Top five reasons why the customer isn’t always right

It surely should not be beyond the realm of possibility that some of the reasons people—young people, old people, in-between people—are leaving or rejecting the church have less to do with the church than with themselves

November 4, 2015 | Feature | Volume 19 Issue 22
Ryan Dueck |

It seems like every second time I open my computer these days I come across the latest instance of what is becoming a very familiar—and obnoxious—brand of writing: the “five reasons for . . .” genre.

Sometimes this takes the form of an “open letter,” a form of writing that is surely unparalleled in its odious ostentatiousness: “Dear church, here’s why no one is interested in you anymore,” or “Dear church, let me explain to you why all your young people are leaving.” Sometimes writers of these pieces come up with really clever and original titles like “Losing my religion”; I’m sure R.E.M. would be pleased.

But more common these days are plain old lists: “Five reasons why nobody goes to your church,” for example, or “Five ways that you as a pastor can stop being so boring and lifeless,” or “Five ways to stop being a soul-sucking, hollow institution and start being spiritually vital and appealing for 21st-century sophisticates.”

Those last three may not have been actual titles, but you get the point.

This morning, after encountering two of these articles before 9, I thought about writing an angry blog post with the title, “Five reasons to avoid hurling your coffee mug through your computer screen after reading the latest ‘Lists for why people don’t go to church’ article,” but I thought better of it. At least I was persuaded that liking my computer was enough of a reason to avoid this course of action.

But I must confess that I almost, without exception, find these kinds of articles spectacularly irritating. Perhaps you might be thinking, “Well of course he would say that. He’s employed by the church!” And you might be partly right.

But most people who know me well would likely say that I am not exactly averse to criticizing the church when the church deserves it. I even agree with some of the well-rehearsed critiques levelled in these types of articles. Churches can do more to create space for honest questions and doubts. Churches should teach more holistic theologies. Churches ought to be more “authentic”—abused and overused as this term is becoming. Churches must seek to be more welcoming and inclusive and less rigid . . . and to serve better coffee. Yes, yes, fine. All of this is probably true.

But even as I would gladly acknowl-edge that the church is far from perfect, these articles still annoy me, and for one simple reason: Almost without exception, they seem to assume that if people don’t like, aren’t attracted to, or can’t be bothered with church, it must be the church’s fault. The customer is always right. Right?

Wrong. Sometimes, the problem is precisely the customer and her cocktail of perceived needs/wants/expectations of the church.

This should not be surprising, of course, if we take Christian theology seriously. (We mostly don’t, but that’s another matter.) Central to any remotely Christian anthropology is the basic assertion that human desire is disordered. We are image bearers of God, to be sure, and gloriously so, but we are also perpetually turned inward. We are selfish, proud and a whole host of other things besides. So, given this general picture of human beings and human nature, it surely should not be beyond the realm of possibility that some of the reasons people—young people, old people, in-between people—are leaving or rejecting the church have less to do with the church than with themselves.

And what about these selves of ours, these selves that the church is failing, according to all the expert articles, open letters and lists? What do these selves look like? Well, this is some of what I see out there in the broader culture and in here in my own life:

1. We are obsessed with ourselves. Matthew Crawford, in his book The World Beyond Your Head, puts it like this: “[A]utonomy is arguably the central totem of modern life. It hovers above our concepts of individuality, creativity and any number of other items that convey the existential heroism we’re expected to live up to on a daily basis. It is an idea that we moderns have made our dignity hinge on.” The self is the central totem of modern life. Indeed, it is.

2. We are obsessed with entertainment and easily bored. If you don’t believe me, look around next time you are in a public space with other humans, spend 10 minutes on Facebook, or consider the phenomenon of “cat videos.” Increasingly, questions like “Is it true?” “Should this matter to me?” or “What might this demand of me?” take a back seat to “Is it entertaining?” or “Did I feel good afterward.” This is, of course, true both inside and outside the church, to our shame.

3. We have short attention spans. See No. 2. The Internet is destroying our brains and making us incapable of doing things that once seemed utterly ordinary. Things like spending 20 minutes listening to someone talk without checking our phones every 45 seconds, or being in a public space where there isn’t a screen somewhere with things moving on it. The other day I was in a restaurant where I counted no fewer than 20 television screens all going at the same time. Not that anyone was watching, mind you. They were all staring at their phones.

4. We like the idea of community far more than the effort it might take to contribute to one. “Community” is a word that makes us feel warm and fuzzy, and it feels like the kind of thing we know we should want, but it requires things like commitment and showing up even when we don’t necessarily feel like it, and interaction with people who aren’t like us or whom we wouldn’t necessarily choose. So we embrace community, we commit to it, we love it. Except when we don’t. Then we go do something else.

5. Deep down, we don’t really think that any of this God stuff is terribly important. Religion takes its place on the “lifestyle choices” shelf alongside hot yoga, Oprah, scrapbooking, marathon running and spending time with nature. It is one of those things that you do if you’re “into it,” or if it plays a role in making your life meaningful or inspiring. It does not situate us in anything like a grand narrative of existential meaning or hope, and it does not call us to align our thoughts and actions with something (or Someone) external to us. It is a tool to be pressed into the service of the self and its own projects, at best. Which brings us back to No. 1, proving that all roads begin with, and lead to, the self.

