J. I. Packer On Why People Leave Churches


I first read Knowing God in 1994. It was a real eye-opener. It was the first book on theology that I had been introduced to, but it was written with the expectation that if I truly grasped it, my love and passion for God would increase. God used this book to increase my hunger for the Bible. I was reminded of this experience when I gathered this morning with a small group and we began working through it.

We read the preface aloud, and something caught my attention that I hadn’t noticed before. It is from Packer’s 1973 preface. He described a trend that has led to an ignorance of God. “Christian minds have been conformed to the modern spirit: the spirit, that is, that spawns great thoughts of man and leaves room for only small thoughts of God.”

What does this look like? Packer wrote that it looks like people getting so caught up in religious practices that they “have allowed God to become remote.” Packer’s observation reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:1, “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” So, the religious practices that Packer is talking about are akin to the “acts of righteousness” performed by the Pharisees. Ouch.

But what does this have to do with people leaving churches? Here is Packer’s answer: “Clear sighted persons, seeing this, are tempted to withdraw from churches in something like disgust to pursue a quest for God on their own.” In other words, when someone comes to our church, they look around and wonder, “Do these folks really mean it? Are they going through the motions or is God’s Spirit really at work in their midst?” Religious practices alone is like watered-down glue–worthless!

So how can we flee the false faith of religious practices that hardens the heart and sends the clear sighted away from our churches?

  1. Talk about God’s character. He is powerful, sovereign, wonderful, glorious, and amazing True believers will not find this God remote (Col. 1:15-20).
  2. Love God and neighbor. Love for God will spill over into love for each other (1 Cor. 13:1). If the love of God is in us we will be “devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Rom. 12:10). This kind of devotion will not be confused with mere “religious practices.”
  3. Confess sin. Though we walk together in newness of life, we still fall short of the kingdom. Sometimes we all fall into “religious practices” that lack the zeal we desire–we all, at times, allow God to become remote (even those “clear sighted” folks who leave our churches). Let’s be honest about it, confess it, and thank God for a Savior who died for sinners like us who, too often, have small thoughts of God.
Aaron Menikoff

Aaron Menikoff is the senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia.