Plain Truth Magazine
August 1978
Volume: Vol XLIII, No.7
Issue: ISSN 0032-0420
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   If that's what religion is all about, it ain't for me."
   "I don't feel a person has to go to church to live a Christian life. I'm not against church. It's just that I don't feel I have to go to church to be a Christian."
   "No priest, no church is going to possess me."
   "I think the churches have gotten like a lot of parts of society. They have to worry so much about paying the rent that they have forgotten the good news.... I find some of the clergy are very wonderful people, but a lot of them have to seek out the almighty dollar so much... that [they] are robbing the people of the great heritage of the church.... The leaders are afraid of theology."
   "I feel religion is fine for some people, if you need it. Some people use it as a crutch."
   "I didn't see anything [in church] worth taking.... Now it's anything goes, just so you don't hurt anybody. It doesn't make any difference. God probably doesn't exist anyhow."
   The foregoing quotes are from the book Who Are the Unchurched? An Exploratory Study. The author, J. Russell Hale, is a clergyman and professor who traveled nationwide to do on-the-spot interviews with nonchurchgoers in six counties of the United States especially selected for their large proportion of "outsiders." In every location, interviewer Hale sought to identify not only the individual's reasons for not attending church, but any regional, social, economic and geographical characteristics that might predispose to higher rates of nonattendance. But most of all, as a clergyman himself, Hale sought to pinpoint and verify just how the churches themselves were failing in reaching and holding the people.

The Unchurched Are Legion

   Nonattendance at church does not of itself necessarily signify either unbelief or irreligion. Although over 90 percent of the American people reported to Gallup pollsters in 1976 that they believed in God and in heaven (and most of these believe Jesus was the Son of God, with a majority expecting He will someday return to earth), some 40 percent (near 80 million) are not on any church roll and even fewer regularly attend either church or synagogue.
   The situation in the United States seems in some respects to be almost the reverse of the case in parts of Europe. In Europe, for various reasons probably associated with history and the establishment (at least until lately) of churches as official arms of and partners in government, large majorities of the formally churched are functionally irreligious. These Europeans merely found themselves unconsulted, perhaps "birthright" members of national churches or of recognized minority churches, among whose members they were born and grew up.
   In the United States, such is only marginally so. There are, of course, the dropouts whose names remain on the books but whose faces are never seen in services. But the more likely circumstance is that the unchurched are often believers in God and religion, but believers whom no church can call its own.
   Why do these believers not profess themselves to be Christians through church membership and attendance?
   And why is it that while 60 percent of U.S. citizens are church members, in any given week a full 61 percent of the total population does not attend any worship service?
   Contrary to popular opinion, the unchurched are primarily rural rather than urban. And as a corollary, ten of the fifteen largest U.S. cities rank well below the national average of nonmembership. Smaller communities are apparently not as conducive to religiosity as commonly supposed. For while they tend to have many church units, they are small, often unattached to any denomination, and are likely to be dominated by extended family groups rather than being truly representative of the community.

