Why People Leave the Church: 3 Reasons from the Book of Revelation
Why do people leave the church? The Bible gives 3 basic reasons: People leave the church because they want to, or they feel they have to, or they have been taught that they ought to. In our cultural moment in the West, all three reasons are beginning to coalesce to form an overwhelming attack against the Christian faith. In such an atmosphere, it takes serious commitment not to leave.
If you care about why it has become fashionable in the Western world to leave the church, I think you’ll find this a helpful article. But I’d like to mention upfront what this article is not. This isn’t a demographic survey of people’s explanations for why they leave church, although those are helpful. This is also not an article explaining when it’s the right time to leave a particular church. Instead, we’re going to look at three reasons people leave the church (what the apostle Paul calls “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth,” 1 Tim. 3:15). These are three reasons people leave behind “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3), often for their own self-inspired theology.
Why People Leave the Church…from Heaven’s Perspective
The book of Revelation lets us view the major events that shape salvation history from heaven’s perspective. The book is written in “apocalyptic genre” which describes cataclysmic events using heavy symbolism. The word “apocalypse” means “uncovering” or “revealing,” and in the Bible we find apocalyptic literature in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
In this article, we’re going to try to look at why people leave the church from heaven’s perspective. One of the realities which those in heaven can clearly see (but we often can’t) is the spiritual forces of evil that work to steal, kill, and destroy the good things God has created. The book of Revelation pictures reality as a cosmic good-versus-evil war, and at the helm of evil’s forces is a dragon.
“The book of Revelation pictures reality as a cosmic good-versus-evil war, and at the helm of evil’s forces is a dragon.”
We’ve seen the dragon before. Revelation 20:2 calls the dragon “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan.”
But the dragon doesn’t work alone. Throughout the book of Revelation, we see three puppets of the dragon: a harlot, a beast out of the sea, and a beast out of the earth. It is from these three puppets of the dragon that we learn three underlying reasons people leave the church.
Why People Leave the Church: You Want To…
The first reason people leave the church is as old as the first sin: people are lured away by the promise of something better. Back when the dragon first appeared, as an innocent-looking garden snake, he made God’s way look unattractive. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1) he asked the woman, planting mistrust in a can-you-believe-what-God-did-this-time sort of way.
With his foot in the door, he called God a liar (“You will not certainly die,” 3:4) and implied that God was jealously guarding the good stuff (“God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” 3:5). The serpent’s offer of opening her eyes and making her like God resonated with her own feelings: “The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (3:6).
This is likely why in the book of Revelation one of the dragon’s three puppets is a harlot: Satan draws people away from God by tempting them with something apparently pleasurable that God is keeping from them. The harlot gets around: “With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” (Rev. 17:2). The harlot is the dragon’s way of saying, “You want to.”
“The harlot is the dragon’s way of saying, ‘You want to.'”
In our own day, it feels good to be able to give into temptation, even if the aftertaste makes you wince. It feels especially good to be able to mimic the mantras the sexual revolution has taught our culture to say: “Marry whomever you love.” “Women can do whatever they want with their bodies [their unborn babies].” “Trans women are women.” “Love is love.” It feels better to celebrate when people seem happy than to grieve the hidden damage nobody else seems to be aware of. This is why a lot of people leave the church: they are lured away by the promise of something better.
The bait looks great, but look for the hook.
Why People Leave the Church: You Have To…
Whereas the harlot is meant be seductive, the beast out of the sea is downright scary.
“The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority….It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev. 13:2, 7-8)
This beast embodies a second reason people leave historic Christianity: sometimes they are forced to—or else. Whereas the harlot says, “You want to,” the beast out of the sea says, “You have to.”
“Whereas the harlot says, ‘You want to,’ the beast out of the sea says, ‘You have to.'”
How do you keep from caving under that kind of pressure? As Revelation 13:10b explains after describing the beast out of the sea, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.”
In the Western world, we aren’t anywhere close to experiencing the levels of hostility that many other Christians across the globe have faced. It is estimated that, in Nigeria, a Christian is killed for his or her faith every two hours. In Afghanistan, “beatings, torture, and kidnappings are routine.” In North Korea, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are confined in prisons and labor camps. In numerous countries, evangelism is outlawed.
Yet, increasing hostility to historic Christians in the Western world is nothing to ignore. Try getting a good corporate job or being in the good graces of your university professor if it becomes known that you don’t affirm LGBTQ views of sexuality and gender.
“Try getting a good corporate job or being in the good graces of your university professor if it becomes known that you don’t affirm LGBTQ views of sexuality and gender.”
A love song by Chicago called “Just You ‘N Me” has a fascinating line: “Lovin’ you, girl, is so @!&# easy.” Should the girl listening to that feel flattered? On the one hand, this means she is lovable. But on the other hand, is it the best kind of love—a sustainable, long-haul love—when love comes easy and there’s no sacrifice required? In the Western world, loving Jesus has felt easy for some time now. Let’s dedicate serious time to learning from brothers and sisters across the globe the “patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people” we’re going to need if we’re going to keep from caving to “You have to.”
Before we move onto the third reason people leave the church, let’s look at a parable which can summarize the first two reasons.
The Parable of the iPhone
Apple has two ways of encouraging people to buy new iPhones.
On the one hand, older models lose their compatibility with newer updates. Eventually, incompatibility forces you off your older model. For example, when Apple introduces its new operating system, chances are that iPhones from five years or so back won’t be compatible with it. There was even a time when the company intentionally slowed the batteries on older models, although Apple says it was for good reason.
