Busted Halo
October 28th, 2008

Busted Review: Quitting Church

Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It. by Julia Duin


Last spring, a Pew Forum survey of U.S. religions revealed that American Catholicism is barely treading water, with Latino immigration offsetting the departure of more settled believers from the church. The Religious Landscape Survey of 35,000 Americans set off a storm of finger-pointing within Catholic circles, with many people spouting the conventional wisdom that evangelicals are booming at the expense of Catholic departures.

Are evangelicals really thriving? Not if you look closely, according to a new book by Washington Times religion reporter Julia Duin.

In Quitting Church (Baker Books, 2008, $17.99), Duin analyzes the trend of Christians falling away from institutional religion, as well as possible solutions to the problem. It is not confined to Catholic or mainline Protestant circles.

As a charismatic Christian who once “quit church” herself, Duin believes the phenomenon has reached a crisis level among once-vibrant evangelicals. According to Duin, movement between denominations creates the false impression that some churches are growing at the expense of others, masking the reality that church participation is decreasing in all of the major Christian denominations, particularly among evangelicals.

“The problem seems to be the church itself,” Duin writes in the opening chapter. “Survey after survey says many Americans continue their private religious practices, such as reading the Bible, praying to God, and even sharing their faith in Jesus Christ. But they have given up on the institution.”

Duin cites several recent studies in support of this trend, including a survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which indicates that Sunday church attendance fell from 41% in 1971 to 31% in 2002.

Other polls break down the numbers even further. According to a 2001 City University of New York American Religious Identification Survey, “the fraction of Americans with no religious preference doubled during the 1990s from 8 to 14%. However, of that 14%, less than half (40%) were atheists; the other 60%were merely ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’” (p. 13).

The Rise of the Minichurch?
Although many Americans believe evangelical Christians form a monolithic socio-political movement, statistics show that evangelicals are increasingly fleeing from Sunday worship to “house churches” in their living rooms, creating what Time magazine described in a March 2006 article as a flight by disgruntled evangelicals from megachurches to “minichurches.” While American Christians do change their churches and denominations, they often find themselves unsatisfied by all of them, dropping out of church entirely.

Is it really so surprising that evangelicals tend to break away from their own institutions and form more personal ones?

What are the reasons for this exodus? According to Duin, part of it has to do with the inability of pastors to cope with emerging sociological trends.

For example, although the number of singles over 35 is growing throughout America due to the rise of divorce and single motherhood, most evangelical churches ignore this demographic altogether, or at most serve up stale sermons on sexual purity which imply that singles have not been blessed by God in the way married people are blessed. The strong bias toward nuclear families excludes many people, perhaps the majority nowadays, whose lives have fallen short of the old ideals. Needs are not being met.

Many evangelicals report that they no longer find the same countercultural fire in charismatic circles that once nourished them. Even Pentecostal churches are shunning spontaneity and messiness, embracing business models and mission statements over prophesy and tongues. Duin asserts that the charismatic renewal movement, which affected Protestant and Catholic circles alike, peaked at a Kansas City conference in 1977 and has been declining ever since.

Pages: 1 2

The Author : Sean Salai, SJ
Sean Salai, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic and freelance writer studying for the priesthood at Loyola University Chicago. He authored the entry on Robert Novak for “American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia” (ISI Books, 2006).
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Mark Shelby

    I found this book review via a google search for the book, “Quitting Church.” I just wanted to drop a note to say how impressed I am with the level of discourse in reader’s comments. The respondents here are well versed and quite apparently well read and deliberative.

  • A. Amos Love

    In my experience…
    People are NOT quitting “The Church of God” aka = “The Body of Christ.”
    People are quitting the 501 (c) 3, non-profit, tax deductible, Religious Corporation.

    Should we call a Corporation Р“The Church of God?” AAARRRGGGHH!!! :-(

    Doesn’t the Bible warn us about;
    *The commandments of men?
    *The doctrines of men?
    *The philosophies of men?
    *The traditions of men,
    that make the Word of God of “non effect?”

