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Quitting Church: An Interview with Julia Duin

By John W. Whitehead
December 03, 2008

“I have sensed for several years something is not right with church life, especially with evangelical church life.”—Julia Duin

“It is no secret that the percentage of Americans in church on any given Sunday is dropping fast,” writes author and journalist Julia Duin in her book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It (Baker Books, 2008). In fact, studies indicate that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of Americans are not attending a church. But, according to Duin, that does not mean that people are leaving God. “I have met people who feel that leaving church is taking the high road,” she says. “It saves the church from more unnecessary fighting and backbiting.”

Based on extensive interviews around the United States and abroad, Duin has pinpointed the disenchantment felt by evangelicals worldwide with church. In fact, in recent years, many have found more frequently that churches are not relevant to their lives.

Duin points to several reasons why so many Christians seem to be leaving the church and what can be done to buck this trend. With chapters such as “Emergence and Resurgence: How Some Churches Are Adjusting to the Twenty-first Century,” “The Other Sex: Why Many Women Are Fed Up” and “Bringing Them Back: If They Want to Come,” Duin offers some realistic alternatives to the church’s status quo.

Duin argues that if the church can become relevant, people may want to be a part of it again. Rather than ignoring issues that many young people find important—condoning war, for example, while railing against issues like pre-marital sex—evangelical leaders should acknowledge the issues that matter to their congregations. People want to change the world, not simply start another ministry program.

Julia Duin is an author, writer and religion editor for the Washington Times and has won many local and national awards for her religion coverage. Julia took time out from her busy schedule to discuss some of the issues raised in her new book with me.

John Whitehead: Why are people leaving the church?

Julia Duin: People who are leaving have been in church for some time. They’ve been believers more than ten years and are burned out. They’re not getting anything new in their churches. They’re not seeing the three major things—decent preaching, good community and feeding.

JW: What do you mean by “feeding?”

JD: Content and spirituality. What we hear today are slogans. The whole seeker friendly movement has ruined the church. 

JW: Why do you call it “seeker friendly”?

JD: The seeker friendly movement started in the 1980s. It was the effort to dumb down a lot of church services, make them shorter, easier to grasp, cut the number of hymns, cut the preaching time and get it to a kind of package deal. The idea was to get nonbelievers interested in going to church because it would not take up too much of their time and wouldn’t challenge them too much. But what happened is that a lot of people who had been believers for some time suddenly found that the sermons were like milk instead of meat. They were so simplistic. Many were finding that what they were getting was pabulum. 

JW: Many church services have been reduced to pabulum and slogans?

JD: Absolutely. I found that this was a major complaint from people. A lot of people were complaining about their pastors. By the way, people who leave church aren’t just the complainers or slackers. They have been portrayed badly by the Christian media. What I found is that some of the best people are leaving church. They were the most committed, but just felt that the churches were toxic. There is too much bickering and arguing in churches.

Many came to the conclusion that they could not get decent spiritual food. So they were looking at their calendars, looking at their schedules, and saying, “I spend three to four hours a week going to this place on a Sunday morning, and it is a waste of time. I am not getting good community. No one knows me, and no one talks to me. I am not getting fed from the pulpit, and we are down to about three hymns.” Thus, they started leaving the church. And many started using their homes for home churches.

JW: Tell me more about the home church movement.

JD: Alan Jamieson, a researcher who is studying the quitting church phenomenon in New Zealand, wrote a book called Church Leavers. Then he wrote a book called Five Years On. I spoke with him and asked, “What are people going into? Are they going into home groups? Are they coming back to church after they leave?” He indicated that people who leave are not coming back to church. They look at what is going on in the church and don’t want to come back. And interestingly, most home churches don’t last. I have friends in Portland, Oregon, who formed a home group. They found that after a few years, it was getting so big they started meeting in a community hall. Then they started affiliating with a major denomination. But my friends walked out. They didn’t want this type of organized Christianity.

JW: The New Testament church met in homes. And it was a very strong spiritual movement.

JD: It did. I’m not opposed to the organized church structure. A church headed by elders is healthy. I am in favor of a Presbyterian form of government. But the one-man-rule type of thing is not healthy. I have seen too many pastors crash. It is just too much for one person. Unfortunately, in a lot of churches, the pastor is a control freak. He wants to do everything. It is such a turnoff because he can’t minister to everybody. And the laity aren’t allowed to do much of anything. They are an audience for a couple hours every Sunday morning. This is why many believe they can do better business with God at home, and they do.

JW: What is the attraction of someone like Joel Osteen and the prosperity movement that tells people God wants them to be rich? Is that really spiritual? Jesus was an itinerate preacher who didn’t carry money. Is the celebrity preacher/mega-church concept really Christianity?

JD: I don’t think so. I have a feeling that those kinds of churches won’t last. I don’t think the whole mega-church movement is going to last. I know I am speaking against the trend, which is for people to go to larger churches. But I think the kind of people who go there are not your committed Christians. They’re the kind of people who don’t want to commit themselves to anything. They are there for a show. They are there to feel good.

JW: Osteen’s church is like a shopping mall, with a Starbucks, a bookstore and waterfalls.

