It’s a problem of which most Christians are aware. It’s a problem nearly all pastors try to ignore. It’s a problem of which secular and atheistic people gloat. Julia Duin (“Deen”), veteran Christian journalist and former Religion Editor for the Washington Times addresses this often unspoken problem in her book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It. Duin’s thesis is that the worldwide institutional church (especially in the English-speaking world) has become irrelevant for “mature” believers since the end of the charismatic renewal in the 1960s and 70s, therefore they are justified in leaving the church and are finding spiritual fulfillment for their Christian beliefs elsewhere.
A glance at the book’s table of contents reveals the details of her thesis:
- The Flood Outward: Why So Many Good People Are Leaving
- The Irrelevant Church: Give Them a Reason to Be Here
- Searching for Community: What We Really Wish Church Could Be
- Emergence and Resurgence: Adjusting to the Twenty-first Century
- The Loneliest Number: Why Singles over Thirty-five Are Saying Good-bye
- Not So Solid Teaching: Why Christians Cannot Exit the Obstetrics Ward
- Is the Pastor the Problem? Or Is the Whole System Broken
- The Other Sex: Why Many Women Are Fed Up
- Bewildered Charismatics: Looking for the Spirit in a Parched Land
- Bringing Them Back: If They Want to Come
Duin is a charismatic evangelical Christian at heart. She is an educated career woman, a single parent (her daughter is adopted), a egalitarian on gender roles in the church, and considers her theology orthodox (although she doesn’t believe she fits in the orthodox church). Her church home tends to be Episcopalian when she is connected to the institutional church. She became a Christian as a young person through the ministry of Young Life during the charismatic renewal, and she still holds to a charismatic doctrine of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and worship service liturgy. Thus her critiques of the church are colored by this perspective.
Many of Duin’s perceptions are insightful, and I admit a few were new to me. As a never-married single, Duin’s view of the church opened my eyes to the struggles of single Christians in a church that exalts the nuclear family almost to the detriment of those who feel left out of familial blessings of home, marriage, and children.
As a newly ordained pastor (I’ve worked a day job in the I.T. field for most of my career), I noticed her most recurring presupposition is that mature Christians are frequently better-off spiritually if they opt out of church membership, attendance, involvement, and any connection whatsoever—principally because church ministry has become a waste of time for all but the new believers. Although her experience of the church cultural landscape is broader than most, as a religion journalist her exposure seems to be limited to high profile churches (both successful and scandalous). Thus her descriptions of typical church services and representative complaints of church-goers are sampled from a subset of churches that conduct their ministries contrary to what many churches do that fly under the radar. I mention this because this premise about “mature” Christians leaving church begs the question of what is a mature Christian. It never occurs to the author that Christian maturity involves more that succeeding in ministry, theological knowledge, or feeling the presence of God in a worship service. Duin complains that when many mature Christians volunteer to help by using their unique talents and abilities, they are usually pointed to low-skill tasks that fill an immediate need in the Sunday worship service. Admittedly this is a problem (many pastors are trying to build a spiritual kingdom, on the backs of volunteers, that serves their personal desire for what a congregation is supposed to look like), but in Duin’s ideal church people should only come to have their personal needs met, to feel fulfilled, and to have a “charismatic encounter” with God. There is very little in her book of sinners in the church who need forgiveness, fellowship, training, leadership, and corporate mission. One almost gets the idea that pastors and church leaders are the only sinners in the institutional church. She is absolutely right that church leaders are sinners, and that they need accountability, but this is only half the truth.
Duin’s other important contribution to solving the problem of people quitting church is her take on the church experience of career women, especially single career women. Somehow the church must figure out ways to engage these women in ministry that utilizes their skills. The church has a good track record of employing the skills of homemakers, but there is much room for improvement in identifying areas of service for women who work outside the home.
Overall, Quitting Church is worth reading and pondering for pastors and other church leaders who are wrestling with how to connect with believers who have dropped out of the institutional church and not returned.