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Rolheiser: Leaving Church

29 November 2021

Appears in: Archdiocesan NewsColumnists

Why are so many people leaving their churches? There is no one answer to that question. People are complex. Faith is complex.

The issues are complex. Looking at the question, it can be helpful to distinguish among a number of groups. The Nones, the Dones, the Spiritual-but-not-Religious, the Indifferent, the Angry, and the Marginalized. While there is some overlap among these groups, each has its own set of issues with the church.

The Nones are those who refuse to identify with any religion or faith. Asked on a census form, ‘what is your faith or religion?’ they answer “none”. Theirs is an agnostic stance. They are not necessarily atheistic or hostile to faith, religion, and the churches. Rather, it’s that at this time in their lives they refuse to identify themselves with any explicit faith or church. Some are humble about it, others arrogant; in the end, the stance is the same: an agnosticism about religion and faith.

The Dones are those who, in their own words, are done with religion and often with explicit faith as well. Done with it! They can consider themselves done for any number of reasons, from having had a bad experience with religion growing up, to anger at the church, to the intoxicating power of a culture that can seemingly offer itself as a sufficient substitute for religion. They have been there, considered religion, and moved on.

The Spiritual-but-not-Religious are those who believe in the value of spirituality but not of any church. They have chosen to pursue a spiritual path outside of any ecclesial community, believing that (at least for them) the spiritual journey is best done outside of organized religion. There can be many reasons for this kind of attitude, not least the overpowering ethos of individuality and personal freedom pervading our culture. In one’s faith journey today, people prefer to trust only their own search and experience.

The Indifferent are just that, indifferent to religion (while perhaps still nursing some faith). There can be a myriad of reasons why these folks feel indifferent to religion and perhaps also to faith. Our culture, for all its goodness, is also a powerful narcotic that can, for most of the years of our lives, swallow us whole in terms of anesthetizing our religious instincts and having us believe in what Charles Taylor calls a self-sufficient humanism. For long periods of our lives, our world can seem enough for us and while this is the case, indifference to religion can be a real option.

The Angry are those who for reasons they can name, no longer go church. Any number of causes can be at play here – clerical sexual abuse, the church’s treatment of women, racism, the church’s failure to live out the gospels credibly, their own church’s involvement or non-involvement in politics, a bad history with their church, a bad pastor, or personal mistreatment in a pastoral situation. Persons inside this group sometimes end up seeking a new ecclesial home inside another denomination, but many just stay at home on a Sunday morning.

The Marginalized are those who feel themselves outside the understanding, empathy, and spiritual scope of the churches. This includes everyone from many inside the LGBTQ community, to the homeless on our streets, to countless thousands who feel (consciously or unconsciously) that the messiness of their lives somehow excludes them from ecclesial community. They feel like outcasts to religion and our churches.

People are leaving their churches for a multitude of reasons and this begs some further questions. When people are leaving their churches, what actually are they leaving? And, where are they going, if anywhere?

In a recent book, After Evangelicalism, The Path to a New Christianity, David Gushee asks this question about those leaving their churches. Are they clear on what they are actually leaving? Do they know whether they are leaving church, leaving their denominations, leaving the faith, leaving Jesus, or just leaving? 

More importantly, he asks, what will to be their endgame? Will they end up in another denomination, or as Spiritual-but-not-Religious, or as agnostic, or just as disillusioned?

Perhaps that question is not so important for the Nones, the Dones, the Spiritual-but-not-Religious, the Indifferent, and for many of the Marginalized – but it is for the Angry, for those who feel alienated from their churches. Where do you go when anger keeps you away from your family table? Do you search for a more like-minded family? Do you give up on finding a family table? Do you just stay home on a Sunday morning? Are you okay to go to your deathbed still angry? Are you content to remain disillusioned?

Leaving church: two questions stare us in the face. Why are more and more people leaving their churches or simply not going to them? And, what’s the religious future of those who no longer go to church? The former is a question for the churches themselves, the latter a question to ponder for those no longer going to church.