. . . and why he has no intention of going back anytime soon . . .
Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post at CNN recently that set off a miniature firestorm among those interested in spiritual things and the state of the Christian church in the United States. Her post, entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” has elicited strong reactions. Most of the ones I’ve read have been largely negative.
Unfortunately, both Evans’ original article and every response to it that I’ve encountered, suffer from over-generalization. The assumption at work is that there is A Reason for millennials leaving the church. Detractors fill in terms like “narcissistic” or “consumerist” to try to explain the emotions that drive young people out of the walls of church buildings . . . as if everyone who leaves does so because the church isn’t catering specifically enough to their own individual whims. What has largely been lacking in the discussion – particularly from the “anti” side, but even from Evans’ perspective – is the stated viewpoint of an actual millennial who has actually “left the church.”
Having been what I like to call a “post-congregational Christian” for the past seven years, I thought I’d offer one. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself – like I said, there is no single reason for the phenomenon Evans observes. What follows are my reasons.
Like Evans herself, I’m a 32-year-old with one foot in Generation X and one in the Millennial camp. For those interested in reading the story of my journey out of the institutional church, I’ve written about it before, here.
I haven’t written much on the subject since then – I’ve felt the need to spend the last several years doing much more in the way of listening to God, and much less in the way of talking about my relationship with Him to others who aren’t in the same place I am. But the short version of this seven-year journey is that I haven’t so much left the church, as I’ve left the church building. Sadly, too many people – both those who’ve left and those who’ve watched them go – confuse the church universal and the church institutional. They are not the same thing at all, and some (though not all) of us who leave the latter are still very active in the former.
Why, then, did I leave the institution? The answer is something of a conglomeration of three reasons which, I suspect, animate most of those who leave the institutional church, though perhaps in different proportions. That’s not to say that people – even young people – can’t find an incredible amount of comfort, wisdom and insight within their local church. But that’s certainly not what some of us find. What I found – what I suspect many millennials find – is a church that is paranoid, abusive and extraneous.
Evans covers this category fairly well, though she doesn’t necessarily draw the connection I’m trying to make here. She writes: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She gives several examples, and in a follow-up post, she boils these down to:
“Young adults in the U.S. consistently reported that they left the church because they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.”
These factors all have one thing in common. They are indicators of an institution that is – like all institutions – invested first and foremost in its own survival. If you look at each of the faults young people find in their local church institutions, the one thing they’ve all encountered is fear: fear of sex and its consequences, fear of doubt and its ramifications, fear of “the gay agenda” or of what the latest experiments at CERN might uncover about how the world works . . . fear of what they might find if they start asking real questions about the things they claim to believe.
Somewhere along the line, the institutional church lost Romans 8:31 . . . “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” . . . and the verses that surround it. The 21st Century Church – be it evangelical, mainline protestant, or some other denomination – has taken upon itself the burden of helping God out in ways He never asked it to.
Small wonder, too, for the institutional church has been rooted in fear for practically its entire existence. In the first century after Christ’s ministry, that fear was the very reasonable terror of persecution – as it still is in much of the world. In fact, Hebrews 10:21, the verse most commonly leveled against those of us who no longer attend Sunday services at a local congregation, was written precisely to backstop the early Christians against living in fear, urging them to stay connected to one another rather than retreating into isolation in response to the threat. Later, the Constantinian institutionalization of the church came about as a natural response to that fear: coopting the levers of power and aiming them in other directions away from the church. The Inquisition and the Crusades were driven by a church afraid of any dissenting voices or competing worldviews, and the Protestant Reformation quickly aggregated political power to itself to counter the predictable Catholic backlash. Our own country’s founding is a virtual catalog of fear-based faith: from Puritan Massachusetts to Catholic Maryland to Quaker Pennsylvania to Baptist Rhode Island, the story of American colonization is the story of powerful religious majorities engaging in persecution stemming from the fear of dissent, and of hated religious minorities fleeing in fear from those more powerful than they.
