why are we leaving the church?

[I originally wrote this for Christianity Today’s her.meneutics after my pitch was accepted, but they have decided not to publish it, so I’ve decided to post it here.]

“What do you mean you’ve never read Anne of Green Gables?”

My friend was staring at me with horrified ten-year-old eyes. She’d had the same reaction when I’d told her I’d never read Little House on the Prairie a few months earlier, but somehow, I could tell that not being on speaking terms with “Anne-with-an-e” was the greater literary crime. Her solution was to loan me the books, and I devoured them. One scene that has been my favorite since then was the chapter where Anne learns to say her prayers. Marilla asks if she knows who God is, and Anne’s response is to recite the catechism– but when Marilla begins to instruct her on the “proper” way of saying a prayer, Anne provides a different approach to Marilla’s emphasis on orthopraxy:

“I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky–up–up–up–into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”

For a long time, my response to this notion of interacting with God, faith, and religion was the same as Marilla’s: I assigned words like sacrilegious  or pagan or heathen to this “touchy-feely” approach.

And then I went to graduate school.

Before I become another statistic of one of those good Christian kids that go off to college and become a liberal, I should tell you that I attained both of my degrees from conservative evangelical universities. But yes, I went off to college, and I became a liberal.

However, it depends on your definition of liberal. Theologically, I define myself on the progressive side of conservative. I hold with the regula fidei— the creeds, and the “faith held always, everywhere, and by all.” I believe in the essentials, and I fit inside most Protestant orthodox views. I have serious questions about soteriology, but I’m working through them.

How I’m a liberal has to do with ecclesiology, and what I feel is the nature and purpose of Christ’s body on earth. In a recent theology class I’m taking, we were asked to give our definition of the church, and I wrote down that “the church is a body capable of reaching unification through Christ in order to achieve God’s mission on earth: the Great Commission and social justice through godly love.”

As a teenager, the social justice in my definition would have made me cringe. It certainly makes many modern theologians cringe, too. My generation, because of this movement away from the practiced theology of the last century, is being called the “most theologically illiterate generation ever.” A recent blog post that went viral on why this generation is leaving the church in mass droves is being chalked up to us being “embarrassingly ignorant,” that we’re searching for “warm fuzzies in soup kitchens.” We’re nihilistic, post-modern, and cynical. We’re being told that “moralistic therapeutic deism” is one of the greatest threats Christianity faces today. We’re given the fear-mongering statistic that 70% of us leave church during our college years.

These are familiar accusations to my generation. Familiar, and frustrating. To an extent, many of these concerns are valid. In the earnest search for solutions, however, the response is to confront this generation’s struggles with a battle cry of “more doctrine!” This supposed falling away is seen as a failure on the part of Christian community–  the failure to pass on the faith of our fathers to our children. If only we had just taught them better, made sure they understood the creeds and the catechisms and the confessions.

But, when I engage with my friends, my fellow-students, my colleagues, my community, my fellow writers– what I find isn’t a lack of theological literacy. It’s just a different theology– it’s a theology that interacts with us in our week-a-day lives. It’s a theology that we want to mold and shape us and teach us how to become more like Christ. And, when we see Christ, what we see is compassion, love, and mercy– and a person who came to minister, who ate with publicans and sinners, who came to seek out the least of these. Our evangelization, our witnessing, looks different, because it’s one that we choose to act out in missional living. Maybe you won’t find us in church– you’ll find us in the soup kitchens and the food pantries, in the trenches working and building. Having all the right answers, believing all the right things, is not our priority. We want faith and practice to enrich everything we are, and we’re finding God not in the church buildings, but in the streets.

And, frankly, we’re tired. No, we’re exhausted by the seemingly never-ending demands on our political and theological loyalties. We’re bombarded with a hundred different articulations of what it means to be a “true Christian,” and to us, those messages don’t look anything like Jesus. We don’t want to be at war anymore, fighting our parent’s battles. We’re looking around at a world that is starving, and broken, and we see that the Church is becoming a byword for hate. That, more than anything else, saddens us.

