Exit Interviews by William Hendricks
A few weeks ago I was visiting my dear friend, Dr. David Mathewson, at Denver Seminary. On my way out the door he advised me that the library was giving away books. If nothing else I am a sucker for good books, especially ones that are free. So I filled my arms with books and walked away, smiling that I would have reading material for months.
One of the books I grabbed was titled Exit Interviews by William Hendricks. Hendricks was motivated to write the book by the significant and increasing numbers who are leaving the evangelical church. He interviewed some two dozen people who have left the public practice of their Christian faith… at least in the context of a local church. During the process of interviewing these individuals Hendricks simply listened. After compiling the results he then sought to gather and summarize his findings. What he heard may surprise you.
First, spirituality is a process. Conversion may be thought of both as an event and as a process. People came to the church expecting help with that process; however, help did not necessarily mean a program. Instead of respect being given to the individual, Hendricks heard that programs did not always meet the needs of those who genuinely wanted grow in their own personal, spiritual way.
Second, where is God? People who began to distance themselves from the church did not feel like they were receiving answers to this tough question. Instead, they heard something to the effect that if you practice certain spiritual disciplines, you would develop intimacy with God that would sustain you through seasons of doubts or questions. But that didn’t happen, and these individuals felt disappointed with God and the church.
Third, grace and guilt. Respondents consistently told Hendricks that the message they heard was that the Christian life begins with grace, but then grace is virtually forgotten, and the Christian life becomes oriented toward performance or works. The result was a chronic form of legalism that became a heavy burden respondents could not bear.
Fourth, a respect for feelings. Those who left in a dramatic or gradual way did not perceive that their emotions were treated well; rather, they believed their feelings were mistreated. As people came in touch with their feelings, they described themselves as moving closer to God bur farther away from the church.
I am giving myself to listening to these concerns so that I can be a more effective pastor to those who may be on a gradual path of distancing themselves from the local church. But it may be a valuable exercise for all of us to listen in the same way. And while listening, certain questions may be born in our minds and hearts. These include: How can we respect the varying and individual needs people have for their own spiritual growth? How can we address the problem of evil without becoming like Job’s counselors? How can we resist all forms of legalism and build a vision for grace in the whole of the Christian life? How can we affirm people’s real feelings without necessarily endorsing their choices?