A friend raised the question today of why so many people are leaving the church. Setting aside the matter of whether or not more are leaving today than in the past (perhaps some studies have indicated that this is true; I have not read them), I am offering my theory as to why people give up on church. I first suggested this idea in my book Above All, Love: Reflections on the Greatest Commandment.
But first a story. Not long after the book came out I was having a discussion with a pastor friend and I summarized my idea. “That’s really good,” he said. “Did you think of that yourself.” I was so startled by his question that I wasn’t immediately insulted. But later I wondered, Was it because I was female? Was it because I have no formal theological training? Whatever the reason for his incredulity, the answer to his question is “Yes, I thought of it myself.” I’m not saying that I’m the first or only person who has had this thought, but I did not get it from anyone else.
While working on the book I focused on the four aspects of being that Jesus mentioned when he answered the question about the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). He must have had a reason for not saying, simply, “Love the Lord your God.” I came to realize that we all have a favorite way of “loving” God—a way that fits our personality and that usually involves one of the four aspects of our being. I then began to wonder if our failure to love God completely in all four areas could explain why the picture we present to the world of the God we worship is so unattractive.
Here is an excerpt. Perhaps I’ll add more detail one of these days.
MANY OF US HAVE friends or family members who once claimed to be Christians but later abandoned the faith. When we consider the factors involved in their decision, we realize that in many cases the “god” they walked away from was not the one, true God, but a partial god, and a god who is not whole is easy to dismiss.
Those raised in austere, legalistic environments easily walk away from a god who is always angry and demanding. Those who were taught that god is more of an intellectual idea than a living, loving being find other “ideas” more intriguing and satisfying. Those who have a “best buddy” god, leave him when human buddies provide companionship more to their liking, perhaps by endorsing their sin or weaknesses. Those whose god is only a reflection of themselves are fascinated for a time, but only a narcissist can have a long-lasting relationship with his or her own image.
Whenever select aspects of the one, true God are emphasized and others excluded, we end up with an incomplete god who is not worthy of worship.
As beings who are created in His image, we need to beware of the temptation to worship an image of God that most closely resembles ourselves. Emotional people can be tempted to worship an emotional god. Intellectual people can be tempted to worship an intellectual god. Socially minded people can be tempted to worship a “do-good” god. God is all of those things and more, but He is not any one of them alone.
Today I would add, among other things, that we also need to resist the temptation to expect everyone else to participate in our idolatry by demanding that they too worship the god who resembles ourselves.