying that the Apostles left the church that they believed was false, as did Luther. If someone tells me that they love Jesus, I simply take them at their word, though scripture does say that you can judge people by their fruits and that there are false sheep among us. Not having the perfect mind of Christ though, I try not to do that. I am more than concerned though that the American Evangelical church is no longer a very good representative of Jesus. I was saved in 1974 and proudly considered myself an Evangelical for years. I appreciated the value placed upon the importance of scripture, genuine love within the Body, and the desire to reach the lost for Christ. In those early days, those were the primary values which I saw modeled. There are certainly places where that is still happening, but they no longer seem to be central. Instead, they have been replaced by:
    - A view of scripture which devalues it by sacrificing the big picture in order to argue about issues which aren't clear.
    - A view of scripture which assumes that the literal understanding is always the right one, or at least when we say that it is.
    - A continuing culture war, that makes the Church the enemy of people who God loves.
    - A continuing culture war, that elevates divisive social issues, many of which don't have a clear Biblical basis at the expense of reaching the lost, loving one another, and showing a respect for truth.

    I love Jesus and can't imagine life without Him, though there've been times when I tried. I also love the Church, because they are my family. Sometimes my love for Jesus and what I believe He stands for and wants, puts me at odds with a Church that I believe is largely dsyfunctional. I only bring up the "true church" and the "false church" because the author here places the blame on those who leave, when often the problem is the church that they are leaving. I have left churches where I saw nothing that resembled Jesus. They may be my brothers or they may not be. It's not my job to determine that. It is my job to find a place where I can worship God, be used to bless others, and have some degree of peace. There are a lot of unhealthy places out there with a cross on top of it.

    1. Amen, James! Sometimes I think we so focused on people who are far out like Rachel Held Evans and forget that the people in our local communities are not public spectacles, but rather sheep looking for the shepherd's hands. I myself left a church that went the Gospel-driven technique and was leaving behind God's Word as the foundation. They used the line of thought in this original post as a way of dismissing me and not taking seriously my concerns. So, I did the healthy thing and left and found a church that is committed to The Word and sacraments. Best decision ever.

    2. The Word and sacraments are the signs of a true church. If there are places where those things are not being practiced, I would hardly call those churches. Maybe you mean something else by "committed to the Word and sacraments, Deb, but if you do you should explain what you mean.

      The person who wrote "the line of thought in the original post" above (me) would never, ever advocate abandoning or neglecting the Word and sacraments.

  5. Hmm ... what if we went a step more traditional, and reflected on Paul's teaching that the spiritual outcome of a child reflects the quality of its upbringing (with all appropriate exceptions and qualifications)?

    If it is statistically true that a large percentage of young people are leaving, then, according to Paul, something is indeed very wrong in their upbringing. Of course, the apostacy is their responsibilty, but we are interested in the reasons behind it.

    We might say that the family, rather than the church, is to blame and that is somewhat true. But the church has a duty to to teach families, so failures there are very possibly a consequence of the church's failure in teaching.

  6. James sez:

    "- A view of scripture which devalues it by sacrificing the big picture in order to argue about issues which aren't clear."

    And who gets to decide what's 'not clear'? Some claim that the Scriptural position on, e.g., homosexuality isn't clear. To this I can only say, if stupid is sea-level, that's six fathoms down!

    "- A view of scripture which assumes that the literal understanding is always the right one, or at least when we say that it is."
    Uh...that's because the literal understanding IS always the right one, unless it's clear from Scripture itself that symbolism, hyperbole, or some other quirk of language is in play. It's usually quite clear. E.g.: Matthew 4:12-13: "Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali." Clear, obvious, literal. In Daniel 2 there is the statue of bronze, gold, silver, clay, etc. These are symbols for certain kingdoms, and Scripture explains the symbolism. Clear, obvious, explained as symbolism.
    Whenever someone wants to interpret a section of the Bible, that is not all ready obviously symbolic, as symbolic, hold on to your pocketbook and your brain: they probably have an ulterior motive. E.g, Genesis is quite clear and literal. The only reason folk want to try to take it non-literally is to keep them 'in with the in crowd', with academia, who tell them they're hopelessly uncool if they're not down with being the accidental byproducts of a cosmic 'burp' some umpty-billion years ago.

    "- A continuing culture war, that makes the Church the enemy of people who God loves."

    Only one prob, dude: there IS a continuing culture war. Good news is God has all ready won.

    "- A continuing culture war, that elevates divisive social issues, many of which don't have a clear Biblical basis at the expense of reaching the lost, loving one another, and showing a respect for truth."

    Name one. Abortion? Clear Biblical basis. Got an'urn?

  7. I stopped going to church because I never really fit in. I was either too spiritual, too logical, too single... When I did go, I worked hard to do my part teaching Sunday school, witnessing, ect, and what I found was everyone was too busy doing church things to take time to build meaningful relationships.


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