Five reasons to stay in church

This column is for all those people who feel trapped in church. I recognize that worship services, which are one of the foundations of our Christian life together, simply don’t work for everyone.

I hear complaints about fluffy songs, outdated hymns, exclusive language, narrow theology, judgmental messages, too much fashion consciousness, sheer boredom or simply being indoors on a free morning.

Some people leave, but others stay in spite of their gripes, usually for family reasons. One young man I chatted with a couple weeks ago felt stuck going to church because he wanted to give his children an experience similar to his own, even though he has drifted theologically from the group.

Instead of yielding to bitterness, why not find positive reasons to stay, even though you don’t approve of everything? Here are some strategies.

  • Anabaptist principles. As Anabaptists, we have a radical theology. We believe that everyone in the gathered community can bring a word of God to the group. We believe in a spiritual unity that allows for a diverse expression of gifts. One of the gifts I like to bring to the church is doubt. I often doubt we’re heading in the right direction. In Anabaptist fashion, I agree to speak, listen and discern together. The voice of dissent may be prophetic or dopey; it takes a group to know.
  • Take an interfaith approach. If you can’t abide by some of the core Christian affirmations, then you may wish to consider an interfaith approach. I know this is unorthodox, but look for the God that is present everywhere, in all people and, dare I say, in all faiths, including Christianity and your local church. [Note that the church teaches that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, referencing Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name . . . by which we must be saved.” Ed.] Look for glimpses of wonder, love, grace and compassion, you’ll find them.
  • How we express our beliefs. God talk takes many expressions. In my case, I no longer use conservative evangelical language to describe God. But it’s only the labels that have changed, God hasn’t. This means I can “worship” with more traditional believers. But I don’t use the word “worship” to describe the activity, I prefer to see it as a time when we “participate in the divine.” The difference in language helps me, and may help you.
  • Social circles. It’s important to have friends with similar social ethics, especially if they are outside of the mainstream (like pursuing downward economic mobility, for example). In my view, the communal rapport trumps most theological gripes. Furthermore, commitment to a group, especially if you are bugged by some things about people in the group, can be a witness to the power of unconditional love.
  • Sabbath. Like most people, I work and think too much. Sunday morning can be a fast from a constant concern for productivity. If I let go of my need for agreement on everything that happens in church, I can sit and rest in the sermon, I can sing and be moved by the chorus of voices, regardless of the song. The sanctuary really is a refuge from the hecklers and hucksters in workaday consumer society. It is non-productive space. For me, it can be a deliberate time set aside to meet God in the present moment, but only if I can let go of the need to have everything my way.

Aiden Enns is publisher of Geez magazine and can be reached at aiden[at]geezmagazine.org. He is a member of Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg and sits on the board of Canadian Mennonite magazine, where this article first appeared.

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44 Comments

  1. “Instead of yielding to bitterness…?” Is that really why people are leaving the organized church? “Why not find positive reasons to stay…?” Again, the assumption is that the reader must be negative, and leaving would compound that. How about considering the positive reasons to leave? George Barna, in his book Revolution, writes that people are not attending church in buildings because they (well, many such people) think it’s hindering their journey with Jesus. I grew up going to church, but I’m not doing that now (nor am I going to house church or fitting into another pigeon hole). But my faith is strong, along with my passion for the Kingdom of God now (and later). I continue to pursue Jesus and community with others on the way.

    Andy October 24th, 2007 3:24am

  2. I have this hunch that God says to me, “Monte, why do you have to have things perfect all the time? Why can’t you just stay where you are and be like Jesus? What if I want people to be in the midst of things? How else can change come?

    Thanks!

    Monte October 24th, 2007 5:54am

  3. I found your last point (Sabbath) interesting, since this was one of the reasons I LEFT church. Sundays can be anything but restful for someone who is pressured to be involved almost every aspect of church life.

    Growing up as the daughter of a church planter, there has never been time to “sit and rest.” Sadly, it wasn’t until I started skipping church to stay home that I finally found rest.

