Potential Reasons People of Faith No Longer Attend Church
Upon reading Making Your Church Manlier Won’t Make It bigger (found here), I couldn’t help but ask, “Was this article for real? Surely this article is designed to stir up some sort of opposition for readers. Perhaps I misunderstood the author’s intent.” But just as I cannot control your response to my post, dear reader, the author cannot control mine. And the words I read struck up a sad, protective anger inside of me and I couldn’t help but feel compelled to respond and process based on my interpretation of this article.
If you dear readers have not read the article in full, Lyman Stone is arguing that the deficiency of men in church is due to a busy, secular, working lifestyle as evidenced by the decrease in female attendees who also hold a full-time career. Now, I am a therapist by trade, not a writer. Please bare with me as I parse out what came up for me as potential issues to the church’s inability to attract working Americans to attend services and activities provided by the systemic church of today.
Consider the following reasons that may attribute to lower male and working female attendance (assuming the data is actually even legitimate) in the church.
1. The idea that attending church is indicative of one’s faith and closeness to God
Let me preface I have no statistic to convince you on this point. But how can any human put a measure on another person’s closeness and intimacy with God? No, dear reader, I have no data that determines a person who attends church is or is not far more intimate with God and their faith than a non-attending believer. If you figure out how to measure that, please let me know!
But let me tell you what I see in the therapy office.
When clients come to see me to process their life journey, it is not uncommon that one’s faith comes into the picture. More often than not I find myself processing some element of religious trauma that has plagued my client(s). When processing, my clients disclose they oftentimes are not attending church or are hiding vigilantly within the walls. If hiding, they pretend nothing is wrong, all the while silently, privately trying to navigate a very real, intimate battle of the soul that feels “too big” or “too sinful” for the church to process with and hold well.
Why am I, the therapist, intimately, gently, safely coming alongside of my client holding no judgment but serving as a loving refuge? Your parishioner probably started with you in some manner as some form of hope, but eventually you sent this human the message that their messy was too messy and would not be tolerated simultaneously communicating to said member that “they need nothing but God in order to heal” which sounds good in theory but actually isolates members of the church from feeling like it’s OK to seek help from a therapist or someone “secular”. That sounds more like isolation and gaslighting to me. My clients who do best navigating their struggles, heal so much better when their church receives the information and makes space for it. So a pastor or priest may refer to a therapist, but they also remained available as a place for the individual to remain welcome and loved in the midst of that journey. It takes a village to heal. Pastors we want our clients to find refuge in you, but be a refuge.
2. The never ending saga of volunteer fatigue
Individuals find themselves groomed and coached into the voluntary positions within the church which in theory sounds good, right, and beautiful. “Yes, thank you for noticing my heart. Yes I want to serve my church community. It’s my honor to help.” Over the course of time, such individuals often find themselves depleted, void of boundaries, and likewise oppressed by the micromanagement of church leadership that is too afraid of autonomous discipleship by the volunteers – who were once so amazing and “called by God” – so far as it may potentially tarnish the power, image, personal agenda, and monetary earnings of said “church”.
Working females like working males have a real opportunity to legitimately explore the cost-benefit analysis of sacrificial offering. Is it possible the church refuses accountability in acknowledging a system that expects and condones volunteerism that doesn’t empower but instead further enslaves the believer to remain “in his/her place”. If humans are dominantly serving a system that they are “biblically” expected to remain subdued to, yet continue to experience the calling to something higher while denied support to do so by remaining under the thumb of an emotionally abusive system so enraptured with the narrative “this is God’s design” despite God’s earth having evolved into a place with so many unbelievable advances and discoveries that all point toward the power of human capacity and intelligence that can’t help but transcend any sort of gender or race or orientation gap. Still, only those “obedient” and “good” (as subjectively determined by said church) are invited to stay and be worthy of God.
3. The brutal destruction and division within nuclear families whose members aren’t “godly”, “holy”, or “biblical”
I remember it all too well. I was serving on a team at my church. Attending a leadership meeting, one of the older women in the group asked for prayer as her family reunion was coming up and one of the family members is gay. The family didn’t want things to be difficult as the gay individual was welcome to come but his partner was not. At the time I was still doing my work to sort my own stuff regarding the LGBTQ community. Though I didn’t know yet where I stood, I did know that the idea of expecting one family member to show up all the while rejecting a part of him that was deeply important just didn’t sit right.
In my early years as a therapist I really didn’t know what to do when an LGBTQ individual would inquire with me about therapy. Don’t get me wrong, I always accepted appointments assuming my expertise aligned with their need. But once in my office I kept wondering, “Do I need to process their identity with them? Is their sexual orientation the pathology that is causing all of their problems? Was this person sexually abused as a child?” I prayed about it. And prayed about it. And pursued legitimate information to challenge myself to see more clearly the human in front of me. Finally one day, God and I had a conversation, “Andrea, why don’t you just listen to this human being and choose to see who they are telling you they are and give them space to process the places they are telling you they need to go?” So I did that. In doing that, I found human beings who desperately just wanted love and connection and permission to know that they are “ok” and beautiful in their identity.
