Why do People Leave the Church?
I therefore was pleased when I found this essay by John Garvey, an Orthodox priest. He makes an important point: all too often we blame the cultural zeitgeist or the times for the reason people leave the church when the church itself needs to accept some responsibility as well:
We have grown used to people who have problems with “organized religion” and “the institutional church,” who say that they are spiritual but not religious, and who pick and choose from things as light as aromatherapy and the less demanding forms of meditation to cobble together a personal devotional observance. This sort of thing can seem fluffy and irritating. But some people who have moved away from churches and synagogues are more serious in their search, and their disenchantments are real and grounded. We should pay attention to them.
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These days there are many other paths a seeker might choose-not only other churches (all of which have their own share of sorrows), but an honest, individual, inquiring search that might or might not end up leaving the searcher open to the truths of the gospel. Such an individualistic course is a great loss, I think, where the life of the sacraments and spiritual counsel is concerned; but I can see how someone might end up there.
We excuse the institution and its representatives too easily. One of my teachers, the late historian and theologian John Meyendorff, pointed out that Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, the representatives of organized religion at the time, can-and should-be understood as a criticism of a similarly complacent and self-satisfied Christianity.
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Despite the failings of the institution, I remain committed to it because I have been influenced personally by many serious, holy men and women who were themselves nourished by a church that has many flaws but also many saints. A rich experience of the church can anchor you, despite the frustrations. The venality and cowardice of some-even many-bishops can’t make me leave the company of such people, or make me forget such people as Mother Maria Skobtsova, who was martyred by Hitler for helping Jews, or St. Silouan of Mount Athos, or St. Seraphim of Sarov, whose radiant life took place during a bad period in the history of Russian Orthodoxy.
And, of course, Roman Catholics can point to similar heroic and compassionate figures. But what if your experience and knowledge of the church is not very deep or rich, and you aren’t even aware of these people, or the depth of your tradition? It isn’t necessarily that you weren’t paying attention. The state of preaching in both Orthodoxy and Catholicism and the level of serious adult education are usually pretty abysmal. (That’s one of the things that unite us.) What if your experience is confined to your parish, your priest, and, marginally, your diocese? What if, like my friend, this is the only home you have known? When you see corruption at that level, and a way of living that simply contradicts the gospel, both its letter and its spirit, it is easy to see why someone might reasonably say, “No thanks; I’ll look elsewhere.” And while it is tempting to blame the spirit of the age for people who wander away, it really isn’t that simple. The millstone doesn’t belong around the neck of the Zeitgeist. That’s a false consolation. The church, and those of us who are supposed to represent it, shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily.
Read it all, and think about what your congregation is doing to keep people coming back for more.