Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.
I was recently asked to reflect on the question, “Why do people leave the church?”, a question which was inspired by an article in the Christian Post.
This particular question, and this particular approach, seem to require an entrance into the Culture Wars category, into which I am not particularly willing and/or able to wade right now. Is the “Christian Right” causing people to leave Christianity? Is the “Left” doing so?
Maybe, for now, it is sufficient to reflect on reasons why some people leave the Church, or a church, or their church.
A non-exhaustive list of why some leave the Church, a church, their church:
- Their own “gospel” doesn’t match that of their church.
- They believe that the Church should be a place of peaceful and holy prayer, and any conflict in the church is perceived as a disruption of their spiritual life.
- Unfriendly people.
- No welcome.
- Genuine personality conflicts.
- Congregation is unhealthy.
- They are not there for the Gospel.
- The tide of the world.
Allow me a brief reflection on each point.
If the first and greatest commandment, according to our Lord Jesus Christ, is to Love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, then knowing Him, and his Gospel is essential to ecclesiastical life. Somehow, in the United States, “faith” has become the highest virtue. But “faith” requires an object of that faith. One result of the severing of faith from any pursuit of the truth is that people establish their “faith” (in whatever that may be—the stock market, their job, a god or goddess of their own fashioning, etc.) and seek a “place of worship” which matches their pre-determined “faith.” One reason why folks leave a church is that said church doesn’t match “my personal belief.” In the end, this is self-worship, if the Truth, and the One True God are not the trajectory of faith.
Ruining My Religion
Some people think that a church service and the life of the local congregation should be, because they are Christian, devoid of any conflict or trial. (Why would they expect this? Why would Satan leave the Church alone?) And if there are any ‘politics’ on the parish council, or if there is too much not to their liking in the nave during the service, they will seek another place. According to the Scriptures, of course, our worship is to be done decently and in order, and those who are appointed stewards of the church are to be above reproach and true examples of Christianity; still, this basic view fails to see the church as a spiritual hospital, and fails to realize that “politics” is the “rule of the city.” A church must be governed, and is necessarily governed by sinners who are in the same hospital! I recommend a visit to a local hospital. Walk all the floors. See the amputees and the newborns. Those in hospice and those awaiting transplant. Don’t skip a night visit to the emergency room on a full moon. While observing, keep the question in the back of your mind, “How is the church like this?” remembering that all (well, most) of the sick people came here to find healing.
Some leave because there are too many unfriendly people. This can only be fixed by re-affirming and re-accrediting the hospital for sinners.
This is a perilous one. I personally know a family who went to a church for a calendar year and were never acknowledged with a welcome. I know another who left a church and no one noticed for at least a year. In other cases, perhaps by well-meaning, but very poorly trained people, questions were asked in a pastorally terrible way: “Clearly you are not (insert ethnicity here); what are YOU doing here?” Try instead, “What brought you to visit us today? I am glad to see you!”
Genuine Personality Conflicts
In truth, because of rogue personality waves in the fallen world, sometimes it is best for someone to go elsewhere, for the peace of all involved.
There is a reality to unhealthiness in parishes. Some is clergy-related. Some is addiction-related; some is organizational. Some is lay-led. A parish doesn’t have to be perfect to be striving for the true Gospel. But some churches eat people. I recommend a visit to Orthodox Natural Church Development and a call to Fr Jonathan Ivanoff to learn about 8 characteristics of healthy congregations.
This is related to my first point, but different. In the first instance, “faith” is involved, but it is “my personal faith.” In this instance, someone is at church for entirely wrong reasons: business contacts, social engagement, ethnic associations, etc. These may be benefits of being a member of a parish, but when placed on the throne of one’s church life, idolatry may quickly ensue.
Where we live, the tidal rivers are so strong on both the incoming and outgoing tides that the waters race. To jump off the dock into the water, one must hold on to a fixed rope of some length, because once in the water, one immediately races up or downstream. The tide of the world is like that. I am also reminded of Jesus’ healing of 10 lepers—a remarkable healing, with a double blessing: healing AND return to society as clean people. Only one of 10 returned to give thanks. “Where are the other nine?” Perhaps the tide of the world, and having received “what they wanted,” leads to a falling away.
Surely there are other reasons. Can you name some? We can attribute a fair amount of this loss to a failure of Orthodox Christians to catechize and make disciples. It seems to me, in so far as we are discussing people leaving Orthodox Churches specifically, that we bear a large burden of fault, if folks leave:
- not knowing the One True God,
- not knowing his life-giving Gospel,
- not receiving a welcome as we love the stranger in our midst, and
- not exercised enough to swim against the tide of the fallen world.
If they know these things in their heart and reject them, well, may the Lord show mercy on them!
If they do not know these things in their heart because we fail to teach and demonstrate them, may the Lord speedily show mercy on us!
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