OPINION

Opinion: I'm a Christian. Churches are shedding members, and there are some good hypotheses for why.

Our actions speak so much louder than our words, and we Christians should pause and reflect about our actions.

Rodney B. Dieser
Guest columnist

In March of 2019, the General Social Survey released data collected in 2018 on American political and religious life. This survey has been asking the same questions on religion since its creation in 1972 and is an excellent source to track changes in religious life for over 45 years. For Christians, across all differing denominations, this 2019 survey recorded that, for the first time, the religiously unaffiliated were the same size as both Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants, the two largest religious groups in the United States.

Why are Americans leaving Christian institutions? 

It is not that Americans have stopped believing in God. Rather, it is that Americans are dissatisfied with religious institutions. In 1988, 1.8% of respondents to the General Social Survey claimed that God didn’t exist, and another 3.8% reported that God might exist but there’s no way to find out. In 2018, 4.7% of people reported that there was no God, and 6.5% reported there was no way to know for sure. While nearly 1 in 4 Americans no longer affiliates with religion, just 1 in 10 Americans does not believe God exists. 

A possible answer lies in the writings of Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, captured in his excellent 2021 book “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.” 

Burge identifies, drawing from the General Social Survey, that the group of people who are most likely to be religiously unaffiliated are not married and do not have children. He calls them “the Nones,” and Burge has taken time to listen to their stories. In fact, his mantra is, “Whatever their motives, we should be seeking out people willing to tell their stories, inviting them to tell us, and listening — really listening — to them.”

He suggests many explanations, but I would like to focus on two. I have heard them often as a life-long practicing Christian, as a person who has been involved in faith-based leadership, as a licensed mental health counselor who has listened to many Christian clients, and as a professor who has been involved in faith-based nonprofit development for over 20 years. 

Intrusion of politics and hypocrisy

The first is how politics has entered more frequently and intensely into mainstream Christian organizations and how in today's America there is a belief that to be devoutly religious you need to also be a devout Republican. In 1978, half of all white weekly churchgoers identified as Democrats, while today, just one quarter do. This shift to the right among the devoutly religious has ignited a backlash whereby people left church when their political beliefs were challenged.

Without naming any church affiliations, I know of churches, and admire them, that work hard at being politically neutral, outlining that you can be a Christian in good standing whether you vote Republican or Democratic. They teach Christian doctrine and then let people govern their own actions. This would help Nones and all people not feel politically pressured at church and can use church to learn of Christ and engage in applied Christianity to serve others. 

The second is the hypocrisy of churches, and individual members, who ask members to be responsible to Christ but then are not responsible toward others (Luke 6:31: Do to others as you would have them do to you). All people make honest human error, and I know I have as a church leader, professor, therapist and practicing Christian. This is not hypocrisy. Rather, hypocrisy enters when larger questions are asked and then members are belittled by religious leaders. Hypocrisy enters related to how religious institutions respond to larger social issues and when religious institutions intentionally hide serious errors, such as sexual abuse, rather than own a mistake and then try to remedy it.

The stories Burge tells of hypocrisy are identical to what I have heard over the past 20 years. He outlines: “Many people have been abused at the hands of people who claim to act in the name of Jesus Christ. For decades, parents have told their LGBTQ children that they are no longer allowed in their house. Some have been made to feel unwelcome when they’ve asked too many questions about why God acted so terribly in the Old Testament or how an all-powerful force could allow children to die of cancer.

"Others have been raised in such a controlling environment that rebellion has become their motivating force in adulthood. Many have been forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and church is a luxury these people feel they can’t afford. Some felt ostracized for marrying someone of a different faith or getting pregnant out of wedlock. These stories, and many more, are completely legitimate reasons to walk away from any institution — regardless of whether it embodies the truth or not.”

Many Christian leaders, according to Burge’s research, do not recognize that to belittle church members, in their honest struggles, is to fail to understand that not everyone comes to faith the same way. We need to really listen to other people, and to take the time to listen.

Supporters of Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church of Central City, La., pray outside the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Monday, June 7, 2021. Spell, who flouted coronavirus restrictions last year, prepared Monday to ask the court to revive his lawsuit challenging the restrictions. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Why do many Christians resist face masks?

Regarding how institutions and individual Christians respond to larger social issues, here is a case in point regarding hypocrisy that I have heard from others and am miffed about myself: Why are so many Christians against wearing face masks during COVID-19, and more recently with the rise of the delta variant? This is a paramount issue for a work colleague of mine who has left Christianity over perceived hypocrisy and recently asked me why so many Christians are against wearing masks. I did not have a good explanation. 

Wearing the right type of masks, such as N95 masks, to cover the nose and mouth can slow down the spread of COVID-19 and this action is being recommended again by many county public health departments in Iowa as spread is rising with the delta variant and not enough people being vaccinated. Wearing a mask is pro-life, is directed toward thinking and serving another person, and is aimed at protecting some of the most vulnerable, including people with medical conditions. Such an action, of wearing a mask, is suggested only while spread is high and is a simple personal adjustment (I worked all last year with a mask on; it is uncomfortable but doable). 

Yet so many Christians have turned away from caring for others based on objective science and turned such social actions into a political event, pitting themselves against a perception of government overreach. Thinking and caring for others, especially the most vulnerable, is one of the core aspects of Christ, and wearing a mask, unless there is a medical or psychological reason, is a small adjustment that we can make to serve others and protect them. These are the hypocrisies that cause people to walk away from faith-based institutions and seem to be the gist of Matthew 15:8: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me."

Our actions speak so much louder than our words and my humble hope in writing this is to cause my fellow Christians to pause and reflect about their actions at this juncture of social life as more and more Americans walk away from religious institutions. 

Rodney Dieser

Rodney B. Dieser, Ph.D., LMHC is the author of six textbooks and over 100 articles on the topics of leisure and mental health. His writings have appeared in USA TODAY, Chicago Tribune, Lancet Psychiatry, and Mayo Clinic Proceedings. He is a professor of recreation, tourism and nonprofit leadership and professional counseling at the University of Northern Iowa and works 10 hours a week as a Licensed Mental Health Counseling for a community agency in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The views expressed here are solely his own. Contact: Rodney.Dieser@uni.edu.