hoping to help bring change at church, part one

church building

I’m a millennial.

There’s been a lot of stuff written about us and church– if we’re going, why we’re leaving, what people can do to get us to come back, why we should just come back on our own. . . and there are as many different opinions about this as there are people writing about it. I’ve even written about it a time or two (ok, maybe three).

I spent a good chunk of time over my Christmas vacation trying to explain my frustrations about church to a few people from different generations– even people who aren’t “church people” and never have been. It’s a grueling thing trying to unpack it, and it can be exhausting just trying to dredge up all my thoughts and feelings and trying to present it in a way that someone else who doesn’t have these struggles can understand.

A lot of my energy, right now, is going toward — I don’t even know what to call it. “My church”? “The church I go to sometimes”? It seems like I haven’t been to church at all in months, and it’s been a mixed bag as to why. My health is a big part of it, but so is an overwhelming apathy on Sunday morning. But I am doing what I can in order for church to be a safe place for me to go.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I should either find a different church or just stop going entirely, and both options are incredibly tempting. But, there are reasons why I go to this church, even though it can be difficult at times. When I was talking about this process of trying to work with leadership in order to express my concerns and hopefully bring about change, however, this question frequently came up: “what will you do if nothing happens?”

I had to be honest. I’d leave.

And it would be because I’d be bone-tired exhausted. I would have fought as hard as I could for as long as I could, and in the end, if nothing happened, I’d be… I’d just be done. That would be it. I would have given my all, and I would have nothing left. Not even to try again somewhere else. My biggest fear is that I’ll spend the next months, the next year, doing everything I can, but that I’ll face entrenchment and resistance. That the leadership will do me the kindness of hearing me out . . . and then make it clear that nothing will change. I don’t know how I’ll really react if that happens. What I do know is that I’m already weary thinking about it.

But something that seems to have been a theme in a lot of the conversations I’ve had in the past year, in a lot of the articles I’ve read, what I’m doing — trying to help bring change — is expected of my generation. If we leave a church before we’ve gotten to the point that we physically cannot drag ourselves inside the building, then we just haven’t done enough. We haven’t given enough. If we leave before we’ve poured every last ounce of ourselves into our churches, then it just wasn’t good enough. We don’t deserve to complain, or criticize. We haven’t earned the right.

And that . . . makes me sad. And tired. And frustrated.

In some ways, I understand this sentiment. Throwing your hands up before you’ve even begun to try does come across as a little immature (which just plays right into how my generation is perceived. After all, we’re all a bunch of narcissists). But, this idea, I think, comes from a pretty basic misunderstanding of the critiques millennials tend to have about the American evangelical church.

When I hear people my age talk about the struggles they face with church, it’s usually after an entire lifetime of devotion. We’ve already poured nearly everything we had into our churches. We’re already exhausted, and the thought of facing elder boards and church leadership– of possibly, or even likely, being ignored and dismissed– it’s so far beyond our capacity. We’re already barely hanging onto our faith, and somehow we’re expected to show up, serve, and try to change church institutions that have been deeply engrained over thousands of years? We’re supposed to do everything we can to undo the rampaging damage of the Culture Wars? We’re supposed to hammer our swords into ploughshares?

And, it seems like, we’re supposed to do this on our own. We’re to face the bearded lion of entrenched and overwhelmingly powerful ideologies, to walk boldly into a den that has proven itself to be oh-so-nicely hostile to any sort of change.

I’m doing it. Most of my time today is going to be spent putting together presentations for my church leadership and the elder board. I am fully expecting this to take time, to be hard. I’m expecting a battle with depression and anxiety, to have to spend every single minute fighting with all of the well-trained impulses I have to remain silent for I am not permitted to teach. I have self-care methods already planned out– I am stocked up on coloring pages and fuzzy blankets and favorite shows and rooibos tea. I have Handsome by my side– an amazing man who understands my need for a support system before, during, and after.

But while I’m doing all of this, I know that I’m unique. That what I am doing is hard and I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to survive until the end. It doesn’t make me more brave, or more tenacious, or better in any way… it just means that I’m a little less exhausted.

