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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Discovering the truth behind the empty pews

Group worried about declining church attendance asks people why they quit

Church is a place that carries the promise of fellowship, acceptance and support.

But that’s not how one 35-year-old Spokane mother experienced it.

The woman, who requested anonymity, says she was raised as a member of a local evangelical church until just before she entered her teens.

And then she quit for what she still sees as a good reason.

“It’s a little bit complicated,” she said over the phone. “Pretty much most of my childhood I was molested by my father.”

Her father, she explains, was well respected by the rest of the congregation.

“When I finally had the guts to tell people what was happening, which was about age 12, he was arrested,” the woman said. “And the church took a collection and they bailed him out.”

The congregation’s actions felt, she says, like an abandonment.

“You know, as a kid I didn’t really understand it. But as an adult, as I’ve gotten older, I just think about that every once in a while and just think, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “That, to me, was a pretty big betrayal.”

While such stories may not be common, statistics show church attendance in America is declining.

And that trend is particularly disturbing to a group of Seventh-day Adventist faithful.

“There were a number of us who were noticing that we lose church members,” says Ken Wetmore, 33, who serves as pastor of Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Spangle and Cheney.

“A lot of times it seems like church members come up missing, and we’re just really not sure why.”

Before looking for a solution, the group wanted to identify the various reasons why members choose to leave their churches. One unique kind of research the group began using Oct. 9 involves a specially painted Spokane Transit Authority bus that asks a specific question, then directs anyone interested to an online survey.

The bus’ painted message asks, “Did you used to go to church?” Directly underneath, readers are invited to “Tell me why you quit” by going to a Web site:

At that address, respondents are faced with a number of questions that range from “Did you grow up in a family that attended church” to “In general, which factor(s) led you to stop attending?”

In addition to ferreting out the various reasons why people quit church, Wetmore says there’s a second, more important, feature of the STA campaign: trying to make amends.

“Sometimes as a church we don’t do a good enough job loving people and taking care of them,” he says. “So we wanted also to be able to let people know that we’re sorry for having failed them.”

Statistics provided by the Barna Group, a Christian-based research group based in Ventura, Calif., indicate that the declining numbers are real.

According to Barna, between 1991 and 2004, the number of “unchurched” Americans increased by almost 92 percent. Barna defines “unchurched” as an adult, 18 years or older, who has not attended a Christian church service over the previous six months with the exception of holiday service (such as Easter) or a special event (such as a marriage or funeral).

To date, Wetmore says, more than 1,100 respondents have filled out some part of the survey. More than 600 have completed it, including leaving an e-mail address for follow-up contact.

Respondents can sign up to receive free tickets to a showing of the documentary film “Lord, Save Us from Your Followers,” which will screen at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Garland Theatre.

“We feel pretty good,” Wetmore says. “A little over half of the people who start the survey, finish it.”

Among other things, the survey shows that people are far more likely to attend church during their formative years (84.5 percent of the respondents say they attended church before the age of 12, compared to just 3.3 percent of those over 65).

It also allows respondents, who can cite as many reasons as they want, to explain why they stopped going.

Nearly 53 percent, for example, were “turned off by the attitudes/behaviors of members of the group.” More than 31 percent “no longer believed in the doctrines/teachings of the group.” And nearly the same percentage that claimed “the credibility of the leadership discouraged me.”

Other reasons include “It didn’t meet my needs” (23.9 percent), “Something happened and I no longer felt comfortable” (20.9 percent) and “I was specifically hurt/offended by a person within the group” (20.6 percent).

Wetmore stresses that his group’s ultimate goal isn’t merely to attract attention for Seventh-day Adventists, and he’s vowed to share the survey results with any Christian group that contacts him.

Mostly, he says, he wants to try to help heal the wounds that he believes some former churchgoers still carry in their hearts.

“We’d like to let people who have left the church know that we care and that we definitely want them back,” Wetmore says, “that we understand that there may be some very good reasons why they left but that we would like to see them return home.”

The woman who was sexually abused by her father was one of those who completed the survey. And she received a message of support from Dave Livermore, personal ministries director of Upper Columbia Conference, the regional Seventh-day Adventist association.

“I got a really nice e-mail from him saying, ‘That’s awful, that shouldn’t have happened, and I apologize for that,’ ” the woman, a mother of two, said. “And, you know, that’s always nice to hear, even many years later, that somebody else (from a church) feels that was a pretty raw deal.”

She says, however, that she’s not likely to change her attitude.

“I respect what he’s doing,” she said. “But I sort of feel like I’ve made up my mind.”

Dan Webster can be reached at (509) 459-5483 or by e-mail at
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