Martin explained he felt uncomfortable the church service: when to stand, when to sit, when to recite something from a book. How could he bring his friends to something as culturally different as that?
Or Nathan asked why the church music was so loud and the sermon an “Anthony Robins motivational talk” rather than something about God? Why would he keep coming?
Many churches are growing. But the statistics show that while 47% of Australians identified as “Christians” only 7% attend church weekly. And these stats are old and the rate of church attendance, overall, is declining.
The answer to why people leave the church is complex but here is one reason I have heard.
Clash of cultures
“Church is too culturally out of date and I can’t bring my non-Christian friends to this environment.” Yes, church has a different culture. Singing publicly, except for a national anthem or football club song, is culturally different.
Sitting through a sermon or speech, without PowerPoint, is unheard of in our society. Moreover, using Bible language, such as sin, atonement etc., is seen as a cultural weight anchoring the church to a by-gone era.
Does this mean we remove singing or make worship more like a modern rock concert to keep numbers up? Or does it mean we have shorter “sound bite” sermons that focus on how God has a great plan for our life and really exists to serve us and make us happy? Does it mean we never mention or explain Bible language or avoid talking about hard topics for fear of losing someone?
Gospel: grace found in Jesus
The complexity of the issues are enormous. However, here are some assumptions I find troubling.
Firstly, who said the church has to be popular or big? The New Testament explains even Jesus and His disciples were rejected. The early church, both in the Book of Acts and throughout church history, suffered persecutions and heresies that highlighted weakness.
Ironically, Jesus talks lots about the place of humility and weakness in His Kingdom. We can’t be blinded by an over-realized eschatology of the church that being popular or big equals success.
Secondly, similarly the modern church is not perfect. The old adage that, “if you find a perfect church don’t join it because you will wreck it,” is true. The church is full of people that don’t fully grasp the power of Jesus’ gospel of grace. To reinvigorate this vine does not mean we just change the trellis or structures of the church, such as better music or lighting.
It means the vine must be pruned and fertilized for growth. Understanding the gospel at a deeper level is the missing piece. This is what Paul, in his letters to the early churches, stressed the most.
Thirdly, the church in the Bible was a place for followers of Jesus to come to be equipped, grow, encourage each other and worship God. Outsiders were always welcome. However, connecting with those people was done through building relationships and conversations started in the marketplace.
Church is more than Sunday but Sunday was, in the early church, essential for equipping His people for the week.
Fourthly, these cannot be an excuse for hiding behind our cultural or denominational banners. We, as the church, need to be always reflecting on what part of our Sunday gathering is Biblical and what is cultural? And, are our practices becoming traditions without meaning that hinder others from seeing grace offered through Jesus?
For those who have left the church, don’t use an imperfect group of people as an excuse for not pursing a relationship with a loving perfect God. For those in the church wrestling with why people leave, ask the “Why?” but always see the answer found in a deeper experience of the gospel: a restored relationship with God through Jesus.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 3-4 (ESV)
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover1.html