    Mark 7:13 KJV – Making the word of God of ‚Äúnone effect‚Äù through your tradition…
    Mark 7:13 ASV – Making ‚Äúvoid‚Äù the word of God by your tradition…
    Mark 7:13 NIV – Thus you ‚Äúnullify‚Äù the word of God by your tradition…

    A simple word like “church.”
    What do most people **Today** think that means.
    Ask someone, believer or non-believer, to describe, explain or point to “church.”

    1 – Building with a steeple? — Is that in the Bible?

    2 – Pastor – in a Pulpit – Preaching – to People – in Pews? — Is that in the Bible?

    That’s what the world thinks, the believer and the unbeliever, isn’t it?

    Isn’t that what our so called “Church planting” has accomplished
    with four buildings on four corners in a lot of local towns?
    And passing the plate at every meeting?

    Haven’t we deceived the people we‚Äôre supposed to be reaching out to?

    How many will know and understand that they can
    become “the ekklesia of God.” The called out one’s of God.

    How many will know that “The Church of God”
    “The ekklesia, the called out one’s of God” are;

    Kings and preist’s unto God.
    The Bride of Christ.
    Servants of Christ.
    Sons of God.
    Disciples of Christ.
    Ambassadors of Christ.

    Haven’t we deceived them by telling them the building is the church?
    And we have to give money to God so He can keep His building in good order?

    When all the time “you are” the ekklesia of God.
    The habitation of God. The house of God.
    God doesn’t dwell in temples built with the hands of men.

    Haven’t they missed the awesomeness of God,
    The beauty of “His Church,” “His Body.” How we all become “ONE” in Him?

    Neither bond nor free, neither male nor female,
    Neither Emergent nor Traditional nor Pentecostal nor Baptist.
    Neither Complementarinism nor Egalitarianism.
    Neither Denominationalism nor Non- denominationalism.
    All obeying Jesus. All following and learning from Jesus, as “ONE” new man.

    Jesus… My Lord and my God…

  • SG

    I am always amazed at those that see the Church as “out-of-touch” with the people. What i witness is, a large majority of those very same people practice the faith as “they” see fit. They want/need a magesterium that feels todays acceptance of… let’s call it “feel spirit” (permission live life by “their rules” like sex outside of marriage or other moral forays) as the biggest issue that they have with “THE CHURCH”. IMHO of course. I have not ran into many “christians” that have a theological issue, but they certainly don’t want someone reminding them that to live chastely “is” a true christian value and obligation. As for “getting away from a “Christ centered” worship tells me they don’t either go to mass or do not understand the Eucharistic meal is Christ litterally touching down from heaven to the alter then straight to your hands or tongue. Yep, amazing… how more Christ Centered can you get? Oh well, and so it goes….

  • Steve

    I didn’t read the article, I confess. However, in reading the comments below, one thing occurs to me that everyone seems to miss. I did go to Church. I even went to the Mother Church of the Paulists in New York City. Something began to occur to me as I saw conservative bankers steal money from the people and laugh. Something began to occur to me when a Church clamoring for money has gold leaf adorning all corners of its building. Something began to occur to me when a bunch of celibate old repressed white men preach about relationships and sexuality. Something began to occur to me when a Pope reinstates a holocaust denier. What occurred to me? It’s all a fairy tale. All this make-believe is just that, make-believe. I believe in God. I’ve read too much about the universe to not believe in a creative and self-aware source that made it all, but that’s where it ends. While God probably does exist, He doesn’t care about us, nor about this thing He’s created. He created it, did His business, and walked away. He may look in on it now and again, but doesn’t take much of an interest in what happens to any of us.

  • carol

    There is a Holy tension in the body of Christ between practical and mystical, powerful God and intimate God that will always be wrestled with here on earth, it seems. Both aspects and more are true of God, but we tend to want to make it either or.

  • Jack

    I think the chapter on “singles” in the evangelical “family values” churches pretty much sums up why singles are leaving. Basically, singles are considered second class to the married and are relegated to the subordinate role of serving the married (e.g., working in the nursery or childrens’ Sunday school)or providing free labor. Women are viewed as temptation. Singles are told they are in rebellion if they question their singleness. In summary, the evangelical churches are uncomfortable with singles and are structured to keep singles just that way – single.

