Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Why They Left" Survey

Dr. Brad Harrub and others at Focus Press put together a survey last year to learn more about people who left the churches of Christ and why they chose to do so. They compiled the results and published a summary in the December 2013 issue of Think Magazine. By popular demand, they have made the December 2013 issue available for download for a mere $2.50. It was well worth it to me to purchase and read the results of that survey. I do recommend that you order water instead of a soft drink at your next restaurant meal and take the $2.50 savings and buy this issue.

The survey was quite broad. Focus Press claims that they had the largest sample size ever for a survey of former members of the Church of Christ. Admittedly, the survey ended up being better than I expected. I think the survey could have been better if they had gotten professionals to help them word their questions and then gotten professionals to help them interpret the results. Overall, though, the survey was admirably done and provides some interesting information.

I'm not a professional at writing survey questions and interpreting the results. I have written and interpreted several surveys and I have done so with the help of professionals in the past, so I'm not unfamiliar with the process. This survey really interested me, so I'll share some of my conclusions for what they're worth.

There were 25 questions that were reported in the December issue.  I won't go into all 25 questions, but there are a few that really stood out to me. The three questions that stood out to me the most were questions 17, 20, and 10.

Question number 17: How much Bible training did you get in your home?
Home Bible training of those who left the church of Christ
If the sample is representative of those who left, then over half (51%) of those who left got significant Bible teaching at home. So it's reasonable to conclude that over half of folks who are leaving are not ignorant of the Bible. Further confirming this conclusion is question number 20, which asks how often respondents attended Bible class at the Church of Christ. Nearly 60% (59.8%) always or frequently attended Bible class at the Church of Christ. The folks who are leaving generally are not untrained. Over half know what the Bible says and they know what the Church of Christ teaches.

Now, combine that with question number 10 which says: "Rank in order the things that turned you away from the Church of Christ." Based on the fact that over half who left the Church of Christ had significant Bible training, it should be noteworthy if doctrine is a leading factor in this response. Check it out below.
Higher number means more significant factor in leaving
Hypocrisy is not surprisingly the most significant factor averaging 7.4 out of a possible 10. People leaving other evangelical churches are also citing hypocrisy as a big reason for leaving. This is a problem in churches of every kind and was a problem in Jesus day as well. Hypocrisy is simply a human problem. Leaving church won't separate you from hypocrisy. I'm not saying that we should just accept hypocrisy. It is a problem and we need to acknowledge it and repent. I'm just saying that it is not a problem unique to the Church of Christ.

It caught my attention, however, that the ubiquitous problem of hypocrisy is practically even with the next two reasons, legalism and doctrine that was taught. There isn't a close fourth. Both legalism and doctrine averaged 7.3 out of a possible 10. Legalism is a form of doctrine and an attitude toward doctrine, so the next two are directly related to doctrine. Given that many who left know the Bible, should this not at least give reason to pause and perhaps reexamine the doctrine that is taught?

Most people who know and believe the Bible disagree with the doctrines of the Church of Christ.

There were a couple of more open ended questions that allowed the respondents to answer the question in their own words. Questions like "Why did you leave?" and "How would you describe the church of Christ?" Not surprisingly based on my observations up to this point, many of these responses talk about doctrine. In addition, I noticed that many of the responses not only mention doctrine, but also emphasize the attitude that the Church of Christ has toward doctrine. Here are a few sample responses from those who left. These are not my words. These come directly from the survey.
The legalism snuffed out every ounce of true joy I had in knowing Christ, until I got to the point where I couldn't remember what I loved about Him.
Arrogance of leaders who seemed to not read the entire Bible, yet were quite convinced that they had ultimate knowledge and authority when taking Scripture out of context for their own agenda.
Works oriented. Very poor understanding of grace. 
Self-centered. Harsh. Judgmental. Condemning.
A legalistic law loving church. 
Of all the Christian churches I've been involved in over the years, none preach more divisive hatred than Church of Christ franchises. 
Judgment and hypocrisy. Overall feel was very reminiscent of the Pharisees, very legalistic without the heart of Christ. “In spirit and truth" was quoted, but focus was entirely on truth (black & white rules, God is a well understood box) and lacking in spirit. I also listened to entire sermons on how other groups (Catholics, Baptists, etc) are doing things wrong and going to hell. What happened to worrying about the plank in our own eyes before trying to take out the speck in another's? I also was made to feel like a second class inferior citizen simply because I'm female...and I'm not even a feminist type! I was a 4th generation Church of Christ member, with a grandfather and a dad as an Elder and Deacon. 
Many more like that were published, and I would guess that there were many more that were not published.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once said, "It would be a gift if God let us see ourselves as others see us." The Church of Christ has now been given this gift. The question is, "What will they do with this gift?"

