Why Do People Quit Church Going ?

by Robert Brow      (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

Chapter 10      Church Theology

We now try to listen to those who quit a church congregation or denominational grouping because the Bible is denied or misinterpreted, important doctrines are ignored, or they are expected to conform to rules that Jesus never required. One of our respondents sent us his letter of resignation both from a local congregational council and an Anglican Diocese:

May 25,1998   Dear Council members, The time has come when I must resign from the parish council and my wife and I have made the decision that we can no longer support the Diocese because of the following: The Anglican hierarchy continues to maintain an unrelenting agenda that puts "sexual orientation" in the same category as,  for example, "race", "colour", or "age". "Sexual orientation" is taken to be a given that cannot - or need not- be changed. Such an agenda, in our opinion, has led, indirectly and directly, to the misery and suffering of many and will lead to the prolonged misery and suffering of many more. It's as if there are circumstances where God's mercy is not required. Such an agenda has helped provide the climate that has led our Canadian Red Cross Society to accept blood products from homosexual persons. Although the failings of the Red Cross are fully described in the Krever Report and are generally known by those involved with "studying the issues", nothing whatsoever has been mentioned by the Anglican Church which would rectify the situation in the future. Such an agenda has made it easier for the Archbishop to interfere in the School Board affair. He has submitted an Affidavit with attached earlier Anglican documents which support the government's redefinition of "family" and "spouse". What we have, in effect, is a statement by the shepherds of our flock that promotes a subtle endorsement of the homosexual lifestyle through children's school literature. Such an agenda has created a situation where many of the clergy are unwilling to confront their superiors or to take a stand before their parish congregations. This has led to much general ignorance of the problem within the Anglican community. Unwittingly, the average parish member therefore supports a regime that would undermine the sanctity of the family and ultimately, society itself. Such an agenda has led to the widespread and distorted notion of "homophobia". We are allowed to protect our property with locks on our doors but are discouraged from guarding our children from hearing and learning about the distortions of sexuality... distortions that would offer them a lifetime of misery and suffering. Such an agenda has led vast numbers of Christians to depart from what has been deemed to be Christian for 2000 years. Over the course of just a few years, we think we can reformulate things differently and either redefine morality or defer truth indefinitely with initiatives of "studying the issues" or other smoke-screen tactics. Well, it's a sad day. We have many fond memories of the people and community who still worship with you. The history of our family shows a direct Anglican line to the early 1700s. We do believe, however, that there is nothing that can separate us from God's love. We also believe that we are certainly no better than anyone else, including those who would see things differently. But we feel that there are some notions of truth and living that are part of the very love that God offers.  Our understanding of orthodox theology and simple experience teaches us this. What we cannot do is support the opposite.   Sincerely and affectionately." (end quote)

We have quoted this more or less in full because it illustrates the very strong feelings that are involved, and how they can easily result in giving up on Church going. It was not clear from the letter whether this family quit church going of every kind. Or was it only a decision to quit that particular congregation and Anglican diocese ? But in any case theology was very important to this person.

What then is theology, and how do theologians do their work? Biology is the science that seeks to understand living things, psychology is the science of the mind, and archaeology is the science of ancient remains.  Theology is therefore the science that explores the character of God.

Every science has an agreed language for doing its work, and to think about their speciality scientists use a model that acts as a framework for the facts. Zoology for example names all the animals, and divides them into invertebrates and vertebrates. Animals with backbones are then arranged in species and sub-species.

Instead of having only one agreed model and terminology, theology uses a variety of models which more or less correspond to the visions of each of the major world religions. Some Hindus picture God as the Absolute reality as distinct from our human thoughts and feelings which are -maya-, mere dream imagination.. In another model Hindus think of God as the Soul of our world.

Muslims picture God as an indivisible unitarian oneness who is Creator and Judge. (See God of Many Names, chapters 1 and 2). Having agreed to use the model of one or another major religion of the world, the theologians of that religion can divide and discuss interminably about what is true or false in that vision of reality.

Just about all Christians in every country of the world agree to use the basic Trinitarian vision of God (set out for example in the Nicene Creed).  We picture a complexity within the oneness of God, which allows for the fact that the eternal God is a relationship or conversation of three Persons united by love.

