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From the January/February, 2009 issue of Touchstone

 

Sacred Exits by Patrick Henry Reardon

Sacred Exits

Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It
by Julia Duin
Baker Books, 2008
(186 pages, $19.99, hardcover)

reviewed by Patrick Henry Reardon

For the past several years I have had the sense that Evangelicalism in America is falling on hard times, but the impression was general, and there was no opportunity to research the subject. Julia Duin, Religion Editor for The Washington Times, has now produced a concise but well-documented study that gives substance to that impression.

Joining extensive collections of statistical data with insights drawn from numerous personal interviews and many visits to individual congregations, she explores the reasons that explain the current decline in church membership and attendance. Although Duin examines the great numerical decline in several American churches, the chief focus of her study is Evangelicalism.

Duin begins each chapter of this well-crafted book with an engaging personal narrative, which flows gracefully into an examination of sociological statistics and other evidentiary material. The sundry reasons given for the decline in church membership determine the subject of each chapter: the irrelevance of much shoddy preaching, the difficulty of single people in finding a comfortable place in congregations formed mainly of families, the enormous stress attendant on the pastoral ministry itself, the perceived loss of community and personal support, the experience of burnout in the charismatic movement, the sense of alienation felt by women in search of more fulfilling ministries, and the general difficulty of adapting to the needs of a new century.

Unconvincing on Women

Even as I heartily recommend this book—especially for pastors and church leaders—I must own up to a reason one may have for doubting my own objectivity: Duin devotes a full page to saying nice things about my pastoral ministry in Chicago, including the proximate location of our parish!

Having made this confession, nonetheless, let me mention that not all parts of this book are equally convincing. For example, the chapter called “The Other Sex” does not, I think, present a sufficiently tight case for the alleged marginalization of women in congregational ministry. The evidence cited is excessively anecdotal, and the author ignores what is obvious in almost every congregation known to me: to wit, well over half of the local congregational ministries—the pastorate itself excluded—are managed and served by women. To see the evidence for this, one need only check, at random, the webpage of almost any Christian congregation in the United States.

As an editor of Touchstone, I was also impressed that Duin takes our journal to task for having no women at the senior level of its editorial staff. I confess I found her observation surprising in two ways: First, although journalistic competition can sometimes be fierce, I had no idea that the composition of Touchstone’s editorial board was so closely monitored over there at The Washington Times. Second, I never dreamed that the posted listing of our personnel at Touchstone was the cause of good Christian women dropping out of church at such alarming rates.

A seasoned journalist, Duin is on solid ground in documenting and analyzing why people quit church. Her suggestions for what to do about it are understandably more tentative and hypothetical. She is cautiously sympathetic to the current house-church trend, for instance, and favors a local eldership over the concentration of leadership in one pastor.

Because Duin’s work is essentially a sociological study, its present review is appropriately limited to sociological considerations. Even as I have refrained from rendering theological reflections on the book, nonetheless, its treatment of the subject gives rise to several serious questions about the author’s underlying and presupposed ecclesiology. It would not be fair to explore these questions here, as they do not address Duin’s own thesis and concern.


Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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