Just because there are people like me, who are able to put in the hours, to take a few body hits, it doesn’t mean that anyone should judge my generation based on what I’m willing to do. I’m doing it because I’m able, and there isn’t anyone else here who can. That is not a reflection of anyone else– it should be nothing less than a reflection on the evangelical church culture. It’s not the millennials’ fault that, by and large, the American evangelical church is– and I’m not using these words callously– bigoted, racist, hateful, sexist, and deeply politicized. We didn’t make it that way. Our grandparents did. Our parents did. And the attitudes that seem to be firmly fixed in place aren’t going to change over night. We all know that. But, only some of us have the energy to fight.

This is the first post of a series on my efforts to help bring change to my church. I don’t know how long it’s going to be, or how many posts it will have. But, I do have a few reasons for writing about this process and then posting it on the internet.

First, despite the tone of this post today, I’m hoping for this series to be encouraging. That will be largely based on how my interactions with church leadership go, but even if they go badly I want to be hopeful, and to model hope. It would be amazing if someone with the energy and ability could read this series and try to do something similar with their church.

I’m also doing it in order for people to understand what it’s really like to go in front of church leadership, or an elder board, and advocate for massive changes. I’ll be telling my story of what it’s like– hopefully it could help the church leaders dealing with shouters-and-shakers like me to have more understanding of where we’re coming from and what we’re going through.

I’m also going to be hoping for input from all of you. I am young, which means that I have passion and enthusiasm to the point of being reckless. But, I have a lot of older, more experienced readers, and I would love for my energy to be molded and directed in the best possible way. I don’t want to just pick fights– I want substantial, essential, structural change. Being passionate and loud isn’t going to do that all on its own.

So, let’s see where this goes.

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  • I am so thankful for you! If I ever do return to church it will be to either help the marginalized who are being crushed into the corner-darkness by helping them find a safe place, or to do what you’re doing and speak out against the side-effects of the steamrolled path of damage the church does because “we are faithful above all others.”

  • L.N.

    This is EXACTLY where I’m at with my church. I have been torn over whether to leave or stay, but I feel like I should try to bring about change first. But I don’t have a lot of motivation to try because, really, I don’t believe they will change. I think they will pretend to listen in order to humor me, and then dismiss me. I love the people at my church, but I’m tired. I admire you for putting forth the effort and I hope you get the change you seek!

  • Thank you for this 🙂 I’m struggling with church myself at the moment, but I’m just going in circles

  • I commend you for all the energy you are putting into staying in your church. But don’t put SO much energy into it that it ends up being abusive. No when to say when. If you must leave, find someplace where you can blend into the woodwork for a while, where you can just go and “receive” and refresh the faith in you that’s been so beaten down. Jesus wants you to care for yourself, and so do I.

  • “When I hear people my age talk about the struggles they face with church, it’s usually after an entire lifetime of devotion. We’ve already poured nearly everything we had into our churches.”

    Oh, gosh. I read this and almost cried.

    I’ve been struggling with my place in church for several years now. I spent most of my college and post-college years not attending at all, because I had poured my entire life into my church up until that point, as a “layman” and in ministry and some leadership roles, with few to no results. It was infuriating and exhausting and hoping for change without ever getting it nearly killed my walk with God.

    When I walked away from church, I found God again.

    I feel that some day God might indeed pull me back into the church and, arm in arm, we can do some battling and some changing together. But I couldn’t ever be ready for that if I hadn’t had this extended break.

    And it’s so discouraging when I hear people tell me “You shouldn’t give up the assembly of the brethren” and “Church isn’t all about you, you know” and “You should work to change things and give back if you don’t like what it is” because I tried all that and it broke me. I couldn’t possibly have given any more as I was. And it’ll be a little while before I’m ready to give again.

  • My dearest Samantha…
    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and am impressed beyond measure with your insight and vulnerability. I am a ‘Boomer.’ I grew up in the 60’s and was part of the Jesus Movement in the early 70’s. By the way, we became the church you’re trying to change. I started seminary in 2006 and graduated with a Master of Divinity in 2011. Many of the questions and issues I had with the church really came to a head during this time. You see, I was a liberal hippie, turned conservative Reagan thing, back to liberation theologian. Is your head spinning yet? Anyway, while at seminary one of my professors said something that really stuck with me. She said that the church needed a New Reformation. Something different than the church that Luther, Calvin and Zwingli built. Something Brand New. You can be a part of that! Your heart, desire and youthful commitment can work toward this. So, don’t feel too bad when the church you are attending blows you off. They will. Give your allegiance to the Jesus of the gospels and find like-minded folks who are willing to give their lives to following this Messiah. Love ya lots!!! Mike

  • As someone right at the half-century mark of age, I’m always so encouraged to see people younger than me speaking out to the powers that be. People my age and older need to realize that we are no longer the future of the church, that we need to relinquish our desire for power and control, and that we should lovingly share our wisdom with younger people instead of giving them orders.

