“At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.”
John 6:66 (Common English Bible)
It is now fairly common knowledge that Christian churches across the United States are experiencing decline – decline in membership, decline in worship attendance, and decline in financial support. Diminishing interest in the church has resulted, in many congregations, a shift from full-time pastoral leadership to part-time, reduced opportunities for spiritual nurture and growth, and a smaller impact in the local community. As congregations grow smaller they are faced with difficult decisions such as merging with other churches or closing their doors permanently. Causes for the decline of the Christian Church across our nation has been studied and solutions have been scarce.
What has received less attention is a phenomenon I will call the “religious dropouts.” These are the people who are regularly present in services of worship, engaged in personal spiritual growth, and participate in the church’s mission to feed the hungry, house the homeless and care for the broken. Vibrant and robust churches are built upon their dedication to Jesus and Jesus’ work through the local congregation. It is not difficult to see that the church is stronger for such people. Then, they simply aren’t present anymore. The place they once occupied in worship is empty. It is a phenomenon that dates back to the earthly ministry of Jesus: “many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.”
The primary reason for the “religious dropout” remains the same from Jesus’ day until ours: frustration and disappointment. There is present in every faith community people who turn to religion for some things the Christian faith never promised to provide. They expect in religion a kind of magical solution to their problems, anxieties, and illnesses and it hasn’t worked out. Some expect that faithfulness to the church will protect them from job loss, marriage discord, and safety from the violence in the world. Others look to the church to shelter their children from everything that is unpleasant and distasteful in the dominant culture. When they fail to receive what they were looking for, they cool to religion and simply dropout.
After many who followed Jesus turned away, Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” It is a good question for each one of us to ask. People who come to our churches expecting only to “get something” or find easy solutions will be frustrated and disappointed. Somehow they have missed that Jesus was betrayed, beaten, and crucified. As William Willimon once commented, why do the followers of Jesus expect to get off any better? What is required is a return to the promise that the faith has always made available: In Jesus Christ, God walks with us through the storms, difficulties, and struggles of life, strengthening us along the way. Life will take us to the depths. When we arrive, Jesus will be there. We are not alone.