The much ballyhooed report from Pew Research shows an ever shrinking population of Americans who identify themselves as Christian; and, this has a lot of people (Christian and atheist alike) shining a spotlight on those leaving the Church and touting just how “not Christian” they are.
Many who continue to identify as Christian are suggesting those leaving the Church were never very good Christians anyway, while atheists are trying to show there is a momentum of growth amongst non-believers.
Strangely, both sides tend to place their focus on the people leaving the Church than on the reasons they’re leaving.
Focusing on those leaving the Church and labeling them as “no longer Christian” is a case of misplaced emphasis.
As the Pew report notes, the movement away from the institutionalized Church is across all age groups. That means that Christians who have been devoted members of Christian congregations their whole lives are walking away.
Leaving an institution that has helped form you, given your life meaning, provided community and played an important role in who you understand yourself to be is no small event. I am left to believe that something significant, other than a change of heart and mind, must be at play here.
What if those leaving the Church are the collective voice of Jesus to us, the Church, today?
I can’t help but believe they might be.
They are asking us to change – and that points to the real issue, where the Pew Research report should truly cause us to focus – on the people who remain in the Church.
Of course, not all of the people leaving the Church are asking the Church to change, frankly, at this point, a whole lot of them don’t even care what the Church does or doesn’t do.
And yet, I hear their collective stories as a cautionary tell — a modern day parable, if you like.
The Christian Church is hypocritical.
Yes, there are exceptions, but the few churches who are exceptions know they are exceptions – which tells you a little something about the institutional Church as a whole.
We’ve actually been hearing about Christianity’s hypocrisy for years, so that should come as no surprise.
But, what we have to start realizing is that hypocrisy is the symptom, not the cause, and not the disease.
The disease is eating the Church alive from the inside out.
The disease has caused the Church to develop a highly sophisticated system that allows it both to quote the Bible and believe whatever it wants, without regard to the scripture itself. That’s not a particularly tremendous shocker, right?
It allows us to hear love preached from the pulpit and still practice judgement towards others in our personal lives.
But, here’s the thing: this way of operating has become so indoctrinated into the system — so artfully woven in and out of the dogma, governing structures and informal peer-approval networks — that it is nearly impossible for most people within the system to see it as hypocritical.
The Church’s disease is in the air we breathe, the support system which gives us meaning, the stuff of congregational life.
It’s how you fit in.
We’ve been trained to follow faithfully and not so much thoughtfully (there are, of course, exceptions).
Yet, when some do see the error of their ways and try to do the difficult work of turning the ship around, they find that the structures of church government and the unofficial power brokers are designed to operate in ways that bend but do not break.
This bend-but-not-break design allows for the appearance of change without risking the established systems and dogma which protect both those in power and the Church’s way of life.
So, even the people who are sympathetic to the cause find themselves ultimately bound and constrained from effecting significant change because of the mostly rigid system within which they exist.
You see, the Church produces the results it currently does because it is perfectly designed to produce them. And, it will continue to do so until radical change is instituted.
The disease is a well-controlled religious system that reinforces and protects dogma-producing hierarchies, and establishes environments which create cognitive dissonance alongside feelings of piousness and belonging.
Hypocrisy is merely a symptom.
Increasingly, I’m afraid it’s a nasty prognosis.
The disease may not cause the death of Christianity, and I doubt very seriously the institutionalized Church will ever fully collapse. But, it is clear that if the Church does not address this disease, it will find itself limping along on life support for a long time to come.
The Pew Research results are simply pointing to the reality.