Two of the most significant articles I’ve read recently address the question of why millennials are leaving the church. First, there was this piece by Rachel Evans:
Why millennials are leaving the church
And then, this by Justin Hanvey:
When I Left The Church, I Didn't Really Leave The Church
Millennials appear to be leaving the church in dramatic numbers, and people are very concerned about this. But to date, most of the responses have alternated between trying to make church more appealing and “hip”, and blaming millennials for their lack of character.
But Rachel argues that the main reason millennials are leaving organized religion is not because they are looking for something more hip, or because of their character flaws, but because they are looking for something spiritually significant.
And they aren’t finding it in church.
This has been my experience. With rare exceptions, the churches I have attended over the years have failed to challenge me spiritually, mentally, or emotionally. I went in looking for depth, and instead found superficiality, a sense of entitlement, a feeling of being talked down to, and a lack of intellectual or spiritual insight.
My attempts to improve things ran up against the institutional need to speak to the lowest common denominator. There was simply no room for the pursuit of a deeper spirituality, and there never would be.
Many of my peers have had the same experience. And having been told that this church experience was what Christianity was about, many of them have not only abandoned church, but Christianity along with it.
Which brings us to Justin’s article. He makes the much-needed distinction between people leaving the institutional-organizational church that we in America know, and people leaving the ecclesia that Jesus promised he would build.
The two are not synonymous. One is an institution with board meetings, bank accounts, and legal officers, organized by a particular group of people with a particular set of interests and concerns — and the other is a spiritual entity that transcends location, culture, and citizenship. The two are not the same, and to equate them is nearly blasphemous.
Once we realize that the church that we are normally addressing is an institution, it becomes obvious that this institution is subject to the same dynamics that affect any other institution. In the 90s, many people did realize this, and applied corresponding demographic and marketing knowledge to create mega-churches.
But the advantages of running an institution are also its limitations. If you target your church activities towards 30-somethings with kids, you’re going to miss out on 20-somethings looking for meaning and authenticity. If you target your church activities towards 20-somethings looking for meaning and authenticity, you’re going to lose them when they’re 30-somethings with kids.
And if you’re not consciously targeting anybody, chances are you’re targeting people just like you, and you will lose anyone who isn’t that.
In the past, this wasn’t as obvious, because much more of society was living the same lifestyle, in the same way. Church could be oriented towards a particular middle-American culture, and only the outliers and eccentrics would find this troubling.
But society is diversifying, and institutions have a hard time keeping up. In many cases, they just simply cannot change enough to accommodate the people they are losing.
It is here that the distinction between Christianity and the institutional church becomes incredibly important. If the person leaving a particular institutional church believes that this is Christianity, then they will believe that Christianity has failed to meet their needs, and that they have outgrown what Christianity has to offer.
The blurring of the lines between Christianity and a particular institution will have cost someone their faith.
But if they understand that there is a distinction, that there is always a distinction, then their faith journey can continue unimpeded, and they can continue to value what they have left behind, knowing the benefit that many others still derive from it.
For me, that distinction has been incredibly clear from a young age. I knew that the church I was attending was not the whole of Christianity; I knew that there were depths to Jesus and the scriptures that remained to be explored, that had not yet been fathomed by our civilization, let alone our congregation.
But many of my peers have not been so lucky. They were implicitly told that the church as they knew it was Christianity. As they grew deeper spiritually and intellectually, and as they looked to become better people, to be in deeper relationships, and to do more with their lives, they found themselves outgrowing the church they knew. And believing that to be the entirety of Christianity, they left.
The answer to this problem is simple. It is to return our focus to the actual substance of our faith, to the exploration of the deep and inexhaustible mystery of God. And this means publicly rejecting our blasphemous identification of what we have built with what God is building.