I remember when I was serving as a pastor receiving emails, flyers and promotions for “solutions” to the issue of why millennials are leaving the church.
Truth be told, I didn’t realize I was actually a millennial until recently. (Apparently I am in the last year that they include millennials. And, ironically, I find myself joining them on this subject)
I, too, have left the church, but have not left my faith….
I loved church as a kid. It was my social outlet, my crowd, my people – faith and spirituality were something I identified with at an early age. But, with each generation, comes new perspectives and new ways of thinking.
One of the struggles many millennials have with organized religion in general is the inability of the older generations to adapt, change, or entertain new ideas and new ways of thinking. This is an issue each generation bumps up against, but this generation and this subject don’t seem to be finding a middle ground.
As a millennial, life-long church attendee and former pastor, I decided to write an open letter to the church, with the main reasons I decided to walk out of church doors. (And why many other millennials are doing the same).
You have asked why so many millennials are leaving your walls and refusing to come back. As one who has served, pastored and attended church my entire life, you may be surprised to learn that it isn’t just the “flaky” Christians who are leaving. Many leaders like myself are leaving too. And here’s why:
- We don’t like hypocrisy. I know, I know, a lot of you may wrinkle your noses when I say this – or scoff and say, “maybe other Christians, but not me”. Well friends, I’ve attended, led and pastored in more than one church and in multiple denominations. And, let me tell you, there’s a constant theme. Although, in my experience it seems to be more evident in the evangelical groups, it is a steady theme none the less. An example would be: preachers and sermons demonizing pornography and any use of it. Making it appear that holy people (such as themselves) would never struggle with something like that. Especially never admit to it from the pulpit. Meanwhile, statistics show that over 50% of pastors view porn on a regular basis. Or, another example: people who lead mission trips, help the homeless, lead Bible studies and express a large outward appearance of “godliness” – yet, at home, where no one is watching, they neglect their spouses, are angry and controlling with their children and overall treat their family with much less respect and honor as they do the outside world they are “serving”.
- We don’t think that loving your neighbor as yourself should come with a ton of conditions. Again, I can hear the argument against this statement but, hear me out. I was respected when I loved my Christian peers, pew mates and bible study companions who were like myself. I celebrated their families, their marriages, their accomplishments. But, when my neighbor didn’t attend my church, was LGBTQ or held different faiths, I was not supposed to attend their weddings, rejoice when they had or adopted children or celebrate their accomplishments (because clearly it was all the devil’s handy work). I was also expected to not vote in favor of these neighbors having the same rights as myself; such as rights to marry, have tax benefits and create a family or practice their faith publicly. Not only is this not loving my neighbors as myself – it’s hypocrisy at its finest.
- We looked at history. History has this tendency to repeat itself. It doesn’t take long to pull back a few hundred years of history to see a nasty pattern throughout Westernized Christianity. Such as, the vast majority of slavery and racism was endorsed from pulpits. During the civil war, Christian pamphlets were passed to the confederates from churches and religious leaders in their support of God’s “holy war” – ie: the right to own slaves (Stout, Henry S.). Because, after all, slavery is endorsed by scripture. Another example, is how women’s rights were significantly hindered inside of the church and were fought against intensely (and still are) by many Christian leaders. Because, again, scripture supports the silence of women (if you want to interpret it that way). A pattern of oppression, bigotry and an overarching theme of one group holding all of the power, is nauseating.
- We struggle with inequality. We have experienced a lot of diversity. And we believe that diversity is GOOD. We struggle with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters not being allowed to serve or have their families be welcome in church communities. We struggle with the continual lack of diversity in leadership: with women, people of color and LGBTQ people. (If you don’t believe this to be an issue, just look at who is at the top of most Christian churches and communities). And, many times if a woman does find herself at the top, she is paid significantly less than a man would be in her position. The list of spiritually gifted women, LGBTQ people, and people of color that the church has pushed out is truly a tragedy.
- We have a hard time signing up for the idea that everyone we know who doesn’t claim our faith will be set on fire for eternity. If you’ve grown up in church, this concept seems super easy to embrace. Of course, your beloved grandma who is a universalist will burn in hell forever. Of course, your best friend at work who is an atheist will be tortured for eternity. Of course, your aunt who is a faithful Buddhist will be rejected by God and sent to be burned. Of course, your Jewish neighbor will be burned for eternity for not accepting Jesus as their savior. This talk is so normalized for many millennials as children. But, once we grew up and really thought about what we were believing, the harder it was for us to reconcile that with the loving God we know. The concept of eternal torment is easy to embrace until it’s your grandma. Your parent. Your child. Your best friend. All of the sudden the idea of a forever place of torture doesn’t fit that well. (More of my thoughts on hell here).
- We look at scripture differently. A lot of millennials were told “because the Bible says” so much that we actually grew up and decided to read it for ourselves. We read. We studied. We wrestled. We researched. And we realized that the Bible isn’t as clear as we were taught. We learned that there are many contradictions. That there is context involved. People involved. Stories involved. We learned that the Bible is complex, beautiful and sacred. And that it’s okay to not know or understand all of it. That it’s okay to disagree with what we were taught (and even disagree with eachother) – and that’s okay.
- We like authentic community. This is a big one. Many of us grew up attending home group, youth group, life groups, etc – whatever you want to call it. We invested time and energy into relationships, hoping to cultivate genuine connection (beyond just the idea that we attend church together). And, some of those relationships stuck. But, many of them didn’t. Many of these communities we found to be unsafe. Where we couldn’t be our true selves without being judged. We couldn’t express differing opinions (on faith, politics, culture) without being quickly told why we were wrong. We couldn’t go through life’s shitty circumstances and just BE MAD. OR BE SAD. OR BE HUMAN. We felt expected to constantly be “okay”. And, truthfully, it’s exhausting. Because a lot of us weren’t okay. A lot of us had childhood trauma, failing marriages, troubled kids, a spouse who was gay, addictions to alcohol, pornography and a lot of stuff that is pretty darn heavy. And yet, we felt like couldn’t be real about any of it – because when we were real, we were shamed. Or attempted to be “fixed”, “healed” or “delivered”. Many of us have found that we can cultivate and thrive in real community outside of church. And, we find it to be much healthier for us spiritually and for our families.
In closing, I will say that I have loved the church. I love the people. I love my personal history inside it’s walls. But, as I’ve grown, I have had to make some difficult decisions regarding what is healthy for me and my family.
For myself personally, these issues were what caused me to draw the line.
I now find church to be inside my home; a space where everyone is welcome. I find that I worship by loving my children well and find prayer in the breaths and inside my heart. I find that I’m pastoring others well out here in the wilderness. As a family, we find community and love wherever we are and whoever we are with.
I believe and know Spirit to be everywhere. It is all present and ever seeking. When the church embraces this idea too, you may see some of us return. Until then, we believe we are free to follow where we need to be and free to allow others to do the same.
Grace and peace,
PS: if you are in the process of deconstruction or leaving your church, please know you’re not alone! Reach out to me anytime here.