There are some churches who recognize that the Church of Christ has been guilty of harshness, legalism, and clinging to traditions of men and elevating those traditions to the status of what is written in the Bible. These churches are abandoning their judgmental and condemning ways. They're reexamining many long-held Church of Christ doctrines and changing their positions. I applaud these churches and hope they will continue this change in spite of opposition by other churches. They are using the gift for good.

Many others seem to be choosing instead to blame those who left. I've already heard and read things about those who left like, "They are ignorant of the Bible." (Though I think the survey results show that is not generally true.) I've heard, "They just want to do whatever they want and don't care what's right." I've heard, "So and so left because he's too educated or too smart to accept the truth." Some have said that those who left are just bitter people. Others have quibbled over the definition of legalism, suggesting that "legalism" doesn't really mean anything or suggesting that legalism is a good thing. (About legalism, I may not be able to precisely define it and set exact parameters for what is legalism and what is not, but as Justice Potter Stewart may say, "I know it when I see it.")

Another response to those who left that I've heard is perhaps the worst offense. It is insulting. It is an obvious shift in blame and an obvious trivialization of a person's very real experience. I believe that the people who give this response really do mean well, but the words are harmful. This worst offense is something like this, "Your experience is unfortunate, but it is unique and not all churches of Christ are like that." Or maybe it is said like this, "It's just that church. Westside (or Smith Road or Central or whatever church this person goes to) is not like that." Again, I think the broad sample and the consistency of the responses in the survey show that many churches ARE "like that" and that a negative experience is actually quite common. What this response fails to account for is that people are leaving for the same reasons from churches all over the United States. And more than likely, the church said to be not "like that" is indeed more "like that" than its members realize.

These and other responses of this sort are an attempt to shift blame and exonerate the Church of Christ. Some even take pride in the fact that they're running people off, citing passages about a "remnant" and a "narrow gate". It seems that people leaving and the shrinking numbers in the Church of Christ somehow in their mind validates the "trueness" of the doctrine.

Taking this blame shifting approach demonstrates a belief that the Church of Christ has no need to change what it's doing to run people off. This blame shifting will ensure that it keeps running people off. Are some who left ignorant? Are some who left trusting in man's wisdom over God's wisdom? Are some who left not really concerned with what the Bible says? Are some churches worse than others? Of course the answer to all of those questions is "yes". Some of the survey responses indicate all of these. However, the majority of responses that show that many are leaving because they believe the Church of Christ is guilty of having made-up rules and harsh enforcement of those rules. Among people leaving are preachers, deacons, Bible class teachers, and even some elders. Simply put, the Church of Christ is losing some of its best Bible students and some of its most spiritually minded people.

So what can be done to fix it?

It's obvious that doctrine is a factor for people leaving the Church of Christ. Based on my experience, based on my discussions with people who left or are considering leaving, and based on the responses in this survey, I believe there's another factor. It seems to me that people aren't leaving the Church of Christ primarily because of its doctrine. I think it's the combination of the doctrine and the attitude toward the doctrine. Put another way, people aren't leaving so much because they believe the Church of Christ is wrong. It's more that the Church of Christ is wrong but doesn't believe it's wrong.

My overall observation after reading the results of this survey and after reading some of the findings of Flavil Yeakley from his 2012 book Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left The Church of Christ, is this. The Church of Christ desperately needs to reevaluate its doctrine and its attitude toward its doctrine. Good Bible students and faithful servants of God are leaving because of the way they're treated over doctrinal disagreements. These questions should be asked, "If they're good Bible students and faithful servants, why are they reaching different conclusions? Is it right to be dogmatic about those differences?"

I'm not saying that doctrine should change just to keep people. That's not what I'm saying at all. Not even close. What I'm saying is this. When most of the people who are leaving are very good Bible students and they're citing doctrine and attitude towards doctrine as the reason for leaving, shouldn't that get someone's attention? Shouldn't that be a red flag that the doctrine and the attitude toward the doctrine are possibly wrong?

Is the Church of Christ truly open to the possibility that it is wrong on some things? My experience and the experience of many in this survey show that generally, the Church of Christ is not wiling to admit its own errors, especially doctrinal errors. If they don't admit their errors, how can they ever overcome them and grow to be more like Him?

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