A couple of weeks ago, the Barna Group, an organization conducting research on intersections of faith and culture, published a report on “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” The report compiles results of eight national studies and extensive interviews with young people, parents, and pastors. You can read the full report on the Barna website, but here, in short, are the six reasons given:
- Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
- Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
- Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
- Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
- Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
- Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
These are all complaints I’ve heard before, sometimes from people who actually had the complaints, sometimes from people who assumed these were the complaints I would have. I can relate, to a degree, though I’ve been more-or-less in church through my teens and thus far in my twenties—I’m not among the “Young Christians” who left.
Except that I did leave, sort of. I left for the Episcopal Church. Which leads me to another point: I found these points more relatable to my experience with conservative evangelical denominations than to my experience with TEC (not to denigrate conservative evangelicism; just stating my observations). But more on that in my conclusion. I know you’re anxious to hear what I think about all these reasons, so here goes:
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
I think I felt this more as a tween/young teen—I was the Christian-school girl who didn’t have any non-Christian friends, who listened to WOW CDs and read Christy Miller and (I cringe) Left Behind: The Kids. College changed that, though. While in my parents’ generation, the “frozen chosen” couldn’t dance, drink, play cards, go to movies, etc., my experience with the CRC involved being educated as an “agent of renewal” charged with “redeeming all things.” I was encouraged to engage culture in a serious and appreciative manner, and I’m a better person because of it.
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
The Barna report (if you haven’t already followed the link and read it) says that about a third of the young people interviewed said church is boring; a fifth said God is lacking from their experience of church. I’ve felt bored in church. I’ve felt like church leaders were focusing on surface issues and appearances while ignoring the deeper current of what Christianity is all about. I’ve been to happy-clappy services with no there there. But I can’t really relate, because my experience of Christianity—and church—is decidedly not shallow, and I’m not entirely sure why not. Until I figure that out, I can’t contribute much to the discussion.
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
I have seen this. Not just in being taught young-earth creationism at my conservative high school. The church/science debate was big news at my alma mater a few months ago, as a religion professor ultimately stepped down after criticism for publishing a paper considering the religious implications of not having an historical Adam and Eve. It seems Calvin only makes big news when it does something dumb. Really, though, the science/religion debate is not a big deal for me. A lot of good work is going on at the apex of science and religions. Christians are learning that they can embrace their faith and an informed view of science. And again, TEC/the Anglican Communion is right on top of things. (If you’ve never heard of John Polkinghorne, do yourself a favor and look him up. Now. Stop reading this post and go.)
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
Yeah, I’ve seen this one, too. Not so much in TEC. I have to admit, sometimes I wonder if the Church’s biggest problem with regards to sexuality is the oddly disproportionate emphasis on it. While I do think the Church’s stances on and methods of dealing with issues of sexuality deserve attention (e.g., this is church—homophobia is NOT okay), I wonder how much controversy and discord would clear up if we took the energy we’re putting into arguing about sexuality and put it toward eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, or any of the other millennium development goals. Not that sexuality is unimportant, just that it isn’t the most important or only important thing.
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
The exclusive nature of Christianity? Yeah, I struggle with that. Universalism is really appealing to me—but that’s another post. What I want to say here is that fearing other religions is ridiculous. I’ve heard it said that Christians shouldn’t go studying things that might challenge their faith (like other religions), but if God is truth, why should we fear learning? In Waiting for God, Simone Weil writes: “It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
I understand this. There’s a fear in admitting to doubt—what if the other folks think I’m weak, or a bad person, or not a Christian? What if they don’t want me to be in choir or work in the nursery or be a youth group leader anymore? What if they start avoiding me and I lose this community? This fear can be paralyzing, and the Church is not always ready enough to dispel it. The thing is, there are a lot of Christians in churches everywhere with all kinds of doubts. It’s normal to doubt. Healthy, even. Just read Madeleine L’Engle, or Frederick Buechner, or any number of other beautiful, brilliant Christian writers.
The Barna report groups depression/emotional issues with this sixth reason for leaving, which I think fits—church communities are also often reluctant or ignorant when it comes to addressing psychological issues. (Note: if someone is dealing with depression or anxiety or some other difficulty, “Maybe you aren’t praying enough” is NOT AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE. Neither is “What have you done that you need to ask forgiveness for?” Just fyi.)
The study ends on an optimistic note, stating that finding a middle ground between ignoring young people and catering wholly to them could actually mean “revitalized ministry and deeper connections in families.” This conclusion points to the importance of intergenerational relationships in faith communities, which I find particularly compelling.
I’m left with questions, though: while I could relate to many/most of these issues, I don’t see them as prominent issues in TEC. But young people are leaving TEC at rates equivalent to other denominations. Why? Am I missing something? Am I too infatuated with the denominations to see these issues? Or is there something else at work? I just don’t know. That’s part of why I like the point about intergenerational relationships: TEC is in the same position as any other denomination when it comes to figuring out how to cultivate a lively intergenerational community, and I think this community is vital to the life of the Church.
If you left the Church, did any of these reasons figure into your decision? If you returned to or came to or remained in the Church, have you encountered any of these issues? How did you (are you) deal(ing) with them? Can you think of any others? How could intergenerational relationships be encouraged and developed in your faith community?