Illustration Courtesy of Dan Dick
While cleaning out some files the other day, I came across a folder of interviews I did in 2004 with 22 lifelong United Methodists who, in their 60s, 70s and 80s, made the decision to leave the denomination and join another church. These people did not make the choice based on relocation, change of beloved pastor to a not-so-beloved pastor, or due to a personal conflict or event. The four primary reasons given for their decision were these:
no longer being fed spiritually
no longer being challenged to grow or improve
no experience of God’s presence or the power of the Holy Spirit
a growing sense of irrelevancy or meaninglessness in the purpose of the church
These men (5) and women (17) were not nominal members, but were part of the leadership core of their congregations — Trustees, UMW officers, members of Staff Parish Relations, Church Council, teachers, lay speakers, etc. They were not defending personal agendas — I interviewed many people who were, and I culled their feedback from the pool. The 22 interviews I compiled represent a signficant and serious of sample of deeply engaged United Methodists who made a painful, costly, yet intentional decision to exit the church they loved.
Rather than summarize the interviews, I present five verbatim quotes from six different people, explaining their reasons for leaving. It might be easy to dismiss their opinions, yet I think they are worthy of reflection as we consider what kind of church we might be in the future.
Robert W. – Age: 79
My wife and I joined this church in 1944, both of us teenagers in confirmation together. We were brought up in the church, it was our home. We went through a slew of pastors, some good, some not so good, one great. I truly believe we have only missed about a dozen Sundays our entire marriage. Between us, we have served in just about every capacity but pastor in this church. My wife was Lay Leader for seven years. We were really happy, but discovered it is only because ignorance is bliss. Over the past five years or so we discovered that Christianity is much, much bigger than we ever knew. I got involved in Habitat for Humanity and began working regularly on volunteer projects. I came back to the church all excited and wanted us to get involved in it, but was told we wouldn’t have enough support to make it work. At about the same time, my wife attended a Bible study at the Episcopal Church where they had a seminary professor lead them through a book by Shelby Spong. He taught them about the Bible is a really deep level. My wife came home a changed woman. She said, “I have been to church for over seventy years, and I’m just hearing this now, for the first time?” We went to a group together and we were asked to go around the room and answer the question, “What is your theology?” My wife and I were mortified. We had no idea how to answer the question. Our church never discusses theology. I had no idea how to explain how Methodists are different from anyone else. The dawning realization that we spent an entire lifetime in a church where all we ever got was a third-grade level education surprised us. We tried to talk to the pastor about it, but he wasn’t interested. We tried to talk to the Church Council, but the pastor found out and berated us in front of everyone for trying to undermine his authority. Remember the old song, “How you gonna’ keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” That was us. Once you find out there’s real food out there, you simply can’t settle for watery milk.