Saturday, December 29, 2007

Generation Exodus: Why are Young People Leaving the Church?

At 17, I stopped attending church. I’d had doubts about Christianity for a few years, but I didn’t feel safe asking questions at my church. I figured I’d face condemnation for my “lack of faith.” In my 20s, whenever I found the rare Christian who’d converse with me, he or she seemed ill-prepared to offer a basic definition of Christian faith, much less a defense of it. Worse, some Christians dismissed my questions with a condescending, “I’ll pray for you.” For nearly a decade, I remained disconnected from the church.

So I wasn’t surprised when a recent study by LifeWay Research—an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention—found 70 percent of respondents had stopped attending church by age 23. Of those “dropouts” (as the survey called them), 58 percent noted at least one church- or pastor-related reason for leaving. The most frequently cited reasons were "church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical" and "I didn’t feel connected to the people in my church." Additionally, 52 percent said "religious, ethical, or political beliefs" contributed to their departure.

Two of my friends who’ve left the church offer some of their thoughts:

“The church says, ‘Don't ask questions—read your Bible for the answers. Don't think—pray.’ Many people buy into this teaching, even though it insults our intelligence. The church creates prejudices, forcing us to judge people because they don't believe in Jesus Christ or because they consider the possibility of truth beyond Jesus and Christianity. God forbid anybody ever entertain those thoughts.” —female, 21

“Christians seem to want to remake the world in their image. I don't understand how they selectively pick and choose from the Bible. The Bible includes commands not obeyed in today’s society. Christians dismiss the instruction to not touch pig skin, yet proclaim gays are contradicting God's plan, going to hell, and destroying society by wanting to marry. I don’t understand why one instruction is advice to be ignored out of common sense and the other is God’s written law on the subject.” —male, 34

A large part of my friends’ pain and anger is the result of silence within the church. Too often, we don’t discuss social issues with each other. We don’t share our doubts or personal struggles. We don’t even talk about our understanding of Christianity—perhaps we’re afraid others will judge us for our limited knowledge.

Above all, we don’t acknowledge problems that plague the church. In examining the generational exit from the church, I asked several friends to share their concerns and irritations. They were eager and excited to respond. While I don’t agree with every idea offered here, I think communicating and listening to each other is vital to our health as a church body. May we read their comments with thought and with respect for their willingness to share.

“The American Christian church seems focused on a few issues—such as abortion and homosexuality/same-sex marriage—that, while important, shouldn’t be all-consuming. The church and its people should focus more on poverty and compassion. We’re so busy trying to make converts by saying how bad the world is. The world has always been bad! The early church led people to Christ by caring for them, both materially and spiritually. We need to follow their example today.” —female, 40

“A major problem with today’s Christian church is we perpetuate the myth we’ve attained perfection and have somehow transcended the struggles everyone else around us faces. We even fool ourselves into believing this myth. The apostle Paul exhibits brutal honesty when he says in Romans 7:21, ‘I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong’” (NLT). —male, 30

“At church, I'm least myself—not most myself, or my best self. ‘Morality’ always seems tied to individual repression (don't smoke, don't drink), rather than to group responsibility (help the homeless, eradicate poverty). I believe Christians should be interested more in the military support of Israel than in whether or not I want a cigarette.” —female, 34

“The church has done a horrible public relations job. Being a Christian means pursuing a life of contemplation, refusing to accept injustice as a societal norm, and believing a loving higher power—and not our own human deeds—guides a believer’s fate. At some point, someone’s behavior must have created the perception that Christians are nothing more than superstitious and judgmental. That person certainly wasn’t Jesus.” —male, 34

“The most annoying aspect of today's Christian church is the prevalence of intolerant, closed-minded, and dogmatic views. Unfortunately, the people who hold such views tend to be the most vocal Christians, drowning out more moderate voices. These vocal Christians take extreme positions, such as denouncing Halloween as devil worship or celebrating the war in Iraq as God's punishment for our country's tolerance of homosexuality. They proclaim anyone who doesn’t agree with their views is going to hell. In doing so, they show no tolerance for other religions and points of view. Ironically, they’re quite similar in their intolerance and hypocrisy to some of the very people they loathe: Islamic fundamentalists.” —female, 34

“Christians, as a whole, are judgmental. We've forgotten God told us our place isn’t to judge. Not only do we judge non-believers, but we judge each other for the most irrelevant matters. Rather than judge, we need to love unconditionally. Rather than look down on people, we need to care for them as Jesus would. He forgave us, so what makes us better than someone else?” —female, 28

