What kept me away: Factors in church membership

This is the second in a series of posts examining my own experiences of leaving church and later returning to Christian faith and practice as a sort of case study, to see what can be learned about why people leave churches and why they come back. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but some of it is triggered by recent comments about church growth. The previous post is about why I left church, and the whole series is tagged “evangelism: good and bad practice“.

The ten years in which I was not Christian and did not attend church was a long and difficult period. During that decade I started a degree, quit in order to move to a new country, had a variety of jobs and lived in several different areas of London, started a degree again, was injured and had to take a year out, and had an intense, mostly long-distance relationship that was often stressful and eventually came to an end. And that’s just scratching the surface! I was also searching for a religious path that would be right for me, having rejected Christianity, and I started that search with orthodox Judaism.

The purpose of this post is not to document all aspects of that search. Rather, I wish to draw attention to events, patterns and tendencies that reinforced my avoidance of church and Christianity.

Manipulative behaviour
Several attempts were made, by different people in different contexts, to try to get me to return to church. There were people I didn’t really know very well socially who would invite me along to church events, especially Christian versions of Jewish holidays. There were people who told me that I couldn’t have social contact with people I liked from my church-going days, now that I had left. There were people who, when I was feeling low, told me that the only solution to my problems was to “come back to Jesus”. None of it worked, and all of it made me feel worse. Being manipulated, successfully or not, doesn’t make me feel lo ed or valued for who I am before God: it makes me feel that the manipulator sees me as an object useful to achieving their own ends.

Badges, bumper stickers, posters with Bible verses on them, street preaching, door-to-door visiting, tracts, fish jewellery, crucifixes… anything that was, or could be interpreted as, an attempt to assert that I should subscribe to Christian belief was intensely annoying. Not all of this sort of advertising has that aim — some people might wear a crucifix to remind themselves of their beliefs as much as to draw the attention of another to them, for example — but the fact that some of it very obviously did prompted me to put all of it in that category.

Christianity as default assumption
In Canada, as in the UK, there was often an assumption made that if I am theist I must be Christian. There were also lazy assumptions about Christianity having some sort of monopoly on “good” values like honesty or kindness. Assumptions that mainstream Christian “Sunday morning and maybe a few minutes before bed” practice is the right way to “do” religion were also unhelpful when I was keeping kosher, dressing to fairly strict standards of modesty, and keeping Shabbat.

Appropriation or misrepresentation of Christianity
Often appearing with assumptions about Christianity, there would be appeals to do the right thing (such as give to charity) cloaked as being the “Christian” thing to do. The ubiquitous commercialisation of Christmas (and, to an extent, Easter) so that non-participation is difficult was tiresome. The way special interest groups sometimes use Christianity as an excuse to exclude women and minorities was distressing. And something I saw (and see) more in England than in Canada is a tendency among racists, particularly Islamophobic ones, to appeal to “Christian culture” as something that we must protect so that it can protect “us” from (brown) Muslims “taking over”. I wish that last example were defunct, but it reared its ugly head again at a party the other week.

Unsurprisingly, most of these things still bother me, some deeply. It is fair to say that I am a practising Christian and a member of the Church of England despite, not because of, these attempts at evangelism or recruitment.

Clearly some of the techniques I have described work well for some people, and clearly the intention behind many of them is good. But the best intentions will pay attention to methodology and also to results.

I think we need to give serious consideration to the possibility that for everyone drawn in by social efforts, advertising, or more insidious popularity games, there may be others who, like me, are put off. We need to acknowledge not only that “church as the default option” is ineffective, but that the emotional manipulation, bossiness, arrogance and sheer odious offensiveness of some supposedly evangelism-related behaviour by Christians is enough to actively keep people away. We can’t control what every Christian does, but we should at least be aware of the potential pitfalls of some common attempts at evangelism.

Another area for discussion might be the “stickability” of various styles of recruitment. This will be difficult to evaluate if others who leave are as disillusioned and cautious as I was. The last thing I was going to do was talk to church people about why I’d left church.

This post, and the previous one in this series, might seem very negative. I don’t think all evangelism is, or has to be, like the experiences I have listed here, and my aim is to identify good and bad practice rather than just to whinge. We can do better, and sometimes we do: the topic for my next post in this series is why I came back.