    Vanessa October 28th, 2007 3:23am

  4. Amazing, I also “participate in the divine”. A lot of times woship can’t be called worship, I tend to call “worship time” the “singing time”. I lead the tech crew so Sundays are hectic, so it’s extremely rare that I get to join in with everyone else. But I know I can join in with God anytime.

    Rachel November 2nd, 2007 11:12pm

  5. Nice to see. I’m starting to see value in subscribing to a set of beliefs, in spite of my own doubts or even beliefs to the contrary, for the good of the other. A friend has help me come to terms with this as of late. The involvement with church becomes an extension of that acceptance. Still theoretical in my life, or too much. A good argument for converting to Catholicism.

    Kyle November 24th, 2007 5:29pm

  6. Since when was “doubt” ever a gift? (not in my Bible) Didn’t Jesus rebuke Thomas for that? Also, the God that is present in “all faiths”?? Church of Satan, Wica, Islam, New Age, etc… come on man, the only way He’s present in “all faiths” is the same way he’s “present” everywhere (i.e. his omnipresense). It’s really quite sad that you would even suggest going down the interfaith road. Sure, let people go where a religion makes them “feel” good – who cares if it conflicts with what Jesus said and desires. That kind of “god” can be found where every one wants – oh yeah, the Bible calls that “idolatry”

    Sean December 1st, 2007 2:36am

  7. Not sure I understand what “positive leaving” looks like. And just where and how is it that you find “community with others on the way”? Is there an “Unchurch Jesus Followers” chapter in your town? I haven’t found one in mine.

    wordsmith December 4th, 2007 3:49pm

  8. Expectations. I’ve considered leaving church (not God) completely for various reasons until I examined what my reasons were for leaving. What are you expecting from church or the people in your church? Does your church (people) expect too much from you or do you expect too much from your church (people)? Maybe it’s time for a big ‘ol fat piece of humble pie…Hey Flo, over here, at table 3!

    Shar December 7th, 2007 10:32pm

  9. thanks for the bit about unconditional love, and the bit about Sabbath. Actually, thanks for all of it.

    joyce December 11th, 2007 2:42am

  10. I think there is not enough time spent thinking about why it is people are actually leaving. Many people are leaving not so that they can sit around on a sunday morning watching cartoons or living a solitary christian life. Many are simply leaving because our churches do not look like the Biblical church any longer. Isn’t the concept of “church” simply the name for a gathering of Christians? People are leaving the churches that feel more like the airport or the mall or an uncomfortable high school reunion scenario in search of the Biblical church: the church of community, the gathering of people who know each others name, who say more than “welcome to church” when they gather together. This need for community, this pull towards the “real” meaning of church is seen with the establishment of “small groups” or “home churches” by most mega churches today, and that’s great, but until you can truly bring 1000+ people into real Christian community with each other, I’m not convinced that our ideas of “church” are Biblical or worth participating in…

    Natalie Boustead December 27th, 2007 4:44pm

  11. Good article. There’s lots of reasons to leave church, but they all come down to what I think I deserve to feel or hear or be in church. Whether we realize it or not we gave up all those rights when we said yes to God. If we haven’t moved past that point in our relationship with God, we’ve got lots to ponder before our Lord. Wakeboarding in summer, snowboarding in winter, golf in summer, are all about what I want, not about what God wants for me. Church is about what God is doing for me if I come with the right attitude. Church is about me being accountable to the part of Christianity that requires me to listen, worship and obey my Creator.

    Barry January 11th, 2008 5:42pm

  12. When I lived in Winnipeg we went to a very good church – with military chaplins. Most in the congregation were retired military folks. After worship we all went to the annex and gathered for tea or coffee, and sometimes something to eat. This gave us a chance to talk about the service, ourselves, whatever. It strengthened our faith as much as the service did. It really was an extention to the organized service that allowed inclusive interaction. Rather than simply walking out until next Sunday, our faith and love for other was strengthened. This may seem strange for some, but we were building a social group of Christians.