    Todd Rundgren put it beautifully in a song:
    “And meanwhile, Time marches on and on
    And the strength to run may soon be gone.
    Now I watch the young ones coming,
    And it’s on their legs I’m running…
    Into the arms of my God.”

  • I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while now and never commented, but I just had to jump in to thank you for writing this, and to say that I’m rooting for you. I grew up in a non-evangelical but very conservative church (the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), and I spent a few years in my early 20’s trying to change things from the inside. It didn’t work out, for the most part, and in the end I had to leave because it was just too hard. I have the utmost respect and admiration for people like you who are still fighting the good fight from inside conservative churches. I hope that you’re able to effect change, and I hope that you’re able to take care of yourself while you do so, and I hope that if you do reach the point where you have to walk away, you won’t feel guilty or like you’ve failed. Raising these issues with church leadership is such an important and necessary thing, even if they’re not ready or willing to listen.

  • Does your church want to change? Do they care if you leave if they don’t?

    One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Sometimes the only thing to do for the sake of your own sanity is to stop giving your heart to an institution that doesn’t want it except as something upon which to trample.

    I wish you the best of luck. I have read your blog for months, and I know that you know all of what I’ve said above. It’s just a reminder that, at some point, it is all right to throw in the towel and build your own church somewhere else.

    As Christopher Robin once said to Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

  • I’m going to read your entry with a bit more attention later, but I just want to say, at 52, i don’t feel comfortable in my lifelong church. I want those younger generations to know that we are not all out of touch, no all set in our ways, but I don’t know what to do to change. (well, maybe out of touch, and set in some ways). But I am changing. But it is scary. Can I jettison everything I am? My identity, my foundation? Who am I if not this?

  • Thank you for your post! Even if it’s just on the Internet, I’ll fight with you. Although my church is very good, and probably a little unusual at times, I’ve felt many of these same sentiments. I go to a small Christian university where much of this is true. It’s disheartening sometimes, but I can see change happening here, happening all around. You are inspiring, not just for your story, but because change starts with people like you. People who are willing to stand up and say “we need to change if we want to survive.” I can’t wait to read what comes out of this, and I will be praying for you and your meeting with your church.

  • Well, I applaud you. If change is going to happen, someone is going to have to spearhead it, and be on the front lines. I’m proud of you for being brave enough to try; those are some serious strongholds you’re facing down. I am hoping for encouraging things for you, and for us all.

  • I wish you all the best! I tried to bring new perspectives to the smaller church I was attending, but it tended to go the way of agreeing to disagree. If someone understands something one way, it’s difficult to bring in a different understanding as their understanding has already weaved quite a web through the scripture.

    The key is connecting with those who haven’t locked themselves in to a certain understanding, those who are willing to question their understandings in order to come to a greater understanding. And don’t be afraid to share your understandings when a discussion touches on such subjects. Approach it in a questioning tone, a “what if?” sort of deal that will allow those who might not actually agree to have an opportunity to move back in their web and see if they might have left a loose end.

    Change will come, communication is too easy now for organizations to control the thinking of those who dare to think. The community of those who question religious practices on WordPress is proof of that. And we need to continue the dialogue when we can. Strengthen our understandings, and strengthen the connections of those understandings to others.

    The fact that you are pursuing an attempt to suggest change is a great communication of this, regardless of whether there is any reasonable change. It will be a story for you to share with others that will strengthen connection to more forward ideas with them.

    I look forward to hearing about your journey!

  • I work at a Christian church-building non profit, and I’m right there with you on the change front. A word of advice: grace goes a long way. One of our generation’s faults is that we get so passionate about our causes that we often come off sounding angry and accusatory. That will only alienate your audience. Keep a happy tune running in your head while making your presentation. View this not as a fight, but as an opportunity to connect and do something extremely positive. Even if the leadership responds with the most ignorant comments you’ve ever heard, rest assured that you’ve begun to chip away at the walls around their hearts. If what you speak is godly truth, it will not return void. Good luck, friend.