That’s an oversimplification, of course – as any attempt to boil the entirety of church history down into a single paragraph must necessarily be. But the point is that the author of Hebrews knew then what we have now forgotten, the same thing the Apostle Paul told his young protege in 2nd Timothy 1:7, “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
I’d love to see more of that in our churches today. So, I suspect, would many other millennials. Instead, the institution focuses on so-called “threats” to its existence (like sex, gay people, and sex with gay people) sometimes to the exclusion of actually practicing what Christ preached. And those of us who are more interested in James’ definition of “Pure religion and undefiled” are accused of compromising with, accommodating, and (heaven forfend) tolerating “the world.”
It’s a definition of compromise that makes it fairly easy to see how people like Fred Phelps and Eric Rudolph become who they are. If every day we aren’t jumping in someone’s face and explaining to them that “you’re wrong about Jesus and you’re going to hell for it,” is a day we’re “compromising with evil,” then Phelps and Rudolph are simply taking that line of thought all the way through to its logical conclusion.
Some of those who leave the church actually do compromise, of course – actually do throw out what they know to be right in order to maintain good standing with the “in” set. Others of us are just fairly sure God can handle any existential threats to the survival of the universal church without our help, and we have very, very different ideas about what constitutes an “existential threat.”
Of course, when we express those different ideas, the response is often . . .
Let me describe for you the churches I’ve attended in my lifetime as more than just a casual visitor. Here they are, in order:
* First there was the Baptist church whose pastor was dipping into the church’s finances for his own pet projects, and who deliberately removed families from the church’s prayer list because he felt their decision to home school their children was a threat to the private school operated by the church.
* Most of my childhood and formative years were spent in a non-denominational fundamentalist church that castigated members for listening to rock music, attending movies, playing cards, accruing any sort of debt, and (for the girls) wearing pants or open-toed shoes. This one was also very heavily involved in an organization that has quite accurately been termed “Pharisee School.” Perhaps I should have taken it as a pretty stark warning sign when the church leadership specifically instructed us how to respond to accusations of legalism by providing an alternate definition that was so narrowly specific as to exempt them from the charge. But I was just a teenager at the time and I was involved up to my ears in various church ministries, so I missed the warnings – or at least missed enough of them that I stayed put. I was one of the “good kids” (or was at least very heavily invested in being seen as one of the good kids), so I followed the rules and refrained from making waves.
* When I moved out of state for college, I found a home church that was a comfortable fit for me at the time, precisely because it was so similar in many ways to the previous one.
* Next, I attended a large, Neo-Calvinist church for awhile and considered joining it. I ended up elsewhere, and only later discovered this church was sheltering multiple child-abusers behind the scenes in the name of “forgiveness,” while ostracizing their victims because they wanted to bring the matters before law enforcement rather than letting the church handle it internally.
* I ended up joining a large reformed Southern Baptist church. It was a good fit in some ways for where I was at the time, and the small-group discussions I had with other guys my age were incredible. My experiences with the church leadership were . . . less so. I had an “accountability relationship” with one of the elders who felt the best way to help me deal with a then-longstanding porn addiction was not to take a look at the underlying root issues behind what I was doing, but simply to put some software on my computer so he could see every website I visited. Later, when I started having serious doubts about some of the church’s stances on given issues, I ended up in long talks with the assistant pastor and a couple of the elders, who ultimately told me that unless I shaped up and started showing up to meetings more often, they were thinking about putting me under church discipline. I left instead, and I haven’t been inside a church since then except for the occasional wedding or Christmas Eve sing-along service.
There have been others here and there, but those are the main ones. The common theme is, of course, that the leaders at each of these institutions considered themselves either above the “common folk” of the church, or considered themselves justified in exercising broad controls over very minute areas of members’ lives . . . or, in some cases, both. It was later, when I became acquainted with Jeff VanVonderen’s and David Johnson’s book on the topic, that I discovered a name for what I’d been experiencing: Spiritual Abuse.