JD: I’ve read Osteen’s book. It’s not heresy. I asked him, “Why don’t you have Jesus in your book?” And he said, “I preach about Jesus all the time.” Then I said, “But you can’t find the name Jesus in your book.” I think what happens is that people who go to churches like that are just so depressed. It’s a tough world out there, and people want a lift.

JW: Don’t they want community as well? Don’t they want spirituality? People are starved for spirituality. There is a community feeling in the mega-churches. But is it a pseudo-community feeling?

JD: How can you have community with 42,000 people?

JW: They break up into little groups and sing around campfires.

JD: I don’t think they break up into groups. You just walk in. No one can know anybody in that church. There is no way of tracking who is there and who isn’t. It’s like having a crusade every Sunday. I don’t understand why all these people in Houston go to Osteen’s church, but they do. I guess people just want to feel good. 

JW: People are searching for answers. They’re searching for meaning. They’re searching for spirituality. That has been going on strongly since the 1960s. But they haven’t found it yet. So they’ll attend a mega-church with a celebrity preacher in hopes of finding spirituality and community. Where can you find spirituality and community in America?

JD: You have to be in a small group.

JW: What type of people are you talking about in Quitting Church?

JD: The people I wrote about in Quitting Church aren’t necessarily the kind attending Osteen’s church. It’s the older Christians. It’s the ones who have been around for more than ten years and are experiencing a spiritual brain drain. These people are the ones heading for the exits. These are the strongest Christians in a given church, the ones who are going out the door. Ironically, a lot of pastors are not asking questions. They’re not saying, “Why are you leaving?” A lot of people who leave church tell me that no one comes after them. No one ever calls them after they’ve left the church.

JW: There is an emerging young Christian audience. They are very service and community oriented. They’re more Christ-like than the older Christians in the big churches. But they feel alienated. They don’t like the materialism they see in the mega-churches. They want community, and they want spirituality. Is there any hope for them anywhere? Is the home church movement really sufficient for them?

JD: The home church movement is more of a West Coast phenomenon. There is a whole different kind of spirituality. People there are so much more individualistic. 

JW: More and more people are telling me they’re turned off by politics in the church. Mixing religion and politics bothers some people. Do you think that is healthy?

JD: I kind of agree with you on the whole religion and politics thing. But I don’t mind them talking about issues.  

JW: Should the church be involved in politics? Talking about issues, such as abortion, is one thing. But talking about supporting a candidate is another thing. Why not keep the church out of that? There is no spirituality or community in politics. Politics is divisive. Politics is inherently corrupt, isn’t it?

JD: Not inherently. I think it is a God-given calling to go into politics. It’s a good thing to go into politics. But do we want it on Sunday mornings? Personally, I don’t. But when I interviewed people, it was not a top reason for them leaving the church. People felt like they were just not being fed spiritually.

JW: What should these pastors be doing differently? What are some pointers for them?

JD: First of all, if your boat is sinking, you have to plug the leak. Find out why people are leaving. See if you can stop them from leaving. Ask them, listen to their complaints. If more than four or five people say the same thing, you have a problem. I would attack that first. Second, one thing people can’t get anywhere else is worship. How fulfilling is the worship in your church? I find again that everyone is down to maybe three hymns. I come from the charismatic era and the Jesus movement where we spent 45 minutes singing and having prophecies. It built you up. It was a good thing. These days, you can’t get anything like that in church. Look at what you’re giving people that they can’t get anywhere else. They can get politics somewhere else. They can get current issues somewhere else. Also look at some of the groups that are turned off. Some of the individual groups I was particularly interested in were singles, which is a huge group that no one cares about. I also think that working women, married and single, aren’t ministered to much. Everyone is talking about how men are turned off in church. There are some good ministries to men. I would say look at some of the specialty groups and see what you aren’t doing for some of them. It seems like the people who get all the ministry are the people with kids. Children’s ministries are always a big deal. The first thing churches do is make sure they have a children’s ministry. I’m not saying anything against it, but that is not everything a church is. 

JW: How do you get the young people to come to church?

JD: Young people are the ones who get more ministry than anyone else. Thus, I don’t have as much pity for them as I have for the people over age 35 that no one seems to care about.

JW: You believe that some of these churches are ignoring an important market.

JD: Yes. We baby boomers we are not dead yet. We have another 30 or 40 years to go. Don’t forget us. As far as how to get young people to church, I find that youths love radicalism. They love being challenged. Don’t underestimate these people. Throw challenges at them. A lot of them feel like Christianity is shoved down their throat. Getting them overseas in missions is good. Make sure they’re converted. I find that a lot of the young folks are not converted, although many of them grew up in the church. Add to that the fact that they are assaulted with all kinds of ideas in the schools. Because of this, it’s important to have leaders in the church who can sit down and talk with them about all the cultural and moral topics they’re confronted with.
JW: In your book Quitting Church, the prognosis is not good. If it continues the way it is, as you have diagnosed the problem, what is the future of the church? 

JD: I am hoping there will be some sort of outside-of-church movement revival, but I haven’t seen it yet. I am hoping and praying there is something that will almost be like a reformation. George Barna thinks there will be, but I don’t see any sign of it. I just think less and less people will be in the nation’s churches. But change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.