Irresponsibly Unresponsive

boy_reading_bibleWhat responsibility does the individual have for her or his own spiritual growth and development?  At least 70% of people leaving The United Methodist Church give “spiritual needs not met” as one of the reasons for their departure.  (Based on 429 “exit” interviews, 2002-2003)  But what do they mean when they say this?  And what does such a statement imply about ones relationship to a church?

First, let it be said that a person’s spiritual needs should be met (or at least supplemented) by their community of faith.  This is one of the reason’s why the community of faith exists in the first place.  However, spiritual growth and formation is a mutual, interactive process involving an individual in a community with mentors and guides and God and the Holy Spirit.  Everyone has a part to play in the process.  There is no room for passivity or inaction.  Yet, many Christians don’t see it this way.

When I probed to find out what people mean when they say their spiritual needs aren’t being met, the following explanations emerged:

  1. They don’t like the worship services
  2. They don’t like the preacher
  3. They took issue with something the preacher or other leader said
  4. They didn’t like the Sunday school/education offerings (if they participate at all)
  5. There is nothing offered for their specific life situation (i.e., young families, young adults, youth, service opportunities, etc.)
  6. They feel the church isn’t serious enough about something (e.g., prayer, outreach, social issues, Bible study, etc.)
  7. They feel the church preferences one (or a few) group(s) or individual(s) over others (them)
  8. They got bored
  9. They feel that no one in the church is actually concerned about their spiritual growth
  10. They feel unsupported in their own attempts to learn, grow, and develop

What is most striking to me about this list concerns “sphere of influence.”  Sphere of influence is defined as those things within our power to change or address.  When a person takes responsibility for what they can influence, there is health.  When a person abdicates responsibility or attempts to exert inappropriate influence, there is little or no health.  The most common abdication is to walk away when we don’t like something.  We imply we have to influence and therefore no responsibility when we cut our losses and run.  The second most common abdication is blaming.  In both cases, the individual is absolved of any responsibility.  The most common inappropriate influence is forcing personal preferences and tastes on others.  The second is inflexibility — demanding ones own way.  A healthy sphere of influence is best embodied in the St. Francis “serenity prayer:”

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

The most frequent reasons people give for leaving the church are related to personal preferences.  They don’t like a particular style or experience, so they walk away.  These folks enter as consumers and clients.  They expect to have needs met, preferences pleased, and wishes served.  They enter the church as empty vessels looking for a weekly fill-up.  Where they are given what they like, they stay.  Where what they receive is less than satisfying, they bolt.

There are divisions over politics, social issues, justice concerns, focus and cultural conventions.  Many people report that they left the church over just one point of contention or disagreement.  A common statement was something like, “I simply can’t stay in a place where they believe x!”

Very few people reported coming to church with specific expectations.  Virtually no one having left the church in this study had any personal goals or developmental objectives in mind.  Their faith was a vague, somewhat generic “relationship to God.”

The majority of people attend church hoping to receive something, but very few express any responsibility to bring anything to worship.  (In fact, the question was confusing to many people.  We asked two questions: “How do you prepare yourself for worship?” and “What are your regular practices to grow spiritually?”  In both cases, “what do you mean?” and “Nothing/None” are the top answers.)

A handful of people articulated specific needs and goals, and were very clear about ways they were not being helped to grow.  Their decision to leave was not a decision based on anger or disappointment, but a decision to find something better suited to their developmental needs.

One interesting reaction from 4-out-of-every-5 people who left the church was a sense of indignation, and often outrage, that “the church” would expect anything from them.  Various people expressed resentment that they were instructed to pray, read the Bible, regularly attend church, give money, give time, or support congregational projects.  The overwhelming opinion is that all these things should be up to the individual.  A number of people said outright that they didn’t “need” to pray or study the Bible in order to grow spiritually.  Going to church for worship was the defining practice for most of these people, and when the worship experience didn’t “measure up,” they decided to leave.

In 100% of the cases, the personal responsibility an individual has for his or her own spiritual development was never discussed with them by church leaders.  No one ever spoke to these people about their personal faith journey, their relationship to God, and ways they hoped to develop or grow.  Generalities and assumptions undergirded the relationships between individuals and their respective congregations.  This is a correlation, not a proven causal relationship — draw your own conclusions.

As a footnote, twenty-two of the people who left The United Methodist Church were able to articulate clearly a sense of personal responsibility for their own spiritual development.  All twenty-two of these people eventually found a church home — four of them in UM congregations.  The commitment to grow and the acceptance of personal responsibility seem to be related to a person’s active participation in church.  The less responsibility a person takes for their own faith development, the less engaged they will be in the life of a congregation.

In any healthy relationship, there is responsibility on both sides.  One person cannot make a healthy relationship — both sides have to invest.  The same is true with the church.  Perhaps we need to do a better job “negotiating” our responsibility on both sides of the relationship — what it means to be the church.

10 replies

  1. One of the things I’ve noticed as a new pastor is that most churches don’t help new believers(and even old believers) figure out what the next step is in their spiritual growth. There seems to be nothing that explains how what we do as a church affects us as a disciple. In other words if the church is a disciple making organization then how does worship, Sunday School, fellowship times, small groups and service fit in the disciple making process? Finally, however we do decide what that process is and how all theses different parts fit into that process we always have to remember that the process is not prescriptive it is descriptive. We can’t force people to follow a set of steps and expect disciples when we’re done.All we can do is to tell our collective story of how we ended up where we are at,how all those different experiences in our church life affected us as growing disciples and to give them some sense of coherence and always and forever hold up Christ as the one and only thing we want to be like.

  2. 70% leave because they are not getting their spiritual needs me. I wonder if Bonhoffer was getting his needs met in prison. Was the Christ getting his needs met as he surveyed the cross in his pain? Are any of us really in the game to get our needs met? If so, it seems we are bound for disappointment.

    I am in the game to do service for others. I am in the game to do the work that needs to be done. When I have spiritual needs there is only one place to go……. on my knees to the alter.

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