    Bill Sproul January 12th, 2008 4:02pm

  13. I actually agree with this article and I would encourage you to stay at church and change it! One day there will be gay and lesbian pastors and one day there will be christian community but only if you build it! That is what we are told to do: Build the Kingdom of God!

    Gallup Peace January 16th, 2008 7:09pm

  14. I think “church” here needs to reference traditional models of doing church, in which case, we SHOULD question the health of the institution and our involvement in propagating the system. However, if we’re using “church” to mean a /the community of Christ followers, than there is no leaving… no biblical means of leaving, anyway. My two-cents.

    Aaron January 23rd, 2008 4:42pm

  15. The editor’s insertion in your “interfaith” paragraph is a truly telling sentence. That wee little reminder is exactly what’s pushing many people out of organized religion. Aiden is expressing the main spiritual theme of this age: unity. The editor, however, is reinforcing the divisiveness that has characterized the last many centuries of Christian worship. Let go of the judgement (“I’m right, you’re deluded”) and you might find that beauty, joy, and God’s love are meant for everyone, not just those who can quote scripture.

    Kathryn Livingston January 23rd, 2008 8:09pm

  16. There is no God. And the likelyhood that the things the Bible “says” Jesus said is getting smaller and smaller now that science is getting it’s fair shake in the debate.

    there are social morals, granted, but this Kingdom of God you speak of, c’mon, open your eyes.

    And don’t give me the line right back.

    When you are ready, it will come to you so you can get on with your life.

    No God, no spirits, no angels, just us, here and now. 1,000 hands clasped in prayer do nothng compared to two hands working for change.

    Change the world.

    If the religous people spent as much reading real books as they do small grouping about the Bible, then the society might not be stuck on Bronze Age logic and reasoning.

    Keith January 28th, 2008 12:49am

  17. This article was helpful. Thank you.

    Karl Sokol February 1st, 2008 5:42pm

  18. My observations related to attendance at a local church is that most of the people that leave, do so because they have continually come to the meeting to recieve. Sooner or later they are full and the reason to come back evaporates. They may go to another church for a while until the pattern asserts itself again.If you come to give, you will not only be refilled (according to the bible) but the experience of being a co-laborer with Jesus will be exhilerating.Try it, you might like it.

    Ian mcKerracher February 11th, 2008 1:23am

  19. As long as rock shows, I mean worship services, exist to whip me into an emotional frenzy and then send me out into a world that is just like what they project, I ain’t interested.

    Joel Spencer February 15th, 2008 2:20am

  20. i just wanted to comment on the interfaith part. I don’t think that the artical is suggesting that every person is a god, and to see that, however each faith has a slice of scripture it has simply been twisted. So by looking into different things and by observing life we can indeed see wonder, love grace and compassion. Some times it helps to see things at a different angle

    Laura February 15th, 2008 3:06pm

  21. I agree wholeheartedly with Andy and Natalie. I left church (something many of my friends have done) because attending church became toxic to my faith. It’s disappointing but not unexpected that people presume to understand others’ reasons for leaving church (e.g. Ian’s and Barry’s comments), rather than simply asking those of us who’ve left. For me, for now, my faith is stronger and more sound outside the four walls of church.

    Ann February 27th, 2008 8:28pm

  22. This is referring to a post above. God and Jesus are both present in Islam, just so you know. We do have differences, but same God. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet and not the Son of God. They believe in the virgin birth but not the Resurrection. just fyi

    laura February 29th, 2008 5:00pm

  23. Leaving the buildings that man instituted and call church does not in anyway, shape or form mean that you are leaving the Church. We are the Kingdom that Christ is building up. The point above about staying at church and changing it is why the institutional church is toxic. If Christ was the head there would be no reason to change it, would there? Jesus Christ becomes our Sabbath rest when we follow Him by faith.

    The institutional church inhibits and confines people. Jesus came to set the captives free, not confine them to the Law in a different kind of box.

