Why are people leaving? All kinds of reasons have been given. I think one of the most compelling reasons is that the ongoing marginalization of the church is “encouraging” cultural Christians to drop the pretense. That is, being part of a committed community of believers is just starting to be too tough.
The flip side of that statement is that many people may be also leaving church because it hasn’t been tough enough.
What do I mean? Sociologists and anthropologists have long studied why groups cohere. Social Bonding Theory tells us that group cohesion involves attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs. That makes sense. But, the question is, what is it that creates and reinforces those four elements? What happens in groups that actually causes bonding? What lead the way are rituals and shared experiences. Think about some of the more common group bonding experiences:
**Military and combat experience. These life and death situations create the proverbial “band of brothers.”
**Sports teams. Winning and losing together create lifetime memories that only get better and better.
**Fraternities, sororities, and social clubs. Life-long friendships are made, especially among the pledges who shared “heck” week.
**Young couples who become friends while having babies and learn to be parents together.
**Mission trips that involve travel, hard work, close living quarters, and a focused purpose.
There are many other examples and they all involve some type of ritual and experience which could be described as demanding, difficult, challenging, dramatic, and even traumatic. Would it be fair to say that tough times create community better than good times?
So, why are some people leaving the church? Because too many churches and too much of what most churches offer is low risk and low reward. A church that has bought into too much consumerism offers non-demanding rituals and experiences. Come, sit, soak, and be anonymous. We won’t expect much, demand anything, and will cater to all your felt needs. Worse, when you have a generation of millennials that may have been over-protected, sheltered, and coddled, then when the going gets tough . . . they leave. (And, no, it is not just millennials).
What I am saying? Perhaps some people are leaving church because they eventually find it too easy. The experience isn’t significant enough (not even in the sociological, social bonding sense), there is nothing expected or demanded from them, and it is all just rather bland. They use church for their own self-interest and self-satisfaction, expect and want convenience, and . . . we give it to them.
Now, some churches have recognized the lack of true community, of true koinonia. These churches talk, therefore, of “authentic community” and “doing life together.” I don’t know how effective they have all been, but they have the right idea. Authentic community – true koinonia – requires doing life together, especially and including the tough, demanding, and messy aspects of life. These experiences create the bonding required for community, for true relationships, and for sticking it out when times get tough.
As the church is marginalized more and more, and as the difference between cultural and committed believers shakes out, it is the tough times – the significant rituals and the life-changing, demanding experiences – which will both create community and be the line of separation between cultural and committed Christians. So, you want authentic, life-together, koinonia? You want the “one anothers” of Scripture to be real? Then create, expect, demand, and hope for some tough times. Make it worth being in church. Make it mean something. Make it about a whole lot more than “me.” In fact, be thankful for marginalization and potential persecution. They will really create community.