So, we’re searching, and in our somewhat blind stumbling, we’re trying to find other ways to be a Christian: missional, sacramental, universal, progressive, paleo-orthodox . . . We are embracing doubt and questions, and we’re comfortable with living in the unknown, in the gray. Saying “I don’t know” is a post-modern statement, but it’s not a statement about meaninglessness, but about honesty and transience. Our searching is leading to us to a deeper understanding of beauty, myth, and story, and we’re engaging with the sublime, the transcendent, the spiritual, in order to escape the banal and mundane, to bring God’s will in heaven down here to earth. Strangely, we’re moving both toward and away from certainty; we may be less sure about abstract theological questions, but we’re becoming positive that loving our neighbor and do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a good place to start.

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  • Margaret

    I really appreciate this post. I am a 54 yr old mom. My youngest son just graduated from high school. My kids, more than I, are your generation, but is heart is fully with you. I grew up in a third world country as the daughter of missionary parents. Some missionaries get a bad rap, because they go to make duplicates of themselves, and don’t take time to understand the culture. My parents and their co-workers ,however, went to love, to learn, and to share the Jesus who loved and sent them.

    One of my biggest challenges in returning to the US, after high school, was to try to fit in to the American church. Many of the churches were saying – “my way is the only way”, and they weren’t all the same. Many of them were not attractive. Trying to fit into a strange “home” culture was hard enough. Then I also had to watch out for “Christians” who were mean, judgmental, and not like Christ. Fortunately, I’d had examples of real, Christ followers who really loved people, so I was able to find new friends and mentors at my college and after who helped me grow in the practical side of faith.

    I attended a denominational conservative Christian college, that turned out to be a safe place to grow in faith and explore the nuances of my faith. I was not brave enough then to challenge anyone, but have learned a lot over the years from my husband and my kids about how to question and to challenge ideas.

    (Note: I’d like to see a discussion of the word “doubt.” Does it mean to question, or to not believe? or something in between?)

    One of the things I love about my current church is that we have a “Discovery Class” for people who want to ask questions before they make any commitment to attending anything. The class is planned to be 6 sessions, usually once a week. The leaders plan lessons around the basic tenets of the faith, but leave the door wide open to questions from the class participants on any topic they want to discuss.

    I want to be open to questions. I want to be open to new ways of loving people. I want to be a representative of the love of Christ in my community. I don’t have to have all the answers to follow Christ in loving people.
    “I can face uncertain days, because Christ lives.” (“Because He Lives:” by Bill and Gloria Gaither, 1970’s)

    • Oh man, Margaret, I understand. I spent three years in a missionary community, and coming back has been a shock on my system. Going to church left me drained as it felt both hollow and judgmental.

  • I left the institutional church a little over a year ago (at the age of 43, having been in the “church” my whole life). . . This, however, does not mean that I left the Body of Christ, or that His Spirit left me, or that my spiritual growth has become stunted. I now have to be more intentional with Christian community—but it no longer involves “attending” and being a “member” of an institutional “church.” And my christian maturity has not been hindered a bit.

    Fwiw, here’s a good write up by Andy Zoppelt on the origin and idea of the word “church.”

    It’s pagan, really.

    Here’s a link to part 1(of 5) posts:

    It may be worth a read!

  • some people seem to elevate certainty in faith above all else. meaning they feel the need to take a stand even knowing there is information they can’t have. then defend that certain standing on scripture and judge others by it. like churches’ stances on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, women in leadership… you point out deborah and instead of ‘i don’t know’ they manipulate the story to get it to fit their certainty.
    “Saying “I don’t know” is a post-modern statement, but it’s not a statement about meaninglessness, but about honesty and transience.”
    I know few christians in person willing to not know.

  • Dubito Ergo Sum

    “I doubt, therefore I am.” ~Augustine

  • There are few things that infuriate me more than people who assume that in order to have a moral compass, one must be a Christian. Because I have met plenty of so-called Christians whose moral compass seems to be permanently stuck on the direction of “rules, what rules. I want what I want” and plenty of atheists who go through their lives living and breathing “love thy neighbor.” The notion that one must believe in their theologically rigorous, and yet simultaneously abusive, exploitational, and even at times morally bankrupt, churches in order to be a moral person is offensive beyond imagining.

