Why? What happens that makes one want to leave & not return?
People leave churches for a variety of reasons, some legitimate & many more not. They don't like the pastor, but they may not go anywhere else. Some get hurt their feelings, though it happens at work everyday. Some did this or that or whatever. Minor things like that are =excuses= & excuses don't cut it.
No, Irvins is talking about those reasons that deely wound & divide people, making them leery or so damaged that attending any organized church is painful. We all know of those churches that seek to control every facet of its members' lives. We all know there are sexual predators that use religion as a means to gain trust & harm people. We all know those churches who use the Bully Pulpit to be a de facto Political Action Committee, telling the congregants what side of the political isle God is on today. And, sadly, many people have mental health issues & get their jollies out of using "truth" & the "Scripture" to brow-beat & abuse. Many churches use shame, guilt or scare tactics to keep people in line. Others are not so subtle & will use public humiliation. Those cuts on people's soul last a lot longer than a few stitches from a bar fight . . . is it any wonder the church is viewed by these people as a place of pain instead of where the Prince of Peace is shown?
I'll admit it right now; the meanest people I've ever met in my life are Christians. And those people will manipulate everything & everyone to get some power in the church because it gives them an avenue of legitimacy to just run over people. Stories are legion of deacons who are almost the Anti-Christ in charcter & action. I remember one WMU lady in particular . . . never mind.
All of those things wound people. It is real. It hurts. And it is killing churches because they are losing numbers every day.
The answer is that the churches need to seriously evaluate themselves. It means taking a long, hard look at what it is, why it is, how it got there, & where it wants to go. It means detoxifying itself --- a very painful process. It means talking to the community, former members, people who dislike the church & even people who simply "heard rumors" & then face up to its image & history. For many churches, it will mean public apologies & private weeping over past sins.
Ivins is onto a topic that is only now being discussed as a serious field of study among missional bodies. In the past, this area was only used as a pretext for evangelism or church growth. But with 75% of churches more than 25 years old either declining or plateued, this requires some serious discussion.
Here's a quote from Ivins:
The Bible is not unfamiliar with religious wounding, as in the passion narratives. Somebody joked once that God said to Job when he asked God “Why?” “I don’t know Job…there’s just something about you that ticks me off!” But being wounded in the name of God is no laughing matter.
Sadly, the life-giving words of scripture are viewed by many as toxic, not salvific―a negative collection of judgments and damnation. So the Bible has to be un-learned and re-learned from the damage caused by zealots claiming biblical inerrancy who simply have not read it. Or else they would admit that even the Bible argues with itself. If you take Jesus literally in the Fourth Gospel, you’ll miss his meaning most of the time.
The first time he preached in Nazareth, he talked about part of his agenda as “liberating the captives” (Luke 4:18). Properly so. Battered women who’ve heard their pain justified with “wives, submit to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22) could stand some biblical de-con, in the form of a healthy understanding of gender and spirituality and equal submission. Or how about some good ol’ grace for the gays, to balance the Levitical “abomination” code? After all, if we’re living, we’re living in sin.
Restoring a damaged faith is one of the most difficult journeys a person can make. We better have something for such who frequent the fellowship. If any get enough courage to give the church a second chance, they’ll need to encounter a solid theology of thoughtful answers, radical acceptance, honesty, and authentic community. None of this can happen without unconditional welcome. Anything less will be quickly exposed as a sham by the wounded.
Realistically, many of the de-churched will never darken the doors again. The damage is too deep. Hopefully, our churches can start planting seeds on the journey