Returning to church

December 22, 2016

What Would It Take to Get You Back in Church?

A local Southern Baptist pastor I know and respect serves a church in rural Appalachia. On Tuesday he took to his Facebook page to ask the question: “If you are a person who used to be involved with Church, but are not at this time, what would it take to get you back?”

It’s the question every pastor, theologian, religion journalist, and analyst thirsts to know the answer, isn’t it? Why do people return to church? But answers for why someone returns, however, are as varied as reasons for leaving in the first place.

(Here are just a few studies and articles on why people, especially youth, leave the church: “Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind”; The Real Reasons Young Adults Drop Out of Church”; “Vast majority of U.S. Catholics who left the church can’t imagine returning, study says.”)

During Christmastime it seems especially appropriate for a local pastor to raise the question, “Why do you return to church?” Pastors see the sharpest increase in attendance during the Christmas season, second to only Easter, according to a 2014 Pew Study. The study found more Americans search for a nearby “church” around Christmas and Easter more than any other time of year.

The goal of my pastor friend who raised the question isn’t an attempt to create a seeker-sensitive church with a blacked-out sanctuary and “hip” café simulcast services. His intentions are, I believe, out of sincere concern for his local community.

Besides more than one answer involving “prayers,” some of the responses posted on my friend’s Facebook wall included:

“Sometimes people make other people feel unwanted and unvalued in church.”

“[Get] rid of all those holier than thou hypocrites that sit in the front row and sin more than all the people they look down their noses at[.]”

“I’m finding I can be very content listening to great messages/ sermons at home and then I don’t have to deal with the so called Sunday morning body of believers, whom may I add if I see them out throughout the week won’t speak but on Sunday’s they have the greater than thou loving attitude. Or may I add there’s the ones who want to pass so much judgement on me and how I’ve lived but yet their own ‘house’ is a mess..SO what will it take hmm, perfect people which we all know that’s not going to happen so I believe I will continue worshipping from home.”

“Honestly, if you know god well and share a relationship with him, you can tell what churches are real and what churches are just a building with people in it.”

“I am afraid too many folks tend to think church is about them and how they feel, we need to emember church is about our Lord and Savior. We need to focus on worshiping Christ, church hould not be about making us feel good, just need to worship our Savior.”

People are obviously deeply wounded by others in the church, which causes too many to leave. Yes, sadly there are hypocrites, phonies, and frauds in every church across America. Because, as I’ve heard it repeated over and over, the church is a hospital filled with broken, imperfect people. That’s not going to change until the good Lord returns. Where else would we rather broken, imperfect people be other than church?

So perhaps, instead of phrasing the question as “What would it take to get you back?” one might ask “What circumstances in life make/made you reconsider the significance of the local church?”

Many of you already know that my own parent’s, both baptized in the Catholic Church as children, left in their adolescence and then returned to church out of sheer desperation during a time of broken trust in their marriage. Mom and dad were searching for something, anything to help remove the immeasurable loads of rejection and guilt, respectively, they staggered under. I thank the Holy Spirit’s prodding that my parents wandered into that random Assemblies of God sanctuary on the corner near their home and found transforming salvation, grace, and the support and counsel of caring, yet imperfect, Christians.

Your turn. If you are a person who used to be involved in a local church, but are not at this time, what is a reason you might return? Please leave your thoughts or story in the comment section below.

7 Responses to What Would It Take to Get You Back in Church?

  1. John III says:

    I think a few things occur when it comes to why people walk away and come back. All to often churches don’t stress keeping our eyes on Jesus; we get distracted; we look at being busy in ministries or looking at the pastor as being more then simply being human and because of this people come to Church; they here what it should be but often don’t see it lived out; the Church in how we live for Jesus is vastly different from “Church Culture” and often that is not stressed so when people get hurt its not because of Jesus; or even what the Church should be as a collective body of imperfect people but instead it is by some who get wrapped up in the Culture of Church and they put on appearances that aren’t genuine because they think the Culture of Church demands it.
    In some places this can be extremely dangerous; especially in cities because other faiths that aren’t centered on truth prey on those who have been hurt and it causes people to walk away from the Lord and sadly some never come back.
    What often drives people back to Church especially at Christmas and Easter is tradition but what pushes us back to Church; the real Church; the body of believers is that the troubles of life rise up and in our souls we know that we need Jesus because our challenges are greater; often far greater then who we are.

