The Gates of Hell: Why We Shoudn’t Fear People Leaving Church

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans weighed in on why she left her church. And she tied it to the story of millions of others, as told in the newest book by David Kinnaman of the Barna Research Group, You Lost Me.

Unfortunately, many will read what is happening and react with fear, a belief that Christianity is becoming increasingly irrelevant in our culture and that the Church is failing.

But my understanding is that Christ makes himself relevant, that’s not my job. And it’s also my understanding that Christ grows his own church, that is also not my job.

So either Christ is failing or we should not fear that people are leaving churches.

Do we not believe that Christ will build his church and that even the gates of Hell will not overcome it (Matt 16:18)? Many times we do not; because then we would have to admit that perhaps Christ is building his church without us, that he is building his church and we just aren’t in on it. Maybe he is doing something outside of the institutions and buildings we have built for him. And if we cannot accept this possibility, then maybe our fear is not that people are leaving Jesus but that they are leaving us as leaders and our models of doing church. Or worse, we cannot distinguish between the two.

We should not be afraid of this mass exodus. We should celebrate it, rejoicing that something new is coming. But this requires that we reflect on what we are still holding onto that causes us to fear.

How do we learn to turn our fear into trust? Here are a few suggestions:

First, we should re-learn to trust that Christ will build his church. I know it’s hard to imagine, but God does not need our marketing. If we do not trust that Christ will build his church, our attempts to be attractive often get desperate. And desperation often leads to manipulative sales tactics and competition between churches. And so, ironically, our effort to bring people to Jesus starts to look very non-Jesus-like.

Second, we should admit that our church models are just models. If Christ is in charge of building his church, we should look outside of our current models to see what else Christ is up to. We cannot make our models an idol, arrogantly thinking that Jesus can’t show up outside of our buildings and outside of our weekend worship services.

As such we must stop lamenting that people are “leaving church,” telling them that if they leave this model, they are abandoning Christ or his Church. They aren’t leaving Church, they are leaving irrelevant models. Instead of tying Christianity to our preference for doing church and trying to bring them back to our model we should support them and say, “We don’t have all the answers! Go! Innovate! Create! May Christ continue to build his Church!”

I do not fear the mass exodus from church models. They are all bound to be irrelevant sooner or later. And I trust that others are coming. They will be here soon. And until the church-as-organization catches up to what the Spirit of God is doing in the hearts of a new generation, we’ll probably just stop showing up. That doesn’t mean we don’t love Jesus or love the Church. It just means that the institutional model that currently exists simply doesn’t mean anything to us anymore. We have created more meaningful structures outside of the system. And eventually, this will be a new system. And eventually our system will be irrelevant too.

Third, we have to let go of our egos. If we are deeply honest, most of us fear, not because people are leaving Jesus, but because if they leave my church I will look like a failure. But we have to lay that down. Christ will build his church. None of us are leaders. We are all followers. We are all doing our best to see where Christ will take his Church next. And when he moves on, we must be willing to follow the Spirit. The question is not whether we can save the church but if we are willing to lay down our messiah-complex and our sacred cows long enough to follow Christ into the future.

“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
-Jesus in Matthew 16:18

13 responses to “The Gates of Hell: Why We Shoudn’t Fear People Leaving Church

  1. “we would have to admit that perhaps Christ is building his church without us, that he is building his church and we just aren’t in on it.”

    Are you familiar with Chris Heuertz’ “Friendship at the Margins” or This reminds me of that. You find in his writing and their ministry focus the idea that in fact WE (the wealthy, comfy North American church) are the ones at the margins of what Christ is doing, not the hub.

    “That doesn’t mean we don’t love Jesus or love the Church. It just means that the institutional model that currently exists simply doesn’t mean anything to us anymore. We have created more meaningful structures outside of the system. And eventually, this will be a new system. And eventually our system will be irrelevant too.”

    Yup! My husband and I have said to ourselves that we bet all our new, great ideas will seem lame and short-sighted by our daughter (should she choose to even care about any of this – I’m not gonna pretend that these things even matter to a lot of people!).

    • Chris Heuertz’ book is a phenomenal one and I second the recommendation.

      I think a lot of churches are left because they aren’t willing to wrestle with hard questions and issues. Not only are they stuck in old models but they are also stuck in old mindsets and aren’t willing to even engage certain topics when they arise. Church leaders are afraid when people leave their churches, but they can also be afraid when people ask hard questions. Many don’t realize and aren’t willing to confront this dichotomy in their approach to leadership.

  2. Eph. 4:11-13 mentions the original New Testament Church organization and purpose. This pattern is followed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints today.

  3. Jared, I think this post may be as true as anything else that I have seen in your writings. From the scarce postings it does not seem to resonate or initiate dialog with your audience but do not be discouraged…seeds take time to bring fruit, especially in the presence of weeds.