I’m far from alone, and mine is very far from the worst story I’ve heard. I’ve seen others of my generation tormented by the leadership of their own institutions for things like having a relationship with a member of a different denomination, expecting the father of an out-of-wedlock child to be held to the same standards as the child’s mother, and having the unmitigated gall to be afflicted with bipolar disorder, severe chemical sensitivities, or some other malady that made it difficult to interact with a large congregation of people in an enclosed space on a regular basis. I’ve known people whose pastors and “spiritual authorities” used counseling sessions to exploit vulnerable people for physical and emotional abuse, and I’ve known churches which, if they ever found out what was going on, were more interested in covering up the abuse and protecting the abusers than in helping out the victims.
That’s certainly not everyone’s experience, and not every church family has experienced these kinds of horror stories, but there are enough of them out there that I suspect many millennials have similar experiences – or worse – and just can’t take it anymore. I couldn’t. Even without the severe trauma that has affected some, what I found was an institution specifically designed to facilitate a relationship with Christ, that was instead having exactly the opposite effect.
Rachel Held Evans might respond that I just hadn’t tried the right church (which in her case turned out to be the United Methodist Church). Others have certainly responded that way upon hearing my story.
The problem is that the institutionalized paranoia that leads some churches far enough to be abusive is, quite simply, baked into the cake. It’s part of what a church is, particularly in 21st Century America where any church is just another corporation, with a pastor as its CEO, elders as its Board of Directors, and a statement of faith as its articles of incorporation. Like any corporation, it exists first and foremost to promote and prolong its own existence. And like all corporations, this leads it to engage in behavior that is incredibly risk-averse. In my life, the total number of local, institutional churches I’ve come across where the leadership has made the decision that it was in the members’ best interests not to “rebrand,” or “adjust,” or “make substantial changes,” but to actually shut its doors and let its members find alternative spiritual homes, is exactly one. I can tell you this much from personal knowledge and experience: the number of churches that would greatly benefit their members by doing so is far higher than that.
David Hayward, a former pastor who has written much about the issues and abuses of the institutional church on his blog, writes this in response to Evans’ article:
I agree [with Evans] that the church is fascinated with tweaking but not transforming itself. I agree there needs to be substantial change . . . The substantial change people are talking about, in my opinion, is not substantial enough. Again, the substantial changes suggested are, in their own way, a more radical form of tweaking. I suspect a much deeper change is coming because the church is becoming not only less and less relevant, but less and less necessary.
Hayward gets what Evans misses: that the institution itself – which once served as the sole source of comfort for threatened individuals hiding for their lives – has become extraneous. He notes in a follow-up post that even those who recognize the fault of the institution in the current state of affairs maintain the same tired old “blame the victim” mentality I noted above.
For awhile I was content to be my local church’s resident “problem child,” the lightning-rod who drew fire in order to make sure certain issues were brought up and addressed. I still have good friends who play that role in their own local churches. I admire them for it, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I left, among other reasons, because my very presence in the church was a distraction for other people whose relationship with God was in a different place than mine. Either they had to be forced to dwell on and address issues and questions that weren’t what God was working on in their lives at that time, or I had to sit down and shut up.
Or I had to leave. So I left.
I last set foot in a church service more than seven years ago. Yet nothing stops me from fully engaging in the life of the universal church – sans institution. I regularly listen to wise men (and yes, women too!) expound on scripture via podcast or YouTube video (for that matter, I’ve listened to some not-so-wise ones, as well).
In the last few months I’ve had deep, engaging spiritual conversations with friends from a variety of faith perspectives including evangelical, neo-calvinist, orthodox, catholic, neo-charismatic and others. My “immediate spiritual family” includes friends in my own neighborhood, throughout the D.C. Metro area, across the country, even literally on the other side of the world . . . people whom I can contact at a moment’s notice to ask for advice or prayer on any subject I wish.
