Less Church, More Jesus:
Why Church Attendance Has Dropped Dramatically!
Recently my Aunt passed away in England. I have lived in the USA for twenty-five years, and with Covid, I could not travel back to England for her funeral. So I did the next best thing and watched online with a service provided by the funeral directors. It was highly disappointing, and if I could say without causing too much offense, it was a waste of time.
Why is that, you might ask? While understanding funerals can be sad events, especially for the loved ones attending. After all, they miss their mother, sister, Aunt, etc. But when a priest or vicar offers the final message in such a dull, boring rote manner, it does not help.
As far as I knew, Jesus was the Good News, and not a ten-minute woe is me. It seemed that a reminder of the Good News and the grand reunion for her and her family would have blessed the lives of her loved ones left behind. The priest was dressed in his robes and ropes and went through the rituals and rites in a somewhat none caring manner. Rote and ceremony were there to be seen, but no love. Again, I do not want to kick a dead horse, but I always thought Jesus was love in perfect form and actions.
Let me at least be open about my current 'religious' condition. After two years of being deemed 'Inactive' in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and probably three years of inner-ponderings about religion in general, I would now describe myself as a freethinker. I have numerous reasons for my great loss of dedication to the church, but the subject we now discuss is one of them. I have been attempting to put into words what I see and have experienced in my own church experience for some time. I have also had many conversations with believers from other faiths who also express their concerns about the church, mosque, synagogue, or temple they attend and the seeming imbalance between the buildings and rituals compared to their love for their God.
This brings me to a beautiful article I recently read by Pastor Kate Murphy from the Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC., entitled, "People Are Leaving Church — Because of Churches." Even President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints back in 1999, said of recently baptized members, "We cannot have [them] walking in the front door and out the back." This has been a common issue for all churches over the last fifty years, as seen by the Gallup Polls from 1970 and 2020. There has been a 20% drop in people attending religious communities in the previous fifty years. For a country that seems to pride itself on being a holy nation, that may appear as shocking as the 1851 census was to the British religious community in the UK. The assumption was that most British people were church attendees in 1851, and the census would prove true. However, it was not so, as only 40% of the population attended church. It was as if a lightning bolt hit government and religious leaders—a similar shock and number in the USA today.
Pastor Murphy points out the reactions of many churches over the last few years. They say the fault lies in this generation or the media! I have even heard that the government is at fault; after all, Satan runs it! My experience over the last thirty-five years of church membership, most in significant church leadership positions, is that the blame always lies outside the church, with the heathens outside. And any other fault within lies with the membership not working hard enough or not giving enough. The significant blame is always; they lack faith. As recent as last weekend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bi-annual worldwide General Conference was broadcast. The church's Prophet and President pointed out, "Lazy learners and lax disciples will always struggle to muster even a particle of faith." In other words, anyone who may be struggling does not have enough faith because they are lazy and lax. He continued this line of 'inspiration' by stating that if a person is lonely, has doubts, is ill, or has any other personal problems, it is because they do not have enough faith. Thus, it is YOUR fault and not HIS as the leader. (somewhat confusing as Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the LDS Church's governing First Presidency, said quite the opposite in 2013 when he stated that it was wrong to assume that Mormons are ". . . lazy or sinful.”)
The leadership of any church does not have any responsibility. If only the people were more obedient, we are told! But here is where Pastor Murphy and I agree. Consider her concern, "The problem is that most of the church in America looks more like America than the body of Christ." One of the main reasons I moved away from attending church in Arizona and Utah over the past four years was that I was sick of hearing Donald Trump being compared to Jesus. If I disagreed, I was seen as a delusional follower of Satan. I almost longed to return to pre-1896 history when being Mormon meant being 'peculiar' and different from other Americans. Today, if an alien craft touched down in the USA and the President wanted a perfect example of what an American is . . . he would introduce the alien to a Utah family.
"The problem is that most of the church in America looks more like America than the body of Christ."
America has a long tradition of scams and snake oil salesmen from way back. When Pastor Murphy shares her concern with the above quote, it instantly reminds me of the ever-popular 'Prosperity' theology preached by Joel Osteen and many others. It is similar to the Roman Catholic indulgences of medieval times. By purchasing an indulgence, one could reduce the length and severity of a punishment that God would require as a payment for their sins. You could buy an indulgence for your mother, and she would go to heaven, not hell. Buy an indulgence for yourself, and you need not worry about that sexual affair. Osteen and numerous others insist that the more money you give them, the more 'blessings' you will receive in return. Of course, it is a scam, but desperate people will do desperate things.
Pastor Murphy pointedly talks of "Jesus — whose parents had to flee to a foreign country to save his life — has followers who advocate [closing] the borders to desperate refugees. Christians shouldn't be outraged about [Satan shoes] . . . but completely resigned to voter disenfranchisement, the school-to-prison pipeline, the resegregation of public schools, the opioid crisis or the epidemic of mass shootings." It is good to hear a Pastor concerned about people, not just some people, but all people. She continues, "I love the church. But I love Jesus more, and the church has done a terrible job being faithful to the way of Jesus. When we who love the church see these numbers, we shouldn't kid ourselves. People aren't rejecting Jesus — they are turning away from churches that represent him badly. Churches are full of programs instead of prayer, full of doctrine but empty of mercy. Turning away from [a] church that lies is the first step towards the truth." I am sure many people of many faiths worldwide can relate to the Pastor's concerns. My experience has been that if one shares these concerns, you are immediately branded as moving towards apostasy. Many people think the same as me but are afraid to share their concerns. Should a member of a church be afraid to discuss a concern? What kind of Jesus do their leaders follow? The Jesus I knew as a child was kind and forgiving no matter what. The idea of Jesus being dictatorial seems to be absurd. From what I see from my professional academic career and my time spent as a church member, most of what is now considered necessary to be a disciple of Jesus is human-made. It seems contrary to Jesus' teachings to suggest that Jesus died for you . . . BUT . . . there are conditions. Conditions vary tremendously depending on the church you belong to—money and complete obedience top that list.
In Ezekiel's day, the Pastor points out that people loved the worship rituals more than the God they worshipped; people loved their religious identity more than God. And so, in anguish, God leaves their sacred building behind. But God never abandoned the people. The suggestion is that God loves his people, not his buildings or associated rites. External things do not count for squat. We all know that to be so. However, the internal feelings, memories, etc., truly count in whatever faith you may have or even none at all. I think that is usually called spirituality. Spirituality was probably around way before any organized religion was even thought of. Spirituality is natural and not artificial. Spirituality is not synthetic; it is inside you no matter what you believe or do not believe. Spirituality is part of the natural world.
And so, as Easter closes, the church or any church should be "the true body of Christ full of his Spirit — the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-generational, full of love, generosity, healing, transformation, forgiveness, joy and mutual flourishing, [a] real church welcomes all" or should do. During the past four years, I have been amazed and even disgusted by how people of all faiths worldwide have manufactured and distorted the Gospel and the Bible (or whatever other texts they read) to fit their own crazy beliefs. The Pastor concludes, "God may leave our buildings — but God will not stop being God."
My freethinking mind continues on its journey, and it may well not stop at the 'Faith' station anymore. At this point, I honestly do not know. Yet, I submit to any believer of Jesus that Jesus would not be happy with how his churches have evolved. If anyone who looked closely would see simplicity is the way. Simple belief as a child. Luke reminds us that Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein." In effect, less church, more Jesus.