Never to Return

Never to Return

“What happens when people stop going to church?” This was a question asked by Daniel Williams in a recent article in The Atlantic. What he found was, broadly speaking, they become more polarized and politicized. They don’t tend to become atheists or agnostics. They tend to hang on to at least some version of Christian belief, but often a politically distorted version. And, absent the church, a largely self-referential one that reinforces their own views.

This will likely not surprise anyone who has observed the trends over the last few decades. We’ve all seen Jesus get kicked around like a political football, being (mis)used to add spiritual legitimacy to the political projects of the right and the left. We don’t have to look far to see how self-righteously moralizing our discourse gets when politics becomes people’s religion. We can see what is lost when people in large numbers evacuate one of the few remaining places where they are drawn out of the echo chambers of the internet and forced into contact with difference.

But my attention was drawn to the very first line of the article:
Millions of Americans are leaving church, never to return…
That seems a rather bold claim. How does the author know this? Yes, the news seems bleak for the church. No, things have not been trending in a hopeful direction for some time (at least in the West. It’s always worth reminding ourselves that we are not the whole world, and that Christianity is quite strong in other places). But never to return?

I have been a pastor for a decade and a half now, and I have seen people return. Sometimes it’s young parents who return after a long absence because they have a vague sense that their kids need something. Sometimes it’s middle-aged people in an existential crisis of meaning and purpose. Sometimes it is older people licking their wounds after going through terrible things with their kids or grandkids. It could be someone in the middle of a predicament of some kind—divorce, death, health, career change, etc. Sometimes it’s just someone who is desperately lonely. Almost always it’s someone who’s been hurt or who has hurt someone, who realizes that there is something missing in their life and that this something has something to do with God.

Politics is a poor substitute for religion. Fundamentally, people need meaning in their lives. They need to know that they are part of a story that matters and that is going somewhere. They need to have some way to make moral sense of their experiences and a place to park their hope. They need to believe that there is help from the outside and that they can be forgiven.

At some point in our lives, I think we all come to the realization that despite what the wellness marketers are desperate to tell and sell us, we are not “enough.” Our politics devolve into self-congratulation, our tribes reveal themselves to be less than pure. The project of actualizing the kingdom of God reveals itself to be somehow beyond our capacity. And when we come to the end of ourselves… Well, the church is (still) here. We’re part of a long line of returners, after all. We’re all prodigals making our way home.