There are probably other features of the modern self that play into all this, too, but these are five things that I observe with some regularity out there in the culture and in my own life.

So in light of this general picture, it is difficult for me to start panting after the avalanche of popular diagnoses of the five “real” reasons that Demographic X is leaving the church, has been wounded by the church, isn’t interested in the church or thinks the church should be different.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in helping the church reflect Christ well, or that I think the church shouldn’t repent when it has been less than it is called to be. I am and I do. I’m just convinced that we humans are not always interested in—or drawn to—the things we should be. Sometimes the reason that we walk away from things is because they are calling us to things that are hard or inconvenient. Or because they are calling us away from things that we really like. Like ourselves.

At least some of the time, the “real” reason people are walking away from the church is a very old and uninteresting one. We are expert idolaters and we prefer our totems. If we want God at all, it’s on our own terms. Ever since the Garden, it has always been easier to leave than to stay.

Reprinted from Ryan Dueck’s May 13 blog post on “Rumblings: Hope, humour and other eschatological goodies.” He and his family returned to their roots in Alberta in 2011, where he pastors Lethbridge Mennonite Church.

See also: 
Selfies: This generation’s cigarette
Five reasons young adults may leave the church


For discussion

1. What would you put on a “top five” list of why it is important to attend church? What about a “top five” list of what keeps you away from church? How guilty do you feel when you skip church? Have you ever accused the church of not being interesting or not meeting your needs?

2. Ryan Dueck says that we tend to be obsessed with ourselves and that “[t]he self is the central totem of modern life.” Do you agree? Can you think of examples of how the people of your parents’ and grandparents’ generations were less self-centred?

3. Dueck says that we are easily bored and have short attention spans. Do you agree? Does that help explain why some people attend church only sporadically? How can we encourage each other to develop habits of greater devotion to God?

4. Do you agree with Dueck that when people leave or reject the church it is partly because it is “easier to leave than to stay”?  How should the church respond to a self-centred culture?

—By Barb Draper

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My top five reasons to attend, join and participate in Church:
1. Worship God: Although God is everywhere, God should be the sole focus of worship in a church. God deserves our undivided attention at least an hour or two a week. The words, music, silence and service of our church should inspire us to give God some attention every day of the week too!
2. Participate in a faith community: Seeing God at work in words and acts of others of our faith community helps us to see God in the acts and words of those outside our faith community. Community is built over time with hard work, just like any relationship. Community is not a spectator sport.
3. Progress in our personal faith journey: Growing our personal beliefs within our own faith community not only helps us understand our own faith but should also help us to better listen to and see similarities of those with other faith traditions and better relate to those without any belief in God. If Jesus is to be our example in this human life, then we need to read, discuss and learn about his teachings. This is best done in the many Christian Formation opportunities of our faith community.
4. Experience God’s Holy Spirit: God’s Holy Spirit is with us every day in every way but we need to tend and prepare our soul to make sure it’s a safe and welcoming place for God’s spirit. We need to build courage and wisdom to know how best to allow God’s Spirit to work in our lives and impact the lives of others around us.
5. Accountability: Sure we can worship God outside of church. Sure we can build community outside of church. Sure we can grow spiritually without church. Sure we can experience God’s Spirit without church. But do we? We need accountability of a faith community who can confront us in love and support us with the example of God’s grace.

As a young person who was raised in the Mennonite church, here are four reasons why I left:
1) Shunning - You might think this classic Mennonite punishment died long ago, but it's alive and well and more passive aggressive than ever. Mennonites shame and avoid people on the fringes of their communities who they see as too different or mildly sinful. In the last few years, I've watched as Mennonite church Canada has shamed and shunned some of its own faithful. Mennonite communities generally lack a spirit of forgiveness, and it drives people away. You can't be in the world and not of the world without also holding unhealthy attitudes of pious privilege.
2) Gay rights - you're on the wrong side of history and the larger church knows it, but you can't let those brethren donations slide so magazines like this keep perpetuating what they know is hateful rhetoric with no real scriptural basis.
3) Expansionism - I attended Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg for six years, and it was a fine high school, but even when I attended some years ago they were aggressively pitching an expansionist plan that their neighborhood continues to fight tooth and nail. Mennonite "radicalism" is generally just a thin, smug veneer over an average capitalist existence. The policies of the church and the behaviour of its members more often preach to a God of business than the theology they profess. This veneer leads to a smug lack of real self reflection, and we concentrate on expanding the veneer to accommodate the gases from the rotting core. It's an empty, capitalist drive.
4) Christianity is inherently oppressive - I'm not going to write a paper on the politics of language use for you but all of the above are symptoms of this. There are some Christian communities who try to rectify this but surprise surprise they are shunned by the mainstream. Mennonites aren't the only church with drastic loss in numbers. If you want to attract more people you're going to have to radically reform your theology and let go of the idea that there is anything inherently good or holy about the way things were. Anabaptism didn't exist until the fifteenth century, it's not some ancient truth handed down from some biblical patriarch. The church needs another reformation or it's going down hard and fast, and that's a very simple truth I think most people involved are afraid to consider.

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