The man who has taught me more than anyone else about extricating “the church” from the institution that bears its name has also inspired a renewed love of scripture, and I’ve gone through the Bible 2 1/2 times in the past year alone learning new and exciting things about God with each reading. I’ve begun writing a series of scripture-based short stories that I plan to share with my son when he’s old enough. I’ve even taken communion right there at my own dinner table.
One of the things I discovered when I left the institutional church was how very narrow my exposure to alternative perspectives had been. What I knew of the beliefs of other faiths – and even other Christian denominations – I knew only from the perspective of their detractors. Every look at any viewpoint departing from the church’s specific creeds was examined only with an eye toward how to critique it.
All of which left me with the question: Why on earth would I need some corporate creation to help me do all these things when I can access a much broader, more well-rounded set of perspectives on my own?
And what about giving back? Nothing prevents me from opening my home to those in need of a place to stay, donating to relief efforts, participating in spiritually-focused conversations in a variety of online and real-world venues, or giving in a variety of other ways. I’ve come across ministry opportunities I’d never have heard of if my only spiritual interactions took place in the context of a single local congregation. It takes work – it takes seeking out opportunities and grabbing the ones that drop into your lap, rather than passively listening as someone reads them to you out of the bulletin in the Sunday morning service. And sometimes I still suck at it. But the opportunities are definitely there, and do not require a local institution as a pass-through.
Why are millennials leaving the church? For me, more than any other reason, it’s because the church as I’ve known it is a 18th Century institution in a 21st Century world. When the people across the street and around the corner were the only ones you ever knew, and when you all gathered together to share life on Sunday morning at the church in the town square, this institution made perfect sense. When I can send an email or Facebook message from Northern Virginia to a friend or spiritual mentor in California or New Zealand and get a response back in hours (or less), it doesn’t. This is the world millennials have grown up with. It’s the only world they know. It’s a world in which a 10am Sunday service at a building around the block – or the next town over – seems an anachronism. That’s not to say that literally hundreds of millions of people the world over can’t find comfort and meaning in that institution. It is to say that some of us don’t.
Why are they – we – leaving the church? Perhaps it’s because “the church” as an institution stopped making sense to us a long time ago.
Some call that selfish, or narcissistic, or consumerist. They say that even if I don’t think I need the church, the church needs me. I’ve been told various times, and in various ways, that I’m “leaving a Mike-shaped hole in some church family somewhere.”
That’s just one more retreat into a belief in a much smaller God than the one I worship. The God I worship – the God I find in Scripture – is perfectly capable of meeting the needs of His people – wherever and however they gather – without my help. Does He want my participation in the life of His body?? Certainly! But that’s not because He’s incapable of doing something if I’m not there . . . it’s because he wants to draw me closer to Him . . . to teach me more about Him . . . to spend time with me while going about His work, as any loving Father would. And it doesn’t necessarily mean He cares if I show up at the same building for Sunday School at 9am, Church at 10:30, Evening Service at 6, and mid-week prayer meeting on Wednesday nights.
This critique also ignores history. There have always been those whom God uses to reform religious institutions from the inside, and those He uses to challenge and change those institutions from the outside. Erasmus and Luther found themselves on opposite sides of this split, as did the Puritans and Separatists who settled the British colony of Massachusetts. Rachel Held Evans, it seems, is a modern-day Puritan, seeking to change the church from within.
I find myself a Separatist.
Again, I’m not claiming to speak for all millennials . . . or even for all half-GenX/half-millennial misfits like myself! This is my story, and mine alone. To those who share a piece of that story, I hope you find it encouraging. To those seeking one person’s honest viewpoint about why the pews are empty on Sunday mornings, I hope you find it enlightening. To those who find that God is most easily heard from the seat of your chosen congregation, I’m glad you’ve found what you need in order to know Him better. To those who find yourselves feeling the weight of obligation to show up on Sundays simply because you’ve always been told that’s what a relationship with God looks like, I hope this gives you a sense that there is a way to extricate yourself from the worldview that shames people into the pews each week, without abandoning your faith and everything you believe in.
To all of you, thank you for reading.