  • Patrick Prescott

    I wish you luck, Dona Quixote.

  • If it all goes to pot and you still want church, some evangelical churches that would value your input and leadership and not blink one bit that you are a woman would be the Methodists, Wesleyan church, Nazarenes, Assembly of God (I think???) and of course a plethora of other groups, non-denoms, and the mainline as in PCUSA, Episcopal, LCA, and actually i think the American Baptists (not SBC). I don’t mean that to say you couldn’t find local congregations who are holdbacks towards women pastors, but in their official stances, those churches all hold to women in leadership and clergy. Best wishes.

  • Pat Griffin

    I, too, wish you luck in your endeavors. As a “Gen-Xer”, I’m not at all one to tilt at windmills (and I see someone beat me to the reference). I would just leave it behind and move on. (Well, actually, that’s precisely what I did, years ago.) But it’s good you see many of you young whippersnappers have the gumption to keep at it. With enough people tilting, some windmills eventually fall.

  • I’ve had similar feelings about the church off and on for almost two decades now. Awhile back, when things were particularly rough with church, a wise mentor suggested our family distance ourselves from church for a time to allow some healing to occur. He recommended we teach our kids (and ourselves) to find God in the mountains, the sea, even a silly wrestling match on the living room floor, and to rest in these things for awhile while our souls recovered from how they’d been damaged in the church.

    It did us a world of good. While I do still maintain a conviction that followers of Jesus need to be part of a church, that space helped to heal a lot of the anger I used to carry into church with me. I’m a bit more able to enter church now with looser hands and lighter expectations of both the people there and myself. It’s also allowed me to re-identify with a different branch of the church (Anglican) that doesn’t trigger my American evangelical baggage, and that carries a whole new breath of life for me as well.

    Given your background of fundamentalism (which I share a bit of as well, though not quite as extreme as you!), perhaps you need some room to allow yourself to be an imperfect, maybe even lazy, church member. There are seasons for everything, and I’d venture a guess that your feelings of burn-out may be telling you that you need a slower season with regards to the church.

    A sidenote – Have you ever read Phil Yancey’s book Soul Survivor: How my faith survived the church? He grew up in the fundamentalist south, too. I could see you really enjoying his writing and perspective.

  • Gakeat

    As a late boomer, I find this as interesting. While I am a progressive mainliner, in Churches in which the status of women are basically settled, I am struggling with whether I can stay in Church or not. I have one issue, and that is I am not sure I can affirm the existence of God. From my own experience I can say one thing, and that is the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. All Churches have their issues. I hope you do figure out what is vital to you, and go with that.

    • Gakeat…I applaud you for questioning God. God is not afraid of people asking questions. I have asked similar questions. And, God has gracefully been revealed to me through many things. Including other people, the creation, the scriptures and through God’s Spirit. I pray that it may be the same for you. But, even if you decide that God does not exist, that’s ok, too. Because those of us who do know that God exists can believe in God’s love for you. I hope that makes sense, cuz it’s early and my brain isn’t hitting on all cylinders. Peace!

  • You go, Samantha! I’m 50 myself, and converted at the age of 15. I got enmeshed in a spiritually abusive church when I started college. One thing I’d say (though you may have already thought of this) is to start your presentation by disarming potential defensiveness in your hearers as best you can. It’s human nature to become defensive when feeling attacked or being confronted. I’d start by telling them point-blank– “We’re on the same team; I’m on your side. We all love the church and that’s why we’re here. The important thing is trying to find God’s will, not mine or yours. So please, let us both start by deciding, right here and now, to detach ourselves personally from the topics I’m raising and just view them on their own merits; let’s just forget ourselves for a while and look at this issues I’m raising as objectively as we can.”

  • Oh. My. God.

    THIS: “When I hear people my age talk about the struggles they face with church, it’s usually after an entire lifetime of devotion. We’ve already poured nearly everything we had into our churches. We’re already exhausted, and the thought of facing elder boards and church leadership– of possibly, or even likely, being ignored and dismissed– it’s so far beyond our capacity. We’re already barely hanging onto our faith, and somehow we’re expected to show up, serve, and try to change church institutions that have been deeply engrained over thousands of years?”

