The topic of church leaving has already for some considerable time weighed heavily on my heart and mind. And thus, when I see a book that addresses this issue I am instantly interested. When during a recent visit to Blackwell in Oxford I saw a book entitled Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II(by Stephen Bullivant, published by Oxford University Press, 2019), I was interested enough to give it a thorough look-through and to buy it. The book analyses the exodus from the Roman Catholic Church in a number of dioceses in the UK and in the United States and reaches some conclusions which can safely be applied to the two countries as a whole, and even in other areas of the world. It is true that the Catholic Church has suffered some severe setbacks because of the much-publicized sexual scandals, which made may people ashamed to be Catholics. But the exodus has a number of other causes and one major element is, as this book emphasizes, the loss of community. Lapsation is not mainly caused by doctrinal dissatisfaction or intellectual doubt, but by becoming gradually detached from the community where one found one’s spiritual home.
In the Adventist context Professor Richard Rice (School of Religion, Loma Linda University) has emphasized the radical change in the religious attitudes of the postmodern generations. In his book: Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church(2002) he explained how former generations put ‘believing’ before ‘belonging’, whereas today truly belonging to a community has priority. It is essential that people have a close tie with the church as a place where they feel at home–where they are accepted as who and what they are, with all their questions and doubts. Building and maintaining that sense of community is a two-way street. It must be treasured and nourished by the individual. But the community must also do what it can to make each church member feel truly safe and at home. It must consistently give each member the sense of being important and being valued. It must be aware of crises in the lives of individuals and ‘be there’ for them.
Last week my wife and I met with someone who told us the story of her relationship with her church community. It was not a Seventh-day Adventist faith community and I will refrain from identifying her denomination. She told us how she had grown up in her church, but as she went through life she had gradually stopped attending church and being actively involved with her church. But she was never visited and even when there was a death in the family there was hardly any real support. Because she no longer attended she was at some point contacted with the message that her membership was now being discontinued as she seemed not to be interested to be part of the church.
Through the years I have heard far too many stories of this kind. And whenever someone tells me such a story I feel ashamed. It hurts and to some extent I take it personally. Why is the church (and why is also my church?) not doing a better job in making people feel they are valued as part of the community.
I hope I have through some of the things that I write helped some people to actually stay with my church and even find a new way to (re-)connect with the church (and with their faith). A few weeks ago I was at Newbold College in the UK. When getting my meal in the cafeteria I was approached by a gentleman. He said: ‘I am so-and-so. You probably do not know me. But now that I happen to see you I want you to know that I read everything you write and that you have kept me in the Adventist Church.’ Something like this happens perhaps a few times each year. This morning someone became my ‘friend’ on Facebook for a similar reason. Such things give me a lot of satisfaction. But when I think of all the people I know, and have known, who have distanced themselves from the church, I wonder: Has the church done what it should and could have done to stay close to these people? And I realize: that question also impacts on me? Have I done what I could do to look out for these people, to make contact with them and assure them that the community is still there and, in spite of its many imperfections, it is still worthwhile to be part of it? It is a sobering thought.