    I love the admonition: Be careful what you build on the foundation because that foundation is Christ. If what you build is gold then it shall remain but If you build straw or stubble it will be burned when the fires come …but you will not be destroyed. Big upside limited downside.

    I Hope someday you will be known as a doctor of the Church – in a real sense!



  4. How about individual (as opposed to mass exodus) exodus (exodii?)? I know the focus of this post is for church as a whole, but I think another important issue is our fear for friends leaving the church (entirely, not to go to another). Is there validity to our fears in that situation?

    • That’s a good question Paul. I have to say I do fear that – because often I fear they are giving up on their local church and are blaming Jesus for it.

  5. To attribute the decline in church attendance to something positive is wrong….is it not possible for a culture and country to decline spiritually and turn its back on God? What would it look like for a country to turn its back on God….would it not be manifest to some extent by a decline in interest in the church? Its also important to ask if those leaving were ever part of the true church….We have made our churches so seeker friendly that church is really a big social event a “six flags over jesus” you could say….So could it be that those that are leaving are not believers at all?? Maybe the unbelievers that came for the social gathering and fun times are leaving because the fun has run out and its becoming increasingly unpopular to be associated with Christianity……Maybe people are not exiting the church at all but they are exiting the building??

    • Perhaps you are right on all accounts. But I still do not fear. Christ is the one who will build his church, no matter how much we make Sundays look like Disneyland, or whether or not we keep services as boring and irrelevant as ever, or no matter how much we divide ourselves by our arrogance. God has always worked through the imperfect, don’t see why he’ll stop now.

      • Amen brother! We have nothing to fear as long as we know we belong to God and have been saved! When it comes to issues such as this we must just go to Gods word and see what it says ….. Gods word has given us an outline for what church leadership should look like, the qualifications for elders, decans, teachers, how worship and services should be conducted and even what church dicipline should look like…..We are even told in Hebrews that we are told not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together especially as we see the day approaching! …The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means “an assembly of called-out ones. ” So we know from scripture we are to come together as believers…..The important question must be does the church I attend fit with what God has commanded and given us in his word?? …. God wants us to gather together for the purpose of worship, for the edfication of each other, and as a visible testimony to the world and scripture gives us an outline and structure for what that gathering of believers should look like…..We must not look to our own understanding on these things but go directly to scripture and see what God has revealed to us….

    • I guess my only issue with this line of argument is that it tends to equate church attendance with spiritual health.

      You do raise this in one sense at the end of the post, but I think you miss the other side of the coin.

      The fact is that we have no way of measuring church attendance, only building attendance. When the latter goes down, it could be unbelievers leaving the building, or it could just as easily be believers leaving the building. We only tend to fret because we equate the building with the church.

      Others have posted about the model of church suggested by the Bible. I’m fairly confident that if any of the writers of those letters showed up on a typical Sunday morning, they’d find what happens in every church building in the US very alien. The modern concept of a church service just didn’t exist in the first century.

      • rich0 – you write that “The modern concept of a Church service just didn’t exist in the first century.” but I am not sure you right about this.

        A read of Justin Martyr’s first century description of weekly Christian worship services describes elements of worship that correspond to Sunday worship as it exists even into our time. He describes the constitutive elements of Reading the prophets or the Apostles, sharing in the Holy Bread and Wine, and the taking of the offering for the poor, and of Prayer on Sunday.

        Are not these constitutive elements present in the worship of all of the Churches and in the worship of all of the Christian communities?

        So have courage! By all appearances Christ has kept his Church as he promised…having both power and patience with the human race.

        Have the Charity of Christ who beholds his spotless Bride adorned with the Glorious robes she has received with gladness.

        I attach below chapter 67 of the First Apology of Justin Martyr. Chapters 65 to 67 inclusive may be a description of an Easter Vigil while chapter 67 speaks in broader terms of weekly worship.


        Garry Mott, OFS


        And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

      • Keep in mind that this was written more than 100 years after the founding of the church. I’m not sure he was writing about how worship worked in the first century, but rather how it operated in his time.

        Clearly they didn’t read from the apostles in the early church. Half of the NT hadn’t been written, and much of the church had never met an apostle or received anything in writing from them (at least, nothing that we know about). When we read Paul’s epistles we probably tend to think that the churches in Asia Minor are reflective of the average Christian experience, and I’m not certain this was the case. However, even those churches seemed quite different from what we have today.

  6. my daughter forwarded this blog over to me. Good for you all thinking about this. My husband and I are part of the over 50 crowd who raised their children in church, but who ourselves are discouraged with the churches available to us. If they aren’t relevant to us, why would our children want to go? And we’re not afflicted with “perfect church syndrome”. We just want live instead of dead and yet not hopelessly youth oriented. (Sorry young people.) We would like a few hymns, a social life that isn’t restricted to social sites on the internet, AND people that really care about worshiping and helping other people in the name of Jesus.

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