Busted Review: Quitting Church

Author Julia Duin explores the crisis in institutional Christianity.

Christians in Little Boxes
Duin’s book is filled with anecdotes and interviews with pastors and laity who have experienced the flight from institutional religion.

“The Christian world puts everyone in a little box and has no time for people who step outside it,” she quotes one friend as saying to her over lunch.

In general, people report that their spiritual needs are not being met at church. One problem is the marginalization of an increasingly educated laity by pastors who feel threatened by intelligent feedback. Duin herself earned an M.A. in religion from Trinity School of Ministry, an Episcopalian seminary in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

“My research suggested that people are simply not being pastored,” Duin writes of preparing the book. “Often ministers are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground, as they are surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail.”

American men and women of all ages are among those who increasingly feel alienated in some way from institutional religion. Men often feel like they are dying from an “estrogen overdose” in bookstores full of pink figurines, while women feel excluded from leadership roles unless they are married with babies, in which case they are simply asked to teach religious education classes.

Other problems cited include the abundance of superficial sermons and a general lack of coherent teaching from the pulpit, both of which marginalize people who bring real problems to church and end up sitting in quietly in the back while the preacher delivers canned sentiments.

Duin suggests that the fault here is not simply with pastors, but with the way American culture elevates flash over substance. While tarnished television pastors like Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard define the public image of religion, good men and women clergy labor in lonely obscurity. If churches are going to revitalize participation, she believes the laity must participate in the renewal as well.

Miracles Happened
The end of the book addresses possible ways to keep people involved in religion. Although Duin doesn’t devalue house churches, which she has attended, she cites several evangelical churches which she believes provide a good model for institutional renewal. Her recipe for improvement boils down to one thing: Get congregants more involved in church leadership.

Duin believes the key is to introduce visitors to the core beliefs of the church right away, organize social opportunities and give people more opportunities to be vulnerable and open about their needs in church. According to the author, every congregation should focus on being intimate and attractive to the outsider, not insular and aloof.

Duin summarizes her model of church renewal and concludes the book with a reference to the early Christian communities described in the Bible.

“Miracles happened in Acts 2 when Christians decided to share things in common, be willing to suffer together, and be part of a supernatural church,” she writes. “They can happen again if enough believers are willing to pay the price.”

Quitting Church has some weaknesses, including rhetorical flourishes that create the impression that recent trends constitute an unprecedented crisis in American Christianity. One sometimes gets the impression that Duin’s sense of history extends only as far back as her own youthful experiences in the 1970s, and is tinted with nostalgia.

“I remember thirty years ago when America was in the middle of the Jesus Movement,” she writes in the opening chapter. “Back then no one dared miss all the amazing things going on during a Sunday morning service. How things have changed!”

This lack of the long view seems typical of much modern American journalism, which emphasizes the urgency of sociological problems without providing a very deep context for them. Are things in the American church really so bad today compared to thirty years ago, or forty, or fifty? Given the Protestant tradition of rebelling against church authority, for example, is it really so surprising that evangelicals tend to break away from their own institutions and form more personal ones? The book never pauses for this sort of self-awareness.

Nevertheless, Quitting Church offers insights into evangelical Christianity that may be new to many high-church Protestants and Catholics, themselves affected by the evangelical movement both within and outside of their ranks. Ultimately, the book’s greatest benefit may be its insight that the so-called “evangelical crisis” is not merely a matter of Christians fleeing to more charismatic denominations, but of Christians eventually withdrawing from religion altogether.