“It bothers me some Christians believe God cares about every thing they do. A friend told me she liked Joel Osteen, so I decided to watch his show. I quickly had to turn it off. In essence, Osteen said: ‘Welcome God into every aspect of your life. Pray before you go into a store. If you buy the wrong items, it’s because you didn’t ask God to be with you during your shopping trip.’ Sorry, no. I do welcome God into my life and want him to help me make life decisions. Buying tan versus brown towels at Target, however, doesn’t count as a ‘life decision.’ ” —female, 34

“What's wrong with the church today? In the words of G.K. Chesterton, ‘I am.’ I am because I'm the only one I can change, and sometimes I refuse to give myself to God. I get in the way of the gospel with my bad example and my failure to be a light in the world.” —male, 23

“I’m frustrated that many Christians seem brainwashed: When they sign up for Christ-following, they often subscribe to all the traditional political and moral viewpoints of the Christian church without checking if those perspectives are truly biblical. I hope Christians will search the Word and listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance, rather than follow without using their minds.” —female, 27

Back to my story: About seven years ago, I met Penny, a 50something secretary and an exuberant Christian. I’d been miserably disconnected from the church for almost 10 years, so Penny was like an oasis in the desert for me. She was transparent and humble. She was honest about the shortcomings of the church, and quick to identify her own role in these. She never portrayed herself as someone who was perfect or superior, but rather as someone who daily relied on God. Most important, she was always willing to talk about her beliefs and my questions. She was the personification of 1 Peter 3:15, ready to give an answer with gentleness and respect.

Penny was everything I wanted to be: a real person with real faith. God began changing me through my conversations with her. I reconnected with the church, and, thankfully, I discovered many more Christians just like Penny.

Admitting our doubts, questions, and frustrations about the church can be difficult, even painful. Yet I believe such discussion is necessary: We can’t become more Christlike unless we first identify how we’re not like Christ. Let’s get this conversation started.

To ponder:
1) What concerns or frustrates you most about today’s Christian church?

2) What encourages you most?

3) How can we—as individuals and as a church—promote honest, meaningful conversation?


Anonymous said...

I don't like that the church is used as an excuse to justify social policy decisions in the U.S. But who knows whether that is with or against the church's wishes.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely LOVE my church and nearly everything about it. If I had to nit pick ... it seems there are few single men in their late 20s attending church. The majority of regular attendees tend to be teens or younger, or in their 30s and up. I don't know if it's just the day and age where men in that age group are busy socializing and trying to be "players," but that would be the only thing I notice that I would like to change.

Chris Taylor said...

Awesome post!
Just what I was looking for!

In Christ,

Dana said...

Great Post!

My sister and I have been discussing this lately. I am saddened by the lack of acceptance. When a pastor says "I would tell them they have no place here, and would be better suited somewhere else." I feel that they are not only bringing personal bias into the church, but they are not exemplifying Christ, who seeks to bring all humans back to God. They are not at all a great example of faith, because they believe the case that upsets them is hopeless. What does it say about a church that has no hope?! That truly believes that God cannot reach even the most hardened heart? If God created the world, how can he not make his way into everyone's heart that is open to him. If someone is not your stereotypical Christian and is coming to a church vulnerable, hoping to be received and instructed on Christ's message, hoping to find peace with Christ and a life in him, how do you think they feel when they leave with this message? They were the one's open to Christ, and the pastor has closed his heart. I have actually heard someone say that "sinners" (homosexuals, those living together before marriage, etc.) have accepted who they are and are not coming with room for spiritual growth and therefore have no place in the church. Isn't that the most ridiculous thing? If they came, don't you think they have room for growth because they are open to it? And where does that leave the pastor? Is there nothing they can gain from these so-called "sinners"? I would say their heart is more closed to spiritual growth and this leaves a sour taste in the mouths of other young adults witnessing these things. I fear that there is room for me at a church that has no room to grow. I will come to a point where I cannot move beyond the finite. If God's love is infinite, I want to experience the infinite with people who are willing to accept that we will never know everything. We will never know the answer to every question, or the which "side" is right or wrong, but we will instead (with much persistent searching) find the love of God in all it's splendor and where we belong in him.

Joe Bigliogo said...

Because they do not accept the claims of bronze age dogma. More young people are thinking critically than ever before and unlike their parents no longer mindlessly follow what they have been spoon fed in their infancy. The Christian religion is in significant decline and I for one couldn't be happier.