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why are millennials leaving the church


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.


and yet ANOTHER post about millennials

crumbling church

I didn’t want to get involved in this mess. In some ways, I’ve already said my piecetwice, really. I mean, the first time I wrote about “why are we leaving the church” was June 7– almost two months before Rachel Held Evans wrote about it on CNN. And yes, I feel like a hipster. “I wrote about it before it was all the rage!” #humblebrag

Not to say that I was saying anything new, or original, or that I was really contributing to the conversation at all. Those two posts were about myself, really. Interestingly enough, my “Why are we leaving the church?” post– I didn’t write it for my blog, actually. I wrote it for her.meneutics at Christianity Today. I wrote up a big long pitch, the editors accepted it, and then I spent a two weeks working on it. When I sent it to the editor, she ignored me for weeks, until I finally asked if she was going to put it up, or if I could go ahead and post it on my blog or maybe try to get it published elsewhere. She said that they weren’t interested in it because while “it is a very important topic,” it “doesn’t fit our emphasis going forward.”

Which is fine– I’m comfortable with this sort of interaction. It happens to writers all of the time. We probably just had a misunderstanding about where I was going with it based on my pitch, and when I turned in the 1,000 words, it was probably just a slight too liberal for them, Which is fine. I’ve hammered “remember your audience!” into my freshman composition students enough times to remember it for myself.

But, considering the reason she gave me (“it doesn’t fit our emphasis going forward”) I was curious when this article showed up on her.meneutics this morning.

None of the authors said anything I haven’t read yet– which, honestly, I stopped reading all these “oh, noes, the millennials!” articles almost immediately after Rachel posted hers. It got wearisome awfully fast, and trying to read the variations on a theme got exhausting. There were a few that were interesting– Sarah Moon’s was especially good, in my opinion.

But, I read today’s article anyway.

And then I read this:

As a true sign that I am getting old, Rachel Held Evans’s uber-popular CNN post Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church brought about a wistful, nostalgic response in me: Ah, to be young and turning my back on church again.

My mind traveled back to 1990, when I swore off church for good. I told God I still loved him, but his people I wasn’t so sure about. Like a good Gen-X-er, I was angry. Angry about what I saw as wrongheaded views on women in the church and a hostile stance toward the gay community. Angry because I thought the church was filled with hypocrites who cared more about sexual sins than greedy ones . . .

Today, I love church more than I ever could’ve imagined. I love it for the things that used to drive me nuts: for the hypocrites and other messy folks who gather together every Sunday

My heart sank, because these are the opening words of the article. Because this– all it does is make me feel incredibly hopeless. You mean you were frustrated enough to “leave church” because of the same exact issues? And you came back even though nothing had changed? Because nothing had changed?

That’s just… depressing.

I’ve read a bunch of articles on “if millennials want to see the church change, they should get into the trenches with us and work! Be the change you want to see!”

I tried.

And yes, I’m a millennial, and I’m 25, so how hard could I have tried, really? How much effort could I really have expended? Did I really give it my best effort?

But then I think back to a few of the encounters I had with church leadership– at a pretty typical, run-of-the-mill evangelical church– and I just want to cry all over again. Because I wanted to get involved, to work, to use my gifts to help my church. I was excited. So I went to people in leadership with some creative ideas– simple things, really, like wanting to use my choral conducting experience to put on a Christmas cantata. Nothing drastic– nothing that even touched the tough issues. And I was told no. When I asked why, the answer was always the same: you’re a woman, and our church is not ready for that yet.

Not, you’re young, or I think that would take more time than you have or our choir doesn’t have the skill to sing a cantata or any other BS reason that I, honestly, would have thought nothing of and gone on my merry way. No, he was honest.

I’m a woman.

And it didn’t matter that I had far more skill and ability than the current choir director– and had demonstrated that. The only thing that mattered was that I have a vagina instead of a penis.

Apparently, these ideas were enough to bother Generation X, but, in the paraphrased words of Caryn, Sharon, and Megan, they just got over themselves and came back.

Which makes me wonder if anyone is really paying attention. Because yes, Rachel’s article was a really, really good place to start. But there are so many other reasons– as many reasons as there are people. So when stories like these are shared, when my generation is groaning under the weight of back breaking religion, under the movements that have left deep scars– like the Purity movement, and the Courtship movement, and all the others that have left us with gaping wounds, ruined lives, and destroyed marriages, I wonder if anyone is paying attention. I look at all the articles floating around the internet, and I feel like Stephen watching the Sanhedrin stuff their fingers in their ears and gnashing their teeth.

Because we’re not just narcissistic. We’re not just selfish. We’re not just liberal. We’re not just impatient.

We’re hurt. We’re bleeding. We have been stabbed in the back so many times by the “church” that claimed to love us. And as long as no one acknowledges how deep our pain is– how real and life-shattering it is– we’re not going to come back.

Go on, “church.”

Go on saying that we’re just young, and foolish, and we don’t know what we want, and we’re going to change our minds in 20 years, that we’ll come back, that, eventually, we’ll realize that we need community, that church isn’t about us, that we shouldn’t make it about us.

And sure, some of us might come back.

Most of us probably won’t.