Are we in or are we out?

by the Rev. Buddy Stallings


Everyone, who thinks about the larger mainstream church in America today, ponders the question of why our numbers keep dropping. Though statistics vary, in one big poll from 2000 to 2018, the number of Americans who claim membership in church dropped from 69% to 52%. Whatever the precise number, it is a big drop. Not surprisingly, most people have an opinion about why this is happening. I just finished an interesting book by Brian McLaren, an evangelical writer and pastor, whom I have not previously read—largely because he is an evangelical writer and pastor. That is not an attractive admission about me, but there it is: most of us read what supports our positions. Some January 1 soon, I intend to make a resolution about that.


McClaren’s book is provocatively entitled, Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned. I am glad I read it—sort of in the same way I am happy to have had a root canal when I really needed one. The opening part is a brutal look at not only the dark side of our history but also the current practice of many Christian extremists.  The author devotes ten chapters to admissions about Christianity’s role in the origin of anti-Semitism, resistance (occasionally violent) to dissent, ignorance of and efforts to replace indigenous faith experience, support of white male dominance, anti-intellectualism, love of and near worship of money, and several others. Though it is a tough slog, his honest opinions, rooted in solid research and observation, do help explain why many among us have lost faith. It is worth reading if you are interested. If it doesn’t sound like summer reading to you or if you fear that it will push you over the cliff, give it a pass. All shall be well. Regardless.


In the second ten chapters, McClaren explores reasons for remaining Christian, which—spoiler alert—is the position with which he remains. Though each reason to stay resonates with me, the most compelling, not surprisingly, is the chapter he titles, “Because of our Founder.” Both the historical Jesus, what we know of him from scripture, despite (or perhaps because of) its layers and layers of nuance, complexity, and occasional dissonance with its own arc and the Christ of our faith, whom I understand to be the One around and in whom our consciousness of God in the world, in each other, and within us continues to evolve—both of these win the day for me.


All of that, then, is to say that I, too, am in—still in after all these years. I am not in because I deny any of McClaren’s reasons for getting out or because I believe Christianity to be the absolute only way for anyone to be truly in or even the only way I could be in. If I worked hard, with some intensives here and there, I think I could be a good Jew. My roots make Judaism comfortable for me. Maybe I could become Buddhist, admiring as I do what I know about the practice, but probably not. Mindfulness often stops me. I am pretty sure being an atheist would never work, hopefully for more reasons than religion’s purported opioid effect. I am a theist at heart, and the theism that works the best for me is Christianity. No matter how doubtful, disappointed, or disillusioned I on occasion become about my own spiritual reality or that of my brothers and sisters, this is home for me. I am unequivocally ashamed of Christian extremism, and sometimes I am ashamed of myself as well. What keeps me hanging in is not the anticipation of learning that we are right but that we are right enough—that this journey, the one we are on, is our evolution to union with God, a union that mysteriously lives beyond any world religion, denomination, or institutional understanding at all.


I don’t know if that understanding will reverse the trends and fill the pews. For it to do so, it most likely will have to be said better than I’ve said it and, at the least, from the lips of someone younger, cuter, and hipper. But this is my best offering, dear friends. Even in the midst of a ridiculously hot summer, it may make sense to stop to consider the questions: do we go, do we stay, and why. My guess (which is also my fervent hope) is that the next time it is my joy and privilege to be among you, I’ll see you right where you always are, hanging in with me, some of you without a smidgen of doubt, others just barely in at all, and all of us sustained by the love and union of God.


**Calvary is excited to welcome Brian McLaren back to our pulpit as part of our 100th Lenten Preaching Series in March 2023. If you are interested in further exploring McLaren’s book, Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned, in a small group setting in the coming months, contact the Rev. Katherine Bush.**

23 thoughts on “Are we in or are we out?”

  1. My dear Buddy, Thank You for this. So eloquently put my exact feelings. Having always needed God, I never doubted. My early search for the church that suited my beliefs led me to the episcopal church. I to have studied Buddhism and like you many things about the Jewish faith and like. But the peacefulness of our episcopal church is where I need to be. The extremist that we are encountering more and more with frighten me if not for my faith in my God. Again thank you

    1. David, I too worry so deeply about the ever increasing extremism in all directions and give thanks for places like Calvary that stand strong in its presence. All my best, Buddy

  2. As usual, Buddy’s thoughts resonate with me because, as the saying goes, the older I get, the less I know. I don’t pretend to have answers to many of the great theological questions out there. But I do know this, I experience the most profound feelings of joy when I am helping others who need my help, especially in collaboration with other theologically insecure souls who find joy that way. And so, if we view our church and churches all over the world as places where we can form stronger relationships with our Lord and those of like mind and heart, then why in God’s name wouldn’t we be all in?

