Why stay in church?

The percentage of people who claim to have no religion has grown from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2009, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Yet surveys also show that the majority of Americans do believe in either God, or a "universal spirit", or a "higher power."

From these findings, it seems like religion has taken a serious hit. My question is this: Do people still believe in God yet do not believe it is necessary to attend church?

According to the survey, about 12 percent of Americans believe in a higher power but not a personal God. About 1.2 percent, since 1990, have become part of non-mainstream religious movements such as Wicca, Scientology and Santeria.

The Washington Post published an article in June, 2008 citing a poll that said 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a "universal spirit."

Compared to the survey, it seems that even God has taken at least a seven percent hit since I do not know how many of the 92 percent from the Post article believe in God or in a "universal spirit."

Since I am a religion writer, trends in religion are interesting to me. I write about them because I hope that they will help area churches gain some perspective for their ministries. From my position, it is easy to analyze the numbers and try to guess why they are increasing or decreasing, but I can only speak about my own experience in the church.

When I was growing up, I had friends who did not attend church regularly even though they believed in God. I, on the other hand, was taught that if someone believed in God they went to church. I did not understand at the time that my friend's family was experiencing angst over what went on inside the church--gossip, hypocrisy, and other sinful behaviors. When this family's feelings subsided, they returned to church. They left again when they saw that nothing had changed. I would not understand this until years later when I started experiencing the same things.

Fast forward many years later and you will find a woman struggling to find a reason to stay in church. Oh, I believed in God. I loved God and still do, but I was struggling with feelings of betrayal, anger and loneliness. I think that the only reason I stayed in the church was because I knew that my children needed it. They were not experiencing the same things and had no idea that I was having these feelings.

So then we must ask why I felt that my children needed it. Can't we still believe in God without going to church? Yes, but it goes deeper than that.

Over the last two years, I have been studying spiritual formation and a huge part of proper formation has to do with the importance of community. We need each other. Like Proverbs says, "Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other," (27: 17, CEV). In other words, we are supposed to be friends to one another in the body of Christ. We are supposed to think with each other and figure out what the Scripture means together. We are supposed keep each other on the straight and narrow. We are supposed to care for each other and work through, or around, our ideological differences.

Is that happening in the church for everyone? I fear that it is not. Why else would people leave? Once someone has experienced true love in the body of Christ they will find no equal--they will not want to leave.

Look at it this way. If I, one who has been in church since the age of two and who knows the language of believers, can experience alienation, what are others feeling who have not been in the church and do not know the language of believers? Why stay when you do not feel accepted?

My theory on this is that no one can change the church from the outside. It's like two siblings picking on each other. This is tolerable for both of them, but if someone from the outside picks on one of the siblings, watch out.

Only brothers and sisters in Christ can truly point out what's wrong in the church and we need each other to make the church what it should be, what Christ meant it to be. If some through gossip or other sinful behavior defy the church's efforts to be unified, then they should be prayed for, confronted in the spirit of love and sometimes asked to leave. This business of not wanting to confront those who are not Christlike hurts the Church deeply.

Often this unwillingness is linked to finances; the church's largest donors can sometimes be the worst offenders. Sometimes these "spiritual wolves" may not have financial power, but they are politically or socially powerful because they have mastered the art of manipulation as a result of their own brokenness. These types are very destructive to not only the church as an organization but also to the church in a larger sense, as the Body of Christ; the Church Universal. Could allowing these behaviors to continue in the church be the reason the unchurched are increasing in number? After prayerful consideration, if the Spirit leads, I believe that it would be better to let these people leave rather than let these spiritual wolves feed upon the sheep of the church.