    Rod March 3rd, 2008 11:25pm

  24. A number of years ago, my wife and I stopped going to church. We found that it was no longer possible to worship where we had been for years, but we couldn’t settle on an alternative that felt right. In the course of our non-attendance (which lasted for a number of years) we discovered how much more sabbath-like Sundays are without the pressure of getting up and going to church. But we did both miss worshiping together with other believers. Recently we have started to attend mass at our neighborhood Catholic Church on Saturday afternoons (not every Saturday, but once or twice a month). We are both lifelong Protestants, but we have found the mass, with its deemphasis on the sermon and greater emphasis on liturgy, in which everyone participates, to be a refreshing change. I have to admit that I also like the traditionalism and structure of the mass, as opposed to the formlessness of much of Protestant worship.

    Eric March 15th, 2008 6:56pm

  25. Aiden, I appreciate your attempt to encourage imagination and foster a dialogue between those that have perhaps prematurely written off the local expression of God’s Body (the church) with those of us still fully committed to its necessity and mission.

    While I’m not sure how your Anabaptist principles (“let the church be the church?”) fit in with your “interfaith” suggestion, I love the tone of this article and the heart that shines through it. Thanks for the good read!

    Michael Cline April 10th, 2008 7:17pm

  26. I completely believe in the anabaptist principles that everyone has a piece of Jesus’s character to teach us in some way, and that leads me to the fact that all our unrest in the church is derived from a lack of true community – realizing the church as a body of people, not a place or meeting. Maybe we need to change things in every church by choosing to use this time on sundays to build community and create a more open place to learn about God together.

    Camille April 13th, 2008 3:10am

  27. Hebrews 10:25

    Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

    Andy April 15th, 2008 9:52pm

  28. The church is a whore but she is my mother.

    I think the common thread of our Generation is “The church does not do it for me” And while we fight against consumerism we all of a sudden become what we loathe. The church is not for you. You (Christ follower) are supposed to be there for the church. I mean who goes to family events and agrees with everyone and likes everyone? I know my family is super dysfunctional but I still over them and “forgive the for they know not what they do”

    So instead of engaging with our tribe (the church) we make excuses… We should not only engage in our culture we are called to engage with the people of God no matter how wrong or weird they may be.

    Shawn Beaty May 27th, 2008 8:29pm

  29. I’m not sure that, in the age of living simply, I can understand why the buildings assigned to corporate “worship” (and that term includes all the sundry activities that go on to support the local assembly of whatever brand of faith is under discussion) are still necessary. I have some difficulty understanding why there is the need to commit the quantity of resources that are required to sustain the ediface and the umbrella of activities/causes that are housed therein.

    I am not sure what the alternative manifestation of the “church” may be, but I agree with many of your readers who enjoyed your thoughts, but still feel no need to connect in the big box (or smaller box) called “church.” Perhaps I will look, as one comment suggested, for the “unchurch Jesus followers” in my community. That sounded intriguing.

    Terry June 22nd, 2008 9:27pm

  30. I “left the church” (but not my spiritual journey) for quite a few years in my early adulthood.

    Since that time I gradually found myself involved again. I went from conservative Lutheran to radical anabaptist, but I’ve learned many of the same lessons the author is trying to convey in this article.

    You probably couldn’t find 50 people on this planet that I would be in complete agreement with 100 percent of the time so of course I’m going to have my disagreements with my individual congregation as well as my denomination and the Christian Church as a whole, but it’s only by working together that we can affect the change needed to fully realize God’s plan for the world.

    Another thing to consider is when someone at your church advocates militarism or racial discrimination – when someone has a less-than-loving spirit toward gays – who’s going to speak up against it? If you’re not there, it can’t be you.

    Then the entire congregation will only hear that one point of view on the issue.