When we think about God as three Persons, we do not imagine hands and feet and literal ears. What we experience is a conversation with each of the three Persons in different ways. We talk personally to God as Father like a little child crying out to a loving parent. Many of the Old Testament Psalms are conversations with God in that way.  The Son is the Person who was known as King and Lord and Shepherd in the Old Testament period. The Messiah took birth among us, lived, died, and rose again, and since then has continued his reign among the nations. He invites us into God's eternal family as brothers and sisters, and we can talk to him as our friend, teacher, leader, forgiver, healer, lover, head of the church, etc. It is the task of Christian preachers to explain the good news of each of those aspects of the personality of the Son of God.  The Holy Spirit was known in the Old Testament as the Wisdom of God. He or She (the Hebrew word was feminine) was pictured as Wind, Breath, Fire, Power of God. Artists and political leaders looked to the Spirit for inspiration. We talk to the Holy Spirit when we need loving encouragement, inspiration, love, energy, freedom, and much else including all the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

These three Persons are eternally of one mind. And their intention is to work together to perfect us in love. Though it helps to distinguish their work, they will not say "sorry, you've got the wrong number" if we ignorantly use the wrong Name.

This basic Trinitarian model or framework helps us to explain and discuss the experience of Christians everywhere for two thousand years. Obviously God is much bigger that any of our explanations, and many people experience and love God without getting the explanation right. You can drive a car very well without having a clue about the ignition, transmission, or power brake systems.

Though the task of preachers is to proclaim the very good news of the love of God for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, things can go badly wrong in three ways. Some theologians try to deny our Trinitarian model. And that inevitably moves them into another religion. Some bigots make additions, require people to believe them if they want to be church members, and excommunicate all others. But millions of Christians have to sit under preachers who say they believe the Nicene Creed but they serve up boring sermons about other trivialities. The result is that honest people are forced to quit church going rather than put up with this insult to their intelligence.

By way of example we note the simplicity of the Nicene Creed declaration about the death of Christ. "For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father." That these events happened "For our sake" is accepted by Christians everywhere. We all agree that Jesus' death on the cross was a sacrifice of supreme importance for our eternal destiny.

Theologians inevitably try to go deeper and develop models to explain how exactly Jesus' death on the cross effected out salvation. These are called models of the atonement. These explanations can clash with great vehemence as they did at the time of the Reformation. In Ireland Ian Paisley's Protestants and the Roman Catholic IRA felt they had to kill each other because they disagreed with the others' model.

Long before the Reformation, Eastern Orthodox thinkers had pictured the death of Christ in the context of the Trinitarian "Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). The intention to perfect us in love was called -theiosis-, making us like God.

Beginning with Augustine, who read the Bible in Latin, a theory was developed based on Adam's original sin which condemned every man woman and child to eternal damnation, and Jesus making a substitutionary payment to the Father in our place. Some taught that unbaptized infants and adults could not be saved. Others insisted that you could not be saved unless you understood and believed this theory.

The clash between these two models has resulted in the sad division and gross misunderstanding between the eastern and western churches to this day. We might add another theory of the atonement (set out in Bishop Aulen's "Christus Victor") which pictures the cross as a victory over Satan. On this web site we offer a model called Creative Love Theism. And there are many other minor controversial refinements to explain how exactly the death of Christ on the cross has to be appropriated by faith. Whatever the merits or faults of such theories we are saved through Christ, not by a correct understanding of exactly how he does it.

It is certainly the task of theologians to discuss and explain these and other explanatory models. And preachers will tend to have one explanation or another in mind in their preaching. But the condemnation and excommunication of other brothers and sisters from the pulpit can only produce a congregation of bigots, and intelligent Christians will be wise to stay away. Hopefully they will find another preacher to encourage them in living out the good news, or they may stay at home and read the books of theologians who have a sweeter spirit.

What do we do when the branch of the church with we are connected begins to deny what we view as essential Christian doctrine? This is obviously a very serious and upsetting situation. For some it has resulted in finally quitting the church altogether.

According to the definition we have been using there are three different ways in which false teaching can affect us. First there is the situation in the congregation we meet with on Sundays. If the doctrine becomes unpalatable, we can move to another gathering in our city.

We have also seen that local congregations can be grouped under denominations. In chapter 5 we rudely called them franchises, though we quickly pointed out that they perform some very important functions. The response we began with in this chapter gave a moral reason for giving up on a particular denomination, or rather branch of a denomination. In this case it was the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster. And the reason was that the head of that Diocese had begun to deny one or more essential doctrines of the Christian faith   (See an earlier review of Bishop Michael Ingham's Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1997).

A third far more common reason for quitting is that sermons are boring, lack vitality and relevance, and the preacher's theology is very little to do with the New Testament. It would be wonderful if such deficiencies were corrected in the next millenium, but meanwhile we should not be surprised if what people hear in our congregation is not good news at all, and as a result they stay away.

Chapter 11 .....