  • Don Albertson

    If there were more Christians like you, I might not have become a member of the church of St. Heriticus thev Apostate.

  • Yes! Yes!!! Right with you on this.

  • I am disenchanted with church as the place where people have roles to fill in order to have a goal to strive for perfection.

    What bullshit!

    God is perfect and Heaven is perfect but we are not and will never be on this earth.

    We are not here to be perfect or model it to others but rather we are here to learn how to love and love unconditionally.

    We are distanced from God for a short season to learn a lesson and we don’t know what it is and it isn’t going to be what we suppose but I am supposing it is to learn how to love even when………fill in the blank.

    The greatest of these is __________.

    Without ________ we are nothing.

    Perfect _______casts out fear.

    God so ________ the world….

    I am not perfect and I don’t give a rat’s ass about theology but someday I will learn how to love other people.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    For a long time, my response to this notion of interacting with God, faith, and religion was the same as Marilla’s: I assigned words like sacrilegious or pagan or heathen to this “touchy-feely” approach.

    I’d describe Anne in that passage as more “spontaneous” and “improvisational” than anything else.

    These are familiar accusations to my generation. Familiar, and frustrating. To an extent, many of these concerns are valid. In the earnest search for solutions, however, the response is to confront this generation’s struggles with a battle cry of “more doctrine!”

    The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had a similar “double down” response when their system really started cracking apart during the Brezhnev era. Except they called it “Increasing Political Consciousness”. (And increased crushing of ALL dissidents and doubters in Our Perfect System.) They doubled down and doubled down until ALL Soviet education and media were Political Consciousness Indoctrination while their system crumbled and crumbled and crumbled. By the time all those with skeletons in their closets from the Stalin era died off and sanity returned, all Gorbachev could do was try for a “soft landing” for the wreckage.

  • I love this post so much! It reminds me of this quote: “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty.” – anne lamott

    Once I became okay with not being completely certain, I felt liberated. I’m convinced that doctrinal certainty leads to dogma, and it robs faith of its majesty and mystery by turning it into a list of bullet points that we just give intellectual assent to. Every moment has the potential to be holy, but if we’re distracted by rules or worrying whether or not we’re doing enough for God, we just end up driving ourselves insane, always afraid that we’re going to be punished for some past or recent transgression, worried that we’re not enough. That’s not what God wants for our lives. God is within us and wants to do things WITH us. I have seen so many people miss out on the peace and joy because of the collective spiritual neurosis that is gripping the church. The mainstream church has become so desperate to keep people in that they end up either fear-mongering because the fear of hell is a powerful, though awful and cruel, motivator. Whenever I start to worry about whether or not I’m “enough of a Christian” according to what pundits are saying, I just remember Micah 6:8, and I remember that in the deluge of doctrine, sometimes the simplest thing to do is “be still and know [God is] God.” I don’t read that ‘know’ as a sterile command but rather an invitation; I’ll be still and in my stillness, I will experience God.

    Bible verses shouldn’t get turned into blunt objects. And we don’t worship the Bible; we worship God.

  • Os Guiness wrote and insightful book on doubt. . . “In Two Minds:The Dilemma of Doubt and how to Resolve It”, it was very helpful to me. Much of life is more of a balance between to points. . . living in a tension rather than a black and white. The highest art of the theologian is to maintain a balance between Law and Gospel, Rules and Grace, Obedience and Love. . . It IS what Christian living is al about! Thanks for this article!

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  • Geno

    You say in your post, “This supposed falling away is seen as a failure on the part of Christian community– the failure to pass on the faith of our fathers to our children. If only we had just taught them better, made sure they understood the creeds and the catechisms and the confessions.”

    The Real failure is in not understanding and submitting to what GOD is looking to have in His people. THE faith involves being a living, organic expression of the life and nature of Christ. THAT is the faith of our fathers, and it has been lost.

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