  • Lenny

    After much consideration, my wife and I are leaving the Catholic Church after sixty years. We have been extremely active in many facets, e.g., CCD, Eucharistic Minister, Altar Guild, etc.

    Why? Because our Church has become like the Pharisees, loaded with rules about such miniscule things as number of statues, placement/type of altar cloths (With or without clipped corners to fit our altar?? Very important, apparently) and, incredibly, two sets of standards for the waiting time before the sacrament of Matrimony. In our weekly bulletin it says our Hispanic parishioners need wait only six WEEKS while everyone else has to wait six MONTHS! And our Bishop? Well, our diocese requires four MONTHS. Go figure.

    We’ve had enough.

  • Peggy

    Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence does a very nice job of describing 500 year shifts in culture and religion. We are in the midst of one right now. She astutely points out the role of authority in each era of transition. I personally envision the Kingdom of God to be the communion of peoples true to the internal authority – the GOd authority – they were created with. As long as the authority is sooo externally biased (to the exclusion of the self), as long as we are required to conform not just to rules and regulations set forth by the religious authority, but beliefs, we are not developing our own internal communion with our personal God authority. I think of it as akin to Parenting with Love and Logic, by Jim Faye. Love cannot be dictated by external authority. Love can be nurtured externally, but love like that of Jesus – fierce, compassionate love based in faith w/solid internal moral authority (personal integrity) – comes from within. People know this – they are more educated than ever and more tuned in to making autonomous choices. People want to experience the spiritual and develop their own communion with God – not be told how to do it. Just like parenting teenagers. “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, its yours, if not, then it never was”. That’s how God works. The church should adopt such love.

  • Lourdes

    Hello, everybody. This is in response to John’s comment. I hope you do reconsider coming back to the Church. Yes, there are priests/ bishops you are bad. Yes, there are issues with the catechism that you may not agree with. But, it’s the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that’s the most important. I belong to a beautiful Catholic parish with a lot of people with different ideas. There’s no way we can all agree. some parishes are more conservative than others. It’s a matter of finding a parish that you feel welcome in. There may be people in the church that you do not like, but please do not let it deter you from seeking Jesus. I wish you well on your journey. Take care!

  • John

    I have left the Catholic Church. I’m considering whether to come back. I miss the Mass. On the other hand, I have learned to pray on my own. As for my grievances with the Church: I am tired fo the moral hypocrites who endlessly preach aabout sex but who have mistresses, boyfriends or molest children; and the bishops who xcover it up. I am tired of the conservative extremists who seem to be the next generation of leadership. I am tired of the bishops and priests who tried to decide the election for the Republicans on the basis of abortion (and who told anyone who voted for the Democrats is in a state of mortal sin). I am tired of abortion being the one litmus test issue for faith and morals. I am tired of the Catholic Catechism, Catholicanswers.com, and EWTN. I’m tired of gay people being told they are evil or defective, I am tired of women being told that can’t be ordained, I am tired of the laity being told they can’t run things, and I am tired of –simultaneously– being told we need to give more money and manpower to an organizatrion that seems more interested in money and power the Christ and His Gospel.

  • Emerson

    This really is quite simple. Vatican II threw away all of what Joseph Campell says is critical to any “universal law” in a society–the “myths” and symbols. The reverence and mystery were replaced with the contemporary ’60s mantra of “All you need is love.” Priests became ringmasters and emcees, facing the people…with the community becoming all important at the expense of the altar, crucifix and tabernacle/Blessed Sacrament. Today’s priests, mostly gay, are social workers, trying to “cure” people’s social-psycho externally while they have abandoned the true internal spiritual cure they had originally.

    Only someone not old enough to remember the reverence of the “old Mass” can understand how vaccuous the new one is. There’s no relevance to lives; no expectations; no right/wrong, just conscience…and people stretch that beyond recognition today.