    I’m a college ministries directer, former youth leader, who has struggled with this for years. I taught a series to our youth group called, “0WND: Living Life In Control of the Church.” It raised a few eyebrows, telling teenagers that they needed to start explaining and asserting their values to the leadership of the church.

    I just wanted to tell you, you’re not alone in this.

  • froginparis

    I am a GenX-er. No where close to a Millennial and these are the very things I have been struggling with for 25 years. I can’t leave the body, I just focus on the circle I can minister to and listen to Holy Spirit’s guidance. I’ve been on my own for so long, I don’t even know what “church support” feels like.

    I will keep you in my prayers. I am proud of you and what you are doing for your community of believers.

  • I have nothing constructive to add, (I never go to Church, for one) but I have found a rant that will at least make you laugh. It was written by a Catholic geologist and it, at least for me, sums up what is wrong with Religious Right:

  • Samantha,

    This is coming from a early boomer fundamentalist escapee and current UCC pastor, so take it for what it’s worth.
    Your overwhelming apathy on Sunday mornings is not a weakness in your character. More likely it is the divine boot on your backside encouraging you do move someplace else.
    If your church is run by a bunch of old white guys, or young white guys with aged souls, change of the sort you need probably won’t happen (not in your lifetime anyway). You can not negotiate with these people.
    If you want them to change, make them jealous. Step outside their prison and start something new and life giving for other people like yourself. Your obligation is to your Lord, not to your elders. Let them envy you and feel the need to change to keep up.
    Do that and whether they change or not you and those with you will be healthier and happier.
    Good luck.
    Brad Brookins
    Mt Vernon United Church of Christ

    • Thankfully, about 20-30% of the congregation isn’t white, and most of the people I see on stage (the elders, staff, leadership), aren’t white either. It’s one of the reasons why I’m struggling to stay in this community– all the other churches in the area are completely segregated.

  • PJB

    I have high hopes for your teaching — you are extremely articulate. Your writing is resonant with both strong truth and shimmering hope. I imagine that you are the same way speaking in person. There is power in putting words like that on the internet, and there is power in speaking them out loud. Best of luck!

  • This is something I wrote some years back. It may perhaps have some relevance to your work here.

    Then it occurred to me: religion can get large numbers of people to do difficult, important things. I get it: that is one of the things religion is for: strong medicine. I believe most current religions have fallen out of touch with the world—whatever is true in them is buried under heaps of rubbish. But if we could tell people that their life, and their place in this world depends on take care of the Earth then, maybe, there’s a chance.

    You appear to have focused on different issues than I, but the analysis, I think, stands for both: it is necessary to make radical changes and to so do quickly.

  • Shari

    Often…today included…I feel you are speaking directly from my heart…and that gives me hope. Kudos!

  • I really appreciate this post. I feel like I’m going through a very similar situation. It has probably been almost a year now that I can’t remember a week going by where I don’t think about leaving. But I don’t like to be a “quitter”. I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall hoping that something will change. Sooner or later something has got to give, my head can’t take much more.

  • Amen. It’s not just millennials who feel the way you do. Thank you for speaking for those of us who are striving for change in our churches.

  • Pebbs

    My husband and I are trying to find a church home. We are struggling through something very similar. We’ve been to…. ten, twelve churches? At the moment we are considering “settling” for a church that at least accepts evolution and the actual age of the earth, is only a little sexist, and only a little homophobic (read: homophobic and destructive but not RABIDLY so). I’m a bisexual woman, so I guess I’ll see how long I can deal with it. The hope is that they have come far enough in their understanding of the Bible to be capable of one day changing their minds about women in leadership and LGBTQUIA people. I am stubbornly optimistic that we can at least change someone’s mind, maybe some people in the congregation if not the leaders. I might end up screeching about white-washed tombs and then leaving in a rage. Whatever. I care about this, a lot, and I’m still excited to keep trying, keep praying, and see what God does. [And at the same time I realize that I am not in charge of changing people’s minds. I’ll do what I can, and not blame myself for other people’s choices. Nor will I utterly exhaust and break myself for pointless causes, like I did in high school. I worked myself to the breaking point with too much church volunteer work, and I won’t do that again. I just do what I can, and “can” includes taking care of my mental and physical health.]