The Influence of Geography

   Obviously, isolation and terrain have an effect on attendance at church. The length of Appalachia, rugged northern New England, the Ozarks region, and the mountainous and sparsely populated areas of Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington, for exam pie, are in the lead for nonattendance, which helps explain the fact that the highest rate of unchurched is found in the West — varying generally from 58 to 62 percent. By comparison, the lower rate of nonattendance, the 30 to 32 percent bracket, comprises all the South, the North Central and New England States in general.
   Teamed with terrain, there are regional attitudes that influence churchgoing. A typical North-westerner, especially one from Oregon, might say: "The ministers and churches... are out of their sphere of influence when they try to tell their people what to think or do, or how to behave or act. People here don't listen to that kind of thing." It is the voice of the "common people" with "fierce individualism," their "Oregon spirit." (Don't fence me in!)
   They also say: "People here don't like hierarchies — they want the right to fight among themselves and... to splinter off into new groups." But as a result of all that human nature on the loose, no wonder another complained: "The churches tend to define their doctrines so narrowly, that the bulk of both the old-timers and newcomers are automatically screened out. Each group says, 'We are the true believers.'"
   Meanwhile, a citizen of Maine at the opposite end of the country explained a related attitude: "Our ancestors came here to worship as you please, or not to worship as I please." Another said: Church is "one thing I don't miss." He meant when he doesn't attend.
   Other areas, like Boone County, West Virginia, for example, exhibit a high rate of persistent poverty, broken spirits and hopelessness. "Proponents of the 'foxhole theory of religion,' " says Hale, "would argue that such an area was ripe soil for the Christian faith. It is, if the tent-meeting revival conversions are an index of the vitality of faith.... It is not unusual to find individuals who have been 'born again' six or eight times, with a baptism by immersion to seal each rebirth. Few, however, find their way into the pews of the churches...."
   In places like Marion County, Alabama, there is a high percentage of newcomers to the area, many of them transient. They feel themselves to be outsiders, unwanted, and associate little with the churches, though a church is in walking distance of most.
   The Florida sunbelt and the Orange County, California, sunbelt exemplify yet another type of religion — or lack of it. Here live many retired persons, and many thousands who have deserted their former home areas for one reason or another. They are enjoying the climate, enjoying leisure perhaps for the first time in their lives. They have no time for church. Many of those who do go, go early and then hit the golf course, the fishing boat or pier for the day. Churches stand for roots; these people no longer have any roots and want none.
   But all of these things put together are insufficient to explain why many people do not attend church. The reasons are perhaps as numerous as the nonattenders themselves, and many of them deeply personal. Acknowledging the possibility of improvement on his "initial attempt" to explain church nonattendance, author Hale sought to tentatively classify his interviewees into twelve broad categories:
   1) The Anti-Institutionalists. For these people the institution's leadership, or what were thought to be its unwarranted demands, were a stumbling block. "The pastors now; they won't even pick up a broom and sweep. Yet they want a big salary .... They don't do nothing except preach." "The thing that disenchanted me was the pastor involved." "They move them on and bring someone else in.... They haven't kept a minister long enough for you to get acquainted." "I think that the ministers have lost their religion, and that may be the reason there is not much religion left [in a certain local area]." "They have no education, get hooked on strange doctrines and murder the King's English. They simply have nothing to say that makes any sense to the guy who thinks."
   Some, mostly younger people, faulted the religious hierarchies for not getting more involved — in social and political causes. Other ministers had espoused such causes and some complained because they had.
   2) The Boxed-In. The Constrained, the Thwarted and the Independent are subtypes in this group. The Constrained have felt mistreatment which they had to endure, or have been offended by things (apart from matters of moral behavior) which were required by their church, or things unnecessarily prohibited. "Just negative in their teaching. You. can't get a high school ring — because the church doesn't believe in wearing jewelry."
   Rules and interference led the Constrained inevitably to a break. "Last time [the pastor] came here, I suggested he turn around and leave. He was upset about it, said it was the first time he had ever been thrown out of someone's house. I didn't throw him out. I just didn't let him in."
   The Thwarted had found their social and intellectual growth stymied. "The environment wasn't accepting at all. So I went to outside people, outside of the church. And I found much more acceptance, much more affirmation of me as a human being.... When I stepped outside of the church, I learned to resolve [a lot of things].... The church perpetuates irresponsibility, dependence, a reliance on the authority of others."
   Some seem just to have been born Independent. "Nobody will push me around. You see, I'm kind of rebellious in that I'm not really a follower. I don't march to a different drummer or hear a different beat. I just am a leader."
   Said another: "I don't have anything against the church. A certain amount of people need that kind of life. They need to believe, I guess."
   With experience in several churches, another was openly hostile. "I have been to churches ... and the guy came down and dragged me up front [in an altar call]. I told him, 'When I get ready, I can walk up on my own two feet.' Nobody's going to drag me down, coax me up.... If they would leave me alone, probably I'd go...."
   3) The Burned-Out. Overexposed, even as children, or "used up" in church service — having filled every office, handled every duty, carried too much load — this was the story of the too heavily involved. Now they are tired. Or the church no longer seems to promise help to their careers. They may keep their membership, but for now they just aren't around to be asked for their time anymore. They plan to go back — someday.
   4) The Cop-Outs. "I couldn't believe I'd go to hell for [ignoring church taboos/traditions]." "Oh, I don't know that I ever lost my interest. I just don't have the time."
   Akin to the Apathetic are the Drifters, who go here and go there but never take any church seriously. One described her current choice: "Then we found this little [denominational] church — we chose it for looks, the right location and so forth, nothing else."
   5) The Happy Hedonists are enjoying the thrills of the flesh, not necessarily things actually morally wrong. They are busy, happy. They feel no guilt.
   6) The Locked-Out include the Rejected ("I know poor people has a rough time in churches. 'Cause we have been down there. We just ain't got clothes fitten to wear"); the Neglected (many of the elderly, especially); and the Discriminated Against ("Manuel had a personal conflict there. He is Mexican-American .... Certain remarks were made by certain people. He won't go to that church again")
   7) The Nomads. From illegal immigrants to upper-class business people subject to frequent transfer by their companies, for one reason or another some people are unwilling or unable to find roots.
   8) The Pilgrims bounce from church to church to church looking for the ultimate truth — and are still searching.
The churches had better believe that Christians speak the languages of mortal men, not of angels. And every act of the Christian is observed, analyzed and evaluated by non-Christians.
   9) The Publicans. According to almost all the unchurched, church people are hypocrites, phonies and fakers. How much of this is a face-saving device for the outsider? And how much of it is honest misunderstanding of how perfection is attained? Misunderstanding appears to be the main factor. "If that's a Christian, I don't want to be one." "He was one of the biggest crooks I ever ran into in my life." "Churches aren't too good for people. I think they are leading people astray."
   10) The Scandalized. Is Christ divided? (I Cor. 1:13.) Multitudes are turned off by the multiplicity of Christian-professing denominations, and the splits and schisms even within the historic denominations. "If every church could get together ... instead of always knocking the other one [many might believe]."
   11) The True Unbelievers are made up of the Atheists/Agnostics (the true evolutionists); the Deists/Rationalists who think the universe itself is God ("If there is a God, He is in the beauty of the flower, the tree, the hills, the mountains." "Belief in a personal God is just not rational"); and the Humanists/Secularists ("The thing that is most important to me is having faith in and love for people. That, to me, is what God is").
   12) The Uncertain. "Legion were those who simply said, 'I don't know why I don't go to church. I really don't know.' "