    Maybe the disillusionment you feel is God’s way of calling you to serve as prophet…

    What if Jesus had decided to just focus on himself and his own spiritual development instead of speaking truth to power?

    chris June 29th, 2008 10:29pm

  31. I am a gay Christian. I go to church, not so much to be spiritually fed, but just to open my heart in public worship and praise Jesus in my own way. One Sunday, I helped a woman that was in my Sunday School class that was having problems with forgiving her brother, an alcoholic that had hurt her so many times. I showed her that forgiveness is you letting him off YOUR hook, but not God’s, and He will deal with her brother in His own way. I was honored to minister to her like that.

    Jeffrey Williams August 2nd, 2008 9:32pm

  32. Unity is about believing the same truths. The editor’s insertion is a reference to the single unifying doctrine of CHRISTian churches. If you’re looking for anything other than support, edification, and training to be unified with other believers, then any “church” outside the Christian church will do. Jesus knew what he was doing when he built his church with human beings. The one he identified as the Rock he would build it on had just uttered nonsense to which Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan”; yet he still chose to leave his church in the hands of humans. Going to church should not be about the programs, the song list, or the oratory; like Christianity it should be about relationship. To foster yours with God you should find fellowship with him and his church. If you can’t find fellowship at your church, (a) Are you looking for it? if not, then (b) Can you find it with another like-minded group.

    Fellowship doesn’t have to be exclusive – you can have fellowship with others who are outside the fold of BELIEVERS of the same fundamental truth (Oh, wait, that’s a bad word here, isn’t it?) – but without close fellowship with believers, you’ll eventually find yourself unbelieving in the Spirit who drew you to Christ in the first place. Satan appears as an angel of light – all warm and glowing and good-intentioned – and ready to deceive.

    Mark September 11th, 2008 3:23am

  33. This is a re-occuring event in my life: I am sitting in church, in my pew in the balcony, and someone is talking down below at the pulpit, and I start to twitch. I shift. I look out the window, out the door. I drink my coffee and stare at my hands, and I tell myself: Self, don’t leave. You will miss out.

    And it’s true. Some days, I swear I need to mount those stairs to the pew in the balcony with a sack of nails and a hammer and pound my shoes to the floor because (lord almighty) I can hardly breathe from what’s being said, and then other days I sit, I drink my coffee, and god siddles up alongside me and smashes my heart to smithereens with all that beauty he’s got pouring out of that stained glass window, that preacher’s mouth, that 200 year old song we just sang, that grandpa that camps out at church to keep the furnace going in the winter, those flaws, flaws, flaws.

    I love my church. It disapoints me, hurts my heart, leads me astray. And it elevates me, heals me, and shines God’s face on me.

    It ain’t heaven yet, baby. That’s not the point.

    angela September 14th, 2008 9:20pm

  34. While those are all fine enough reasons to stay in church, i guess we have to define what church we are talking about. We (Christians, followers of Christ) are the church. When we meet together, whether for coffee, Chinese food, or an elaborate service with a band and prepared preaching, we do church.

    When we talk about leaving the church, I can only assume we mean breaking off fellowship with other believers. That would be detrimental to our faith, for sure.

    However, a big church, only speaks to so many people. I had to leave a more traditional church because they didn’t trust the holy spirit in my life. We weren’t operating under the Anabaptist spirit and I got hurt and had to with draw. I guess, I’m saying this issue is great to discuss but far to complicated to boil down to 5 points.

    I’m really happy people are dialoguing about it.

    The house church movement is real and viable and i would love to see publications besides House2House covering it. Since it seems like so many people are interested in alternative organic fellowship.

    Melody Stone September 18th, 2008 8:52pm

  35. Wow… reading through this it sounds to me like many of you are Unitarians at heart. That’s where I find my Sunday community, with hymns of familiar tunes rewritten to have meaning outside any dogmatic faith. The emphasis is on supporting each individual in their search for spiritual truth. The emphasis is on religious tolerance. I’m not usually an evangelist, but it might be worth checking out. Each church is different.

