Leaving Church

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Who is leaving the church? How does that differ from leaving the faith? What is their background? What are some of the factors that contribute to their choice to jettison the faith in which they were raised? These are some of the questions that we need to ask if we are to stem the flow of millennials leaving the church.

The interviews indicated that the women who had decided to leave the church and/or the faith fell pretty evenly into two different groups. The first half was raised either Catholic or Episcopalian. All but one of the women who were in this group were raised nominally Catholic/Episcopalian, with great emphasis put on the culture and the rules of the church and little or no teaching given regarding biblical literacy or the concept of having an actual relationship with God. When prompted, these women were unable to give knowledgeable answers to basic questions about the tenets of Christian doctrine, the identity of Jesus, etc., and had no real understanding of the Gospel.

“My entire family – immediate and extended – is Catholic. I’ve received all the sacraments. I attended a Catholic school from age 3 to age 18. Looking back on it, I learned what I had to because that’s what I was told to do. The church never helped me connect with God or a higher power.” – L, age 26

Without the concept of a living, active, loving God, this kind of “faith” can be easily jettisoned.

The other group consisted of those who were raised in a strict Protestant tradition. Generally speaking, these women were much more biblically literate. Their answers indicated that they understood the concepts of the Christian faith. When asked about their reasons for leaving the church and/or their faith, their answers centered largely on the inability to ask questions, on unloving, unforgiving attitudes, and on the dichotomy between what is preached in Christianity and what is often done in practice.

“I asked Jesus into my heart when I was four, which looking back now feels inappropriate. I had no idea what I was doing. The older I got the more questions I asked and that wasn’t accepted. I got sent home from chapel sometimes because I was perceived as being argumentative.” S, age 26

“… it was very stressful being the pastor’s daughter. If you ever question anything it’s terrible and you’re going straight to hell.” – R, age 30

“I have experienced people who say they’re Christian and devout but their views are not Christian views. They prayed and talked to Jesus but their actions didn’t speak to what I would consider Christian. So it turned me off to going at all.” O, age 26

One interviewee, when describing her experience being raised in the church, noted:

“You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned spirituality by now, right?  And that’s the way it was. There were a lot of rules and stuff but no real faith.” – A, age 35

So, what can we do in response?

Keep loving. Keep loving them with no agenda. When we bring up spiritual topics at every opportunity or try to guilt them into attending church it just pushes them further away. They need to believe that we love them for who they are at this moment and that we’re not going to rescind our love or shame them if they don’t make the decisions that we want them to.

Be biblical. Take some time to figure out which of our behaviors are true biblical imperatives and which are merely the preferences of our Christian culture. Several of the interviewees gave examples of behaviors they were judged on that are not biblical mandates, but rather were only church cultural norms. The Jews created the Talmud to make sure they had rules about the rules so that they wouldn’t inadvertently break a commandment. That’s the kind of thinking that likely prompted Jesus’ rebuke in Matthew 23:4. We have to look carefully to make sure we’re not doing a version of the same thing. Even when one of our cultural mores can be traced back to a biblical concept, that does not give it the same weight as the Bible itself. We need to choose our “hill to die on” very, very carefully because these millennials are smart and savvy and they will call us out if they sniff any hypocrisy.

Be authentic. Answer their hard questions honestly, even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Additionally, we need to admit when we’re wrong. When we mess up, apologize. “I was a jerk and I’m so sorry” goes much further with a millennial than acting all holy or making excuses.

Get involved. Part of loving them includes actively engaging in their lives. Relationships will grow and God will shine through you the more that you hang out with and humbly serve your prodigal loved ones. Based on what these women are saying in the interviews, their active Jesus-loving friends and family members who love them unconditionally are the ones who are making the greatest inroads with them.

Just a few thoughts for the road. Thanks for traveling with me.

Keep hoping. Keep praying. Keep loving.

Kristi, for WeConnect