On the other hand, newer models are advertised enticingly, as being significantly better than models from even half a year before. If you’re into Apple products, the ads are pretty hard to resist.
In short, Apple encourages us to buy their iPhones using both a have-to and a want-to approach. We are both 1) forced into it by incompatibility and 2) enticed into it by its irresistibility.
“Apple encourages us to buy their iPhones using both a have-to and a want-to approach.”
I’m not trying to be negative about iPhones. The marketing is brilliant and the product is satisfying. I’ve responded to texts and listened to a voicemail on mine just while writing this article. Hooray for iPhones. But think about the iPhone’s forced incompatibility and its fashionable irresistibility. These both provide a fascinating illustration of the first two reasons people leave the church that we find in the Book of Revelation:
There’s the beast out of the sea who dominates through showing the incompatibility of following God with his system of government. This is a have-to approach by which we are forced to reject God because of God’s incompatibility with the world’s ways.
Then, there’s the harlot, dressed up in glittery purple and scarlet. She is skilled in adultery. The way of the harlot suggests a want-to approach by which we are enticed to reject God because of the irresistibility of the world’s ways.
When it comes to the actual identity of Revelation’s beasts and harlot, I have more questions than answers. But when it comes to Satan’s strategies of getting you and me to leave historic Christianity, it’s clear that he uses both of these ways to great effect.
In order to beware Satan’s schemes, we need to be aware that he comes at the people of God from both angles: incompatibility and irresistibility. He tries to force us off while enticing us away. Satan is both master tempter (Gen. 3) and prowling lion (1 Peter 5:8), and we do well to stay faithful and guard our souls from both tactics.
“He tries to force us off while enticing us away.”
Yet, there’s still a third reason people leave the church. And it could very well be the most persuasive of all.
Why People Leave the Church: You Ought To…
Satan doesn’t just use “you have to” and “you want to” to get people to stop following Jesus. There’s a second beast, the beast out of the earth, who comes after the beast out of the sea. His job is to get everyone to worship the first beast.
Do you know how he does this? He does this by looking like our Messiah. He is disguised to look like Jesus. Revelation 13 tells us he looks like a lamb (think the “lamb of God”) and even performs miracles. Yet when he speaks, he speaks with the voice of the dragon. So, this beast is particularly frightening because he deceives people into thinking he’s good and right. The way he gets people to stop following Jesus is by saying, “You ought to.”
“Imagine being a young Christian growing up in a culture already experiencing the iPhone effect when it comes to sexuality and gender.”
Imagine being a young Christian growing up in a culture already experiencing the iPhone effect when it comes to sexuality and gender: Your biblical ways of believing are increasingly incompatible with university orthodoxy and hiring processes. At the same time, you catch yourself wanting to flow with the cultural tide, which Paul Huyghebaert describes as a decades-based pattern: condemnation, then toleration, then affirmation, then celebration, and finally participation.
All the while, you’re able to withstand the temptation and the hostility, even if barely, because you know that what you’re doing is right. Even if it costs you, you’re going to do the right thing. You’re going to follow the path of morality and justice. It’s what it means to be faithful to Jesus.
Then along comes the beast dressed as a lamb.
“You ought to.” Mentored from multiple angles in a post-Christian worldview, you find yourself thinking, You know, maybe I was wrong. I’ve always wanted to be a moral person. I want to care about justice. I want to help people who are hurting. I want to be an agent of compassion and not condemnation. And, after all, Jesus is all about love. Compassion. Acceptance. In fact, the Jesus of love sure doesn’t look much like those Christians who talk about sin sin sin sin. Maybe they’re the ones reading the Bible wrong. I think we should read the Bible in a way that helps people, especially marginalized people, instead of reading it in a way that could further marginalize them.
“Mentored from multiple angles in a post-Christian worldview, you find yourself thinking, You know, maybe I was wrong.”
For a lot of Christians, “You ought to” is the straw that punctures their fidelity to historic Christianity. It’s just too tempting to equate Christianity with niceness and Christian love with affirmation and then read the Bible through those lenses. It’s too easy to paint Jesus with wide, cultural brushstrokes, slopping over Jesus’ many countercultural (i.e., unpopular) teachings. Especially when Christians have ancestral sins to atone for (e.g., hostility toward LGBTQ people, racist tendencies, politically gerrymandered theology), it’s just too instinctive to overcompensate, erasing biblical categories of sin and truth and redrawing them according to the preset patterns provided by culture.
This goes for a lot of Christian leaders too. When Christian leaders write biblical teachings to harmonize with the teachings of the surrounding culture, it’s rare for them to visibly leave the church, even if they have internally left historic Christianity behind. Often, they stick around and skillfully convert their churches. And what led them to this place? While hostility and seduction might have primed them, it’s the “You ought to” that pushed sheepish shepherds into becoming warmhearted wolves.
The enemy of our souls tries to get us to leave the church using three approaches. Don’t fall for them:
- You want to.
- You have you.
- You ought to.
In order to beware Satan’s schemes, we need to be aware that he comes at the people of God from all three directions. He tries to entice us away from Jesus while forcing us off Jesus as well as posing as Jesus. Satan is master tempter (Gen. 3), prowling lion (1 Peter 5:8), and angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), and, for the sake of our salvation and the salvation of others, we must stay alert, guard our souls, and hold tight to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3).