04/10/2014 05:53 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

The Widespread Departure From the Church: I've Had It Backwards!

I've had it backwards all along. You'll see. Just stay with me.

I have written extensively on the subject of the widespread departure of those whom reporters describe, in an effort to be politically correct, as the "religiously unaffiliated." Of course, everyone knows that what is really meant is "those people who have chosen to leave the Christian church." And the number of those who have left or are leaving is staggering.

The "religiously unaffiliated," or what retired Anglican Bishop John S. Spong describes as "the church's Alumni Association," is now the fastest-growing religious group in America. That's according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which issued a report on the matter in 2008, and another in 2012. They're huge, and the number is growing even as I write. I quote from the 2008 report:

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion -- or no religion at all.

Over the years I have sought to understand this departure by studying it very carefully. At times, when I have been disappointed with the church, even disillusioned, my frustration has found expression in and through my many posts. While I'm not apologizing for this, I am admitting that when I have minced no words in my indictments and my charges, I have sometimes offended people, particularly those who feel that I am attacking their church. As an understandable consequence, they have felt it their spiritual duty to strike back in its defense. If you could only see some of the emails I've gotten from offended Christians, you would likely be amazed. They sometimes become so harsh in their comments that they morph into the quintessential opposite of compassion. It has amazed me. But I am no longer surprised.

A few of these Christian leaders, once my friends (at least I thought they were), have chosen to distance themselves from me, mistakenly concluding that I've fallen away from the faith. Furthermore, they mistakenly think I've become too intolerably liberal in my views, or they believe I am no longer an "orthodox" Christian. I smile whenever I am described as "no longer orthodox." The fact is that there are no two Christian peas occupying the same pod who would ever have anything less than three opinions as to what "orthodox" means -- or ever agree on its constitution.

Those who really know me know that although I am sympathetic to the plethora of reasons that people choose to leave the church, I myself have chosen to stay, even if the "orthodox" feel that I should just leave the church and stop calling myself a Christian, as some of them have suggested.

"Really?" I want to say to them. "Must you stoop to that level to make your point?"

On the other side of this, there are those who suggest that my staying is not only unrealistic but hopeless. These people feel that the church will never change, and that my weak attempts to change it are tantamount to the Titanic making a successful 180-degree turn inside the Panama Canal.

For these people, the church is on a collision course with death itself. And at times, when I am honest with myself, I feel that the church appears to be engaged in a kind of slow suicide.

Recently, however, I have come to what I regard as a more accurate way of understanding the widespread departures from the church, this ever-expanding exodus by those freeing themselves of the church's bondage to seek a new spiritual promised land. In other words, I have been reporting on this departure backwards.

What do I mean? The real story is not that the world has left the church. It is the church that has left the world.

The central message of Christianity has been, in the words of Harvard's Harvey Cox, that "God came into this world." Now, however, it is clear the church has left the world. Its mission has never been to convert the world but to transform it. Look at almost any church, however, and what you will quickly discover is an institution infinitely more interested in the conversion of the world than in the transformation of it.

Here are just a few examples of how the church would convert the world, but there are many others that any church historian could tell you about. These are but a few of the more recent demonstrations of the church's pandemic departure -- its preoccupation with converting, not transforming, the world.

  1. Much of the church, in all its communal expressions, is still repressive to women. The fact that the Catholic hierarchy seeks to perpetuate the myth that Jesus' only disciples were men and that, therefore, no woman can or should be ordained to the clergy is no longer a joke for late-night television. It is appalling. It is abhorrent. It is unthinkable. And it is a disgrace.
  2. The church is infinitely more interested in converting the world to its divisive belief system, its deadening doctrines, and its destructive and discriminatory treatment of the LGBT community. While the church should be transforming the broader culture, the fact that the church requires the outside culture to give it the momentum to change its discriminatory policies toward any person, whether toward slaves in the 19th century or toward gays in the 21st, is not only shocking but inconceivable, an absolute abdication of its purpose and calling.
  3. The church, in so many of its communal expressions, is now denying those who desire to live in loving same-sex marital relationships their human right to do so. When will the madness within the church ever end?

Do you not see that I have been reporting on this widespread departure backwards? It is not the world that is leaving the church; the church has walked out on the world.