Book Review: Quitting Church by Julia Duin
Book Review: Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
It is common knowledge these days that not all is well within evangelicalism. Recent books have chronicled the problems from different angles, among them Julia Duin’s Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About it (Baker Books, 2008). In the first chapter, Duin makes the case that numerically the church is declining. She cites several studies that put church attendance around 20 to 30 per cent of the population, a drop of about 20 percentage points since the 1970s. The decline does not necessarily describe a lessening of belief, but rather a growing Christian population that does not go to church.
What follows are a series of chapters addressing different reasons for why the “faithful are fleeing.” Duin analyzes the present evangelical situation in something like journalistic narrative as she examines statistics, interviews church leaders and leavers, and offers her own personal experience. The reasons given for the exodus will sound familiar to many: the irrelevance of the church, the lack of meaningful community, shallow teaching, and over-worked pastors. Additionally, Duin addresses evangelicalism’s fallout: house churches and the emergent movement. The analysis of the house church movement struck me as insightful and convincing. She also had a rather unique review of Mars Hill church, among other emerging congregations. Overall, her examination of the evangelical church is concise and generally on-target, although at times it seems that brevity trumps depth of analysis.
The most beneficial aspect of Quitting Church is not so much the reasons for why the “faithful are fleeing,” but the author’s perspective on the evangelical world and its problems. Duin herself was one of the unchurched believers. A seminary graduate and active in several Christian organizations, she felt undervalued and unappreciated at her church. Eventually, she left and did not attend a congregation for several years. Quitting Church’s most fruitful chapters directly relate to the author’s personal church experience, the plight of singles over 35, women leaving church, and disenchanted charismatics.
Her chapter on singleness focuses on the realities faced by many within the church. On the one hand, there are increasing problems with sexual sins and temptations. On the other hand, the message to older singles is often an exhortation to remain celibate. Many singles who want to marry face the temptations of the world with a church of married couples who cannot understand or are unwilling to help the older single. Those who do remain single often feel like second-class members.
Duin’s chapter on women in the church includes her own experience as a professional woman who felt shut out of her church’s life, although she was very influential in several Christian para-church organizations. In addition, there are interviews with Robbi Kenny, the cofounder of Exodus International, one of the first ministries to homosexuals, and Carolyn Custis James, president of the Whitby Forum and wife of RTS Orlando President Frank James. The author argues that women are leaving the church because they never really felt like they belonged in the first place.
Duin also addresses the fate of charismatic churches in the United States. A product of the 1960s Jesus Movement, she mourns the loss of powerful, authentic worship. Although Duin found such worship in a charismatic church in Kazakhstan, it only led to unfulfilled longing when she returned to the United States. Her discontent came to a head in her expose of the “Toronto blessing” revival in the 1990s. In order to remedy the apparent loss of the Holy Spirit, she calls for a greater willingness to express the supernatural gifts of the Spirit.
The majority of Quitting Church deals with the reasons for declining church attendance, but Duin does offer a solution in the last chapter. A healthy church should display close community, suffering service to one another, and openness to the supernatural sign-gifts of the Holy Spirit. These themes are nascent throughout the book and yet they represent more of a vision than a solution. Following the catalogue of the church’s failings, her ideals seem to fall rather flat. However, the main benefit of this book is not its solution, but rather the unique perspective of its author.
At the same time, as a more theologically liberal and charismatic Christian, Duin leaves questions unasked and key presuppositions unexamined. Reformed readers of Quitting Church will find themselves questioning the author’s premise at several points and simply disagreeing theologically with her at times. For example, her golden-age view of the Jesus Movement will not likely find much Reformed agreement, but it may remind one of the burnout and disillusionment that follow such revivals.
All this should not discourage one from reading Duin’s book. Her insights are especially helpful if one has friends or family who are in evangelical churches or who have quit church. Its unique perspective could help pastors, elders, and deacons as they think about how they can serve the entire congregation.
Perhaps the book’s most striking message for Reformed churches is the need for a clear alternative to the evangelical church. The Reformed tradition has much to offer to a bankrupt evangelicalism. Whereas Duin’s vision for the church is a communal, suffering, and supernatural “Acts 2” body, the Reformed church does not exist to provide a certain experience or to meet felt needs, but rather to worship God. Quitting Church offers a unique view of evangelicalism, but it should also motivate the Reformed reader to uphold the Reformed distinctives as a solution to the evangelical church’s problems.