The most natural question that we ask ourselves is the question of ‘why?’ We look at a problem or a situation and we want to know why it is the way it is. What is the magic key in the past that explains how this particular situation came to be.
And so when one looks at the typical congregation, the question that comes up is ‘why do people, particularly young people, leave the church?’
This question is not asked with malicious intent, as though there were someone who could be blamed or punished. The question is asked with a genuine level of concern as to why would someone leave the faith that others cling so strongly to. And not just why do they leave, but why do people leave, who on the outside, would seem to have a multitude of factors working in their favor that would point to a long life in the faith. These factors include, but are not limited to: weekly worship attendance, regular Sunday school, VBS and confirmation instruction, a strong home where the faith was practiced through prayer and devotion. And yet despite all the evidence that says that one should be faithful unto death, they have left the faith.
Of course, when the question of why people leave the church is asked, there is no shortage of answers. Some of these reasons occur inside of the building: some are mad at the pastor or others in the congregation; others disagree with matters of church doctrine; others have a bad experience when they are young and it lingers with them, even while they are still attending regularly.
But other times, the reason for leaving the faith has little to do with the faith: some leave because they went away to school and encountered a crowd that questioned their faith and lured them away; some have committed grievous sins that cause them to stay away out of guilt; for some the ways of society are so contrary to the ways of the church that to embrace one is to reject the other, and so society wins out.
Or as one pastor put it, sometimes people just decide they do not want to go to church anymore, and they take the first available reason to stop; whether that reason may be doctrine or people or the color of the carpet.
These are but a few of the answers to the question of why, and there are more, lots more. It might be fair to say that every person who does not go to church, does so for their own individual reason, which might be similar, but completely different from the reason of the person standing next to them.
Sometimes, the Church is to blame. Some churches, both as individual congregations and as larger overall bodies, do things that are well intentioned, but do more harm than good. They are lazy on matters of doctrine, or try to lure people in with gimmicks that get them in the door, but do little to build a lifelong faith.
Other times, the Church is the innocent victim, doing everything it can to teach the faith, providing resources that guide one in the faith; only to one day look out and see it all fall apart when one goes to college, or moves away, or even just turns 18 years old.
As you can see, the answer to the question of why is multiple. And one can spend days discussing and debating the why.
But I am tired of the why. I am ready for the how. As in how do you bring these people back? They know the way, the probably find it on Christmas and Easter; but how do you get them back to where they were? Back to where clinging to the cross of Christ was not a burden, but was a part of their very essence?
Unfortunately, for as many answers as there are to the why, that is how few answers there are to the how.
Prayer and visitation are certainly at the top of the list, but while it takes only an instant to leave the church, sometimes it takes a lifetime to come back.