It's Not What You Say, But What You Do

   Having researched, compiled and sifted his material, author Hale concludes: "Even the most cursory survey ... is evidence that hosts of unchurched people have been learning more 'bad news' than 'good news' from the churches and pulpits they have known. Sectarian versions of the Christian message have come across to many who are now outsiders as overloaded with law, moralism, judgment and rejection. Many have simply never heard of a loving God who accepts persons while they are yet sinners."
   And so clearly does this message come across that one may be tempted to wonder if the following idea — a result of the belief in a stern, harsh, unloving God and disillusionment with hypocritical clergy and members — which was repeated by several people in Alabama, may not actually be common: "You are safer outside the church. Because then you don't hear the Word and what God requires of you. Then you're ignorant and God may be easier on you. But if you go to church, then follow the devil instead of God, you're in real trouble! You're going to hell. That's what the Bible says. You better believe it."
   The churches had better believe that Christians speak the language of mortal men, not of angels. And every act of the Christian is observed, analyzed and evaluated by non-Christians. Thus the outsider is often able to say, "Look, their lives and acts are just like our own. They do not correspond in the least to what they are saying."
   A mere excuse? In many cases, yes. But a real excuse, nevertheless.

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Plain Truth MagazineAugust 1978Vol XLIII, No.7ISSN 0032-0420