    Too much dogma? You’ve got to be kidding. Christ “makes all things new again.” He’s doing that with the small number who have not forgotten, have not abandoned dogma or the true Mass. The others? It’s over.

  • Dai Yoshida

    Duin’s (and Lynn’s) point of view is very typical of her generation who had received religious education full of “fee-good” ministry and total lack of historic Christianity. They see the Church not as a mystical body of Christ but as a human institution with no connection to the Divine. This leads to a very skewed view of Jesus disconnected from the Sacraments or even the fullness of his teachings. The change in social demographics is not something the Church needs to accommodate like a fast food chain. The change in social demographics IS THE PROBLEM that separates the faithful from the True Faith. Duin and Lynn needs to re-evaluate their “Hippie Jesus” and return to the true teachings of Jesus Christ as conveyed by the Apostles. They can start by studying the writings of the Early Church Fathers without the distractions of the 60’s “class warfare” and radical feminist mentality.

  • Dave

    People are leaving The Catholic Church because they don’t want to hear what The Catholic Church has to say. Many people have absorbed the secularizing trends of the day and see absolutely nothing wrong with living together before marriage, artificial contraception, homosexuality, etc. Today, morality is not something revealed by God through His Church but something arrived at by democratic consensus. And in order to increase market share for American products (and propaganda) everything is permissible — even things that are objectively wrong according to natural law. When people say they want a “personal Jesus” — it’s a Jesus of private interpretation that, more often than not, is a Jesus that allows them to sin at will. Young people stop coming to The Church because the anti-gospel of the world is opposed to Christ’s gospel and without a moral compass pointing to Heaven, people’s egos and vanity will lead them astray — towards the anti-gospel which, ultimately, commoditizes human life, labor, and dignity. The anti-gospel is hard to resist because it feeds into lust for money, power and flesh and rests on immediate temporal satisfaction rather than eternal reward. Yes, God is infinitely merciful, but he’s also infinitely just. Without The Lord all is in vain and the world becomes a dog-eat-dog meat market. Just read some of what Benedict XVI has written recently — you’ll find it diametrically opposed to the merciless and dehumanizing capitalist swill thrown at us from every angle. The Roman Catholic Church is not out of touch with the world. On the contrary, the world is out of touch with The Roman Catholic Church — much to the world’s detriment.

  • Bill

    To: Lynn

    You are right when you say the most important “issue” in the Church is Jesus Christ. If you are losing touch with him in your church, maybe you should examine your participation in the church. I don’t mean to belittle you or anybody else here. But everybody complains that the church or priest isn’t doing this or that, but what are we doing to help him improve the situation? By the way, the church is commissioned to baptise and teach (Mt 28:19-20); ministry while is holy and appropriate, is not the primary function of the church. The primary function of the church is to teach you God’s word and way, and strengthen you with the Sacraments so that you can form your conscience and better strive to live the life (including ministry) that will eventually allow you to enjoy your eternity with him. The church does minister to you and me through the Sacraments, especially Confession which is available to every Catholic, but rarely used. One reason people are leaving is maybe because there is too much outreach ministry which is taking the priest’s time so he can’t teach. I believe many are leaving the church today because they really don’t know their faith. If you know that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, how could you leave him? You can’t get the Eucharist, Absolution, or most of the other Sacraments and the graces that come with them in any other church. In many other churches you will get a warm welcome, definite love for God and the bible, and a beautifull fellowship, but you won’t get the Sacraments .

  • Anonymous

    Some would argue that change needs to come from the grassroots level, not merely from “some leader” who corrects the system. I think that is part of the point Duin is making. She is saying each of us can and should do something about the problem, not just withdraw into our homes.

  • Lynn

    I agree with Duin’s point that the church is out of touch with its people. As a Catholic, I have been debating leaving the church because I have lost a connection with it, not with my Lord. I think we as a institution have lost sight of the most important issue in the church, which is Jesus Christ. There is too much focus on doctrine and not enough focus on ministry. That is also why young people stop coming to church. I hope that someday some leader will figure this out and help change a system that won’t allow change.

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