Do we feel more alone when we leave, or when we stay?

Leaving the Church

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.



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Comments

Micah, a very good article. I absolutely believe that Understanding that there is a difference between a divine spiritual relationship with our Father God and a relationship within a denomination or man-made institution is the first step to spiritual growth for an individual. Unfortunately faith has often been tied to faith in an institution instead of God, leaving us empty spiritually and emotionally when that institution failed us. May we continue to seek God through Jesus and His teachings. Thank you for your article.

Of course the church is imperfect - it's run by humans! I prefer to see my local church as my family, accept that as such it has its beauties and flaws and limitations, and stick by it anyway. I don't expect it to meet all my needs, it couldn't possibly, but I appreciate it when nearly does. When it doesn't I either try to make things better or meet those needs outside the church. If the sermon's not meaty enough I can study the bible myself, if the worship was a bit lacklustre I can worship on my own etc, but I can't get a few hundred people together every Sunday and enjoy their company - but my church can! :)

Clare, it's great that you have a group of people you can connect with in that way. Part of any healthy relationship is the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the other person, and the ability to grow from your interaction with them. Without that possibility, a relationship is not whole.

It sounds like you have that! Many people, however, are still looking for relationships in which they can grow and contribute meaningfully, and I think that's a worthwhile pursuit. Thanks for sharing. :)

This post makes me think of the contrast between teachers who stifle discussion (and therefore learning) for fear of what they consider "deep doctrine" and the consistent advice from church leaders that we ought not be slaves to the lesson manual but pick and choose only some of the lesson material in order to give it better consideration.

It's interesting that what you describe from your experience with Christianity I feel with my experience in Mormonism and the LDS church. I find myself wondering whether it's me who needs to change, or the LDS church, for me to feel better served or engaged.

I've decided it's a little of both, but what it has done is cause me to feel more ownership and responsibility to the institution. I feel more compelled to participate and influence our ward. Yet I recognize that I fall short in the same ways that any church institution will. I influence the institution to become in some small way more like me, or more like what I want, but this will fall short of the expectations and needs of others.

It's a challenging thing. The challenge of the Atonement of Christ is to bring together people who are unique and different.

Bryant, I found your comments interesting. Yes, we are all unique and different and yes, the atonement of Christ creates a relationship with God and each other bringing together believers who are individualistic and each with his or her own unique God given gifts in Christ's universal church. Unfortunately we have divided that universal church into "denominations" and the denomination became our god, often repressing differing thoughts or beliefs, in an attempt to make automatons of it's members, rather than embracing the differences. Wouldn't it be great if we could just work together as Christians without the man-made divisions? Maybe what I long for will only be experienced in heaven!

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