  2. Joan Watson says:

    Good question. I am still looking for an answer. I literally grew up in the Methodist/United Methodist Church and took a hiatus during my college years. After 20 years of faithful attendance and participation, circumstances within and outside the church conspired to leave me more confused and broken than when I first walked in the door as an adult; I literally felt forced to distance myself from all things church. That is when I discovered a God worth worshiping; to paraphrase something M. Craig Barnes states in one of his several books that helped me navigate this confusing time, when a person really needs their faith to make sense of things then it should not be too surprising when a Mainline Protestant Christian wanders off to discover a God worth worshiping because the muddled version of the church will no longer do. I am back in worship on Sunday mornings with absolutely no clue how deep I should go. Contributing factors to my hesitancy are a not wanting to immerse myself in what I now recognize in the theological grayness of the UMC, the uncertain future of the denomination as well as drastic changes within the local church that left me feeling like the best I could do was to become a head count in the pew and money in the plate. In Chapter 3 of the book “Sacred Thirst”, M. Craig Barnes described half a dozen or so reasons that finally push people out the door of the church–I identified with all but one of them. Barnes also goes on to identify the real reason: too much head knowledge without an understanding of how all this impacts my life as an individual. Problem was I did not even have enough clear head knowledge to impact my life. Thanks to Barnes, the Heidelberg Catechism and some other teachers from the communion of saints past and present–including John Wesley–I gained an understanding of who God is and who I am that I never thought possible. My perception of Christianity went from “This feels like rocket science” to “WOW! This is simply unfathomable. After a lifetime of being a good loyal Methodist/United Methodist, it was three months shy of my 60th birthday that I found myself standing in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace wondering why I had never been taught these things before!

  3. Gregg says:

    Well, I never left the Church, but I will leave a few thoughts anyway.

    It seems to me that leaving, or at least going on hiatus, from the religion one was raised in is rather commonplace in our time and culture. Rejecting the attitudes, mores, politics, and religion of one’s parents is a natural part of growing up.

    When young adults eventually cobble together their own value system, religion often gets laid by the wayside because they do not have any (enough) adult explanations for the faith. The religion they were taught as children is all that they know.

    Whether they go off to college or not, they live in a culture that constantly mocks, pillories, and marginalizes religious belief – especially if one is Catholic, Evangelical, or Mormon. From academia, to journalism, to science, to pop culture – religion is portrayed as an anti-intellectual, repressive, and childish belief system – and intentionally so.

    The young professional may be up-to-date and conversant on politics, economics, science/technology, or what have you, but all he has in his toolkit for religious issues are childlike/Sunday School answers to the bigger questions of life, meaning, morality, etc.

    There needs to be a societal shift in the approach to faith and religion. What people look for and need from religion is different, but I believe that a church that engages both the head and the heart is essential. The faith must be transmitted through all the senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound). A church must be multi-generational (congregations that target millennials or the elderly will stagnate and die). A church must foster both rigorous theologizing as well as corporal works of mercy and justice.

    I could go on, but I’ll leave it there for now.

  4. Byrom says:

    I’ve been back in church for almost two years now, and I’ll also leave a few thoughts anyway.

    What got me back in church – after an absence of 30 years? The death of my wife. But, God had been working on me for a while, and I missed the church community relationship. I had grown up in church and was a member for many years, along with my wife. However, for a number of reasons, we dropped out of church membership and regular attendance.

    For me now, a bigger question might be will I stay in church or in my particular church community. It may seem odd, but the answer to that depends upon God’s leading. So far, I’m in a conservative, orthodox church, with sound theology.

  5. MikeJ2 says:

    Well, the answer will be different for every person, but this line:

    “Where else would we rather broken, imperfect people be other than church?”
    gets to the heart of it for me. I still attend, but who knows for how much longer. Religion was invented to provide the hope of divine intervention and other benefits for people who can’t deal well with life as it is. Consequently, you have in the church a very high concentration of some very marginal and difficult and outright irrational personalities. I have my own issues, but no, it doesn’t really help me to be surrounded by this. I suspect that when I eventually stop attending, I’ll spend my Sundays at the local art museum, or walking, or reading, or some other healthful and positive/enriching activity.

    • Gregg says:

      I hope when you eventually devote your Sundays to your own solitary thoughts and desires that you don’t end up realizing that that congregation is equally off-putting and full of human foibles.

  6. Roger says:

    During Christmas & Easter many people come to Church to hear the ancient story of the Gospel according to each event, to know that the story has not changed, since they were in Church the last time. Attendance at Church, depends a lot on what happens at the Church during the other 50 Sundays of the year. In most Churches, the Gospel of Grace; according to Paul is not preached. The Gospel of Grace is so simple, all you have to do is believe that Jesus died for your sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and arose in Resurrection. God has placed you into the position of accepting his Grace by belief or unbelief. Unbelief condemns you by your own actions and not judgement from God. People do not think about Eternity anymore and it is seldom Preached about. If you are still in Unbelief, you remain in the Land of Unaccepted Acceptance. The only avenue out is by Faith / Believing.

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