Refusing our family members permission to come to dinner based on life choices that are not harmful but we cannot tolerate is not conversion therapy. It is rejection and a passive impartment of guilt and shame that inevitably cultivates a distance from God, not because God would not accept such humans, but because these humans no longer feel welcome to turn to their eternal source for comfort because “they are a sinner who is refusing to repent.” While we as the church are asked to keep our eye on the ball of sexual impurity when it comes to “promiscuous” behaviors (immodest dress, sex outside of marriage, masturbation, porn use) and any form of queer identity, we are simultaneously asked to remain complicit in the churches choice to deny sexual abuses and exploitations within the walls, allowing churches to merely move “problematic” pastors around assuming the slap on their hand will be enough to stop the behaviors. Likewise, we continue to define “ungodly” behaviors while simultaneously justifying the “slip ups” because “men are incredibly sexual and visually driven.” Every “whore” needs a client.
4. The overt and covert racism that plagues fear and division
I was 16 years old. Less than a year into accepting Christ as my Savior I couldn’t help but feel so invigorated, alive, and thirsty for more of Him. I wanted to know everything immediately. As a result I relied on the church to teach me and guide me. I attended Sunday School at a Baptist church. In one of the first Sunday School experiences I ever had in my life, I was instructed on the justification for slavery due to one theological interpretation of Ham being black. ONE INTERPRETED PASSAGE JUSTIFIED SLAVERY. Yet, we as a white community aren’t even willing to consider the sacred, horrendous stories of our black brothers’ and sisters’ mortifying history in America “land of the free”? In fact, not only do we refuse a request for educating America on this matter, but we first attempted to deny black human beings the same means to an education altogether through the mid to late 20th century. Likewise, we fight tooth and nail trying to keep Christian traditions in public schools because “people have a right to learn about their Christian values”. Furthermore some of us deny years long injustices such as the Holocaust which happened at the hand of a man claiming to be “doing God’s will”?
5. The Overarching issue of patriarchy which impacts both men and women, church attending or not
If you do your research on patriarchy, what you will learn is this system impacts men and women alike. While men become entrapped by potentially unattainable, prescriptive expectations of masculinity, women become entrapped by a strong desire to lead and grow which is denied (after a certain ceiling has been hit), therefore sought through attempts of power wherever it can be achieved – typically among other women, among their children, and sometimes passive aggressively toward their husband. Ever heard of the terms “mean girls”, “enmeshed”, or “nag”?
Women beg their husbands to be “spiritual heads of the household” and “intimately attuned” yet “masculine”. A client once said to me, “It’s just not fair. When I get together with the women, we are in our Bibles, reading the word of God. When my husband’s men’s group gets together, they watch football, or go to B-Dubs, or something like that.” Perhaps some Christian men are not “pursuing the word” through the church because they know better than to be vulnerable in a place where they are expected to “have it all together” or “know the answer”. Instead they show their patriarchal status through rooting for the best sports team, relaxing over a brewski, or insisting they know exactly what someone else needs to do to solve their problem. Likewise, females, while in the Word, weaponize it. They express interpretations that fit the agenda that affirms the coveted designation of “a true proverbs 31 woman” spewing out scripture “righteously” (or should we say maliciously) chosen to point a feeble lamb (a “bad girl”, an “over emotional girl”, a “promiscuous girl”) back toward “God” reclaiming the title “good girl”.
6. The undeniable reality that church is one giant cashflow industry
As you might imagine, a common struggle among couples in the church is the never ending saga of pornography use. In our valiant – or mythical seeing how we serve a patriarchy and “men have needs” – efforts to end “the war on porn” the church is quick to point out that the porn industry generates billions of dollars per year. In an article published by NBC News (found here), it was reported the porn industry generates approximately 10-12 billion dollars in revenue in the U.S.. While we’re on the topic of how much revenue different industries generate per year for the U.S., let’s go ahead and talk about religious entities. In my research, I came across an article in “America Magazine” (found here) that shared data from a Georgetown University study reporting “organized religion and behaviors associated with it” generate approximately 1.2 trillion dollars in the United States alone. While I can understand a human’s choice to financially support a church, I also curiously ask, “Do we give the church so much as a result of pious tithing or is it a result of psychological manipulation by an institution who heralds the “poor as blessed” while simultaneously lining its own pockets?”
While I could continue, like many others, I am tired. So I end with this. I first want to mention this article has little if nothing to do with Lyman Stone’s article. It merely provoked my curiosity to think more critically on whether or not this could be the “smoking gun” on why less men and less full-time working women are attending church. So, keep writing Lyman! But let’s challenge one another to legitimately come to the table constructively willing to introspect and consider what healing, growth, and unity might look like.
I think many humans do want church, but I think humans at a core, innate level desire a church that resembles the radical acceptance that Christ exemplified. We want to show up with permission to be a mess, lack the answers, and permitted to pursue it messy. We don't walk into churches because it has been communicated clearly that will not be tolerated "in God's house".
Though vulnerability and willingness to try and see others more clearly, to connect more deeply, and to love more unconditionally can be frightening in the beginning, when we bravely go there, we become incredibly liberated. That liberation… that kind of love is the “church” Christ died for. In short, control less, love more and pursue sacrificial humility. It is that simple and yet we continue to mess this up. Church in America is so disgustingly transactional while simultaneously conditional. People don’t come to church because after hearing the same messages over and over again while experiencing imprisonment rather than liberation, people leave feeling tired and unworthy.
The people of the church do not need a revival. The system we call church needs a reformation. Let’s not forget that unless we were born a Jew, we all were first gentiles. It was God’s commission that deemed us worthy.
I am prepared to take my chances on judgment day.
A Jesus freak who no longer attends the systemically fatal church