    Nancy Cook February 2nd, 2009 7:31pm

  36. dear #6, if you don’t have a crisis of faith every week or so, check your pulse, you might be dead.

    this was so good with coffee.

    jen capone February 16th, 2009 6:18pm

  37. 1st time on your blog-enjoyed very much-thanks for being there—just dropped out of church in small town in ga.— members act like i’ve got the plague

    ex-fundy March 10th, 2009 10:43pm

  38. Interesting article. Personally, I haven’t attended church since I was 10. The baptist church in question was anti-music. If God’s busy listening to my iPod, He needs more to do. Like making new frogs. We’re short on frogs…

    Rowan April 18th, 2009 4:42am

  39. OK I’ve obviously come to this late, but I’m with Andy. Too many assumptions here about why people might leave church. I’ve spent 57 years attending church. Over that time Brethren, Charismatic, and Baptist. Only time I changed church was due to location shifts, so I think I passed the loyalty test. But after 28 years in my last church, some as a lay teaching pastor, my wife and I left. And not because it didnt ‘meet our needs’. Best decision we ever made. Our faith is strong. Our interaction with other believers is regular. But most important we have freed up time to engage our local community, 95% of which doesnt attend church. And without question 9 out of 10 people we meet who have left church, werent being rebellious, apathetic, or lazy. They were exactly as Barna described – keen to keep their faith alive, and to serve those outside the church in the spirit of Christ. IMHO local churches need to get over the idea that they have a mortgage on fellowship and teaching. Jesus universal church, his bride, is much bigger than any of us think.

    Gus May 25th, 2009 9:45pm

  40. Well, some of the comments here about how some spiritual paths are forbidden according to so-and-so’s interpretation of the bible, etc, and the strange “Ed” note about Jesus being the only true path, blah blah blah…yep, there ya go…the REASON I don’t even PRETEND to believe anything anymore, let alone waste my time in a church.

    Andrew June 30th, 2009 6:22pm

  41. Wow, Angela, I love what you wrote, you out the words into exactly what I have been thinking about church lately…

    Margaux September 29th, 2009 10:59pm

  42. this is what church is to me:

    i get up,make breakfast for nine, make sure everyone has socks on, change a few diapers, pack a diaper bag, treats, toys in a futile attempt to bribe children to be quiet during the service where we are expected to sit in the back and shut up. End up sitting in the nursery for the fourteenth year in a row. church means nothing to me. i likem eeting other Christians, but i find them and i’m able to actually share life with them only when the sit down shut up part is over.

    i wish there was an alternative to the way our culture doesthis, bcz i don’t think it’s helpful, healthy, or good to give people brownie points just for showingup and networking. What matters is spiritual formation, becoming who God is calling you to be. And church such as it is,a ctually detracts from me doing this.

    mamazee December 9th, 2009 6:44pm

  43. I like your article. Its tempting to give up on church when it doesnt inspire and stretch a person. My particular church seems too focused on “is it biblical” as if there is no room for thinking that is relevant to our world today. One thing I think I finally have figured out is that this life is about relationships, our relationship with God and with other people. Church needs to be nourishing, encouraging, and challenging us about both.

    Roy January 18th, 2010 4:35pm

  44. Your article and the comments address my own journey with the church. I live in a city abundant with churches; I have explored and embraced Christianity—as a child raised in the conservative Plymouth Brethren to Episcopalian to midway Presbyterian—and still cannot find my “Goldilocks’ Just Right” place. But Clarissa Pinkola Estes (most known for Women Who Run With the Wolves) reminds us that it is the Church beneath the flawed, outward church that we need to be mindful of and seek.

    Many will never find that particular pastor that stirs the heart, the music that lifts us, the congregation and hierarchy that isn’t too this or that. I agree that it is better to go than not to because a loner-Christian can lose the joy and the sorrow of sharing that fellowship with a set group of believers. We need to know the lives of others in the faith. And that day that our faith falters, be lifted up by others. In a Facebook world, it is a place to be human with other humans who seek Christ and then to go out and live Christ in the world in whatever way we can.

    Madi February 3rd, 2010 8:19pm

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