    1. Buck, thanks for your witness about helping others. A good reminder and one I know to be true in my own life. Thanks for sharing. Buddy

  3. Thank you for these wonderful sharings. I would like to check out that book and good on ya for even going there. Being raised as an Episcopalian, I have always been thankful for its inclusivity. I studied comparative studies in religion at University … so, I fully hear you here. I needed these thoughts and appreciate you

    1. Zada, so glad the words resonate with you. I think you will find the book interesting. I am glad to hear that McLaren will be part of LPS next spring. All best, Buddy

  4. We’ll said, Buddy. Your refreshing honesty and clarity (or LACK thereof!) warmed my heart. McLaren’s latest book FAITH AFTER DOUBT, is a good read also. Like you, I’m hanging in there….

    1. Dear Linda, loved hearing that you too are hanging in there. In the end for me, the community itself, even if the rest of the story weren’t meaning (and for me it is), would be enough. Blessings, Buddy

  5. I’m in. Have been in for 75 years and have never given the slightest thought to getting out. I’m a believer and nothing I’ve been through (and I’ve been through a lot) has shaken my faith. In fact, it has strengthened it. I am very disturbed by what I call the “plastic preachers” who take advantage of people by spreading lies and bringing out the very worst in them. No wonder so many are dropping out or never committing. To be honest, I think I’ve been pretty lucky. The Sunday school teachers and the preachers at the Methodist church in tiny Turrell, Arkansas and in the Methodist church in West Memphis where I lived for twenty years were very good…and then I moved to Memphis and found Calvary, where my life was forever changed by Doug Bailey and hundreds of “street people” in the basement. I have been blessed. God bless them and YOU!

    1. Dear Pat, what a powerful witness! I know your story, and I know you mean it!! Glad to be “in” with you and others liek you!! All best, Buddy

  6. I have often questioned being a Christian. I have never questioned being an Episcopalian. I so appreciate our efforts to be open and understanding of doubt and inclusive of all sorts and conditions. We are ALL God’s children. And I think Calvary’s efforts to “make God’s love visible” are just the ticket to draw in new and young people. As I get older, I actually find myself being a bit evangelical on occasion. I’m In.
    Sounds like a good book. Thanks and hope to see you soon.

    1. Hey, Nancy, YES, “making God’s love visible” is the key for me—the things that draws me and, more importantly, many others in and will continue to do so! Nothing wrong with good evangelism!! Blessings, Buddy

    1. Dear Mary,
      I think you will like it, maybe more that you will appreciate it. I appreciate your writing. All best, Buddy

    1. Dear Linda,

      The mystery is the meaning for me, and I love sharing that space with you. As ever, Buddy

  7. Our world today isn’t a world that drives people to Christianity so it is no surprise to me that the numbers are what they are. There are so many people that are turned off by the two-faced extremism of most evangelicals and on the other hand those that are turned off by churches who choose to be inclusive of all, empathetic to our fellow man, and social justice believers. There’s not a lot of middle-ground anymore and that is sad. One other thing to throw into the mix is there are folks who won’t attend a church because they fear for their safety. Hence, the drop in numbers all across the board.

    1. I can’t imagine anyone could do any better than you have here to present this point of view. I am right there with you..my thoughts clarified by this wonderful piece. Thank you.

    2. Dear Gary,
      Your comment makes me prouder than ever of our insistence upon clinging to the via media. Reason in the middle has never seemed as important. Thanks for writing. All best, Buddy

  8. I can’t imagine anyone could do any better than you have here to present this point of view. I am right there with you..my thoughts clarified by this wonderful piece. Thank you.

    1. Dear Lila,
      Wonderful to get your kind words. Hanging in together makes the journey doable. As ever, Buddy

  9. Dear Nancy,
    Thanks much for the kind remark. We help each other, and somehow it is more than enough. Blessings. Buddy

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