Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Myth About Why Young People Leave the Church

Despite my bald head, a love of Grape Nuts, and a penchant for calling it a night extremely early, I am apparently still perceived as "young" because, you know, I'm still just 27 and I am constantly plugged in to Facebook and Twitter.  So, I get asked a lot about why it is that the people in my generation (the millennials/Generation Y/twentysomethings) have been leaving the church (as in the entire church, not just a parish) en masse.

While being asked this question gives me the ego trip-inducing opportunity to be the voice of a generation (though frankly, if I am an accurate representation of my generation, then the entire world is screwed), it honestly is not a question I often relish getting asked, because to be wholly truthful is to likely cause offense.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt used by the church.  We are pursued for the optics of having young people, but we often aren't allowed any voice in decision-making.  Instead, we are used as puppets in public while the real decisions are made elsewhere, without us.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt let down by the church.  We volunteer for things expecting an atmosphere and spirit of cooperation and collaboration, but instead we encounter situations where more entrenched people--who are seeing their church as they know it crumble before their eyes--tenaciously cling to their piece of turf with the ferocity of a bear.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt talked down to by the church.  Granted, this is a culture-wide problem, but it is true in the church as well.  We are told that we couldn't possibly understand how things really work, that we are too selfish to fit in with church culture (which is particularly ironic---see above), or that we are just plain too naive.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt pushed aside by the church.  We share our testimonies and our experiences, we witness to our faith, we boldly proclaim what we hold to be true, only for none of the veteran church members to actually care or show interest in how we express our faith, especially through the mediums of social media, or in how we try to explain that their ways of worship are sometimes like fitting a square peg into a round hole for us.

And the sad thing is, whenever I point these things out to other (inevitably older) friends and pastoral colleagues, they almost always get this shocked--or even angry--expression on their faces, as though I had just viciously insulted their parents.  And all I can say to them is that I'm not trying to offend, but sometimes the truth hurts.

Here's the thing: just because you like something doesn't mean the generation that follows you will as well.  In fact, the inverse is probably closer to being true: the more likely it is that the following generation won't like it, or it won't speak to them.

And it wasn't like we just learned this about ourselves, we twentysomethings--we have known for a while now that we don't really belong in the church that the older generations have built for us.  Close to 3 in 5 Christians aged 18-25 had already dropped out of the church by the time of their Sweet Sixteenth.

So in a way, it both worries and bothers me that I get asked this question so frequently, because the roots of this exodus that everyone is now fretting over were planted literally a decade ago.  That represents a decade of not listening, of not reading the signs, of not bothering to understand our reasons for leaving, until the evidence was so stark you could no longer ignore it.

Want to know why young people are leaving the church?  Ask your teenaged children.  Ask your youth group.  Chances are they will have the answer today that you'll be searching for a decade later.

In other words: it is a myth that young adults my age just now decided they were through with church.  For many of us, that die was cast long ago.

Obviously, as a preacher of the Gospel, I did not choose to leave the church.  And I want--deeply so--for people to return to the church.  But I also honestly understand why someone my age would want to leave the church.  It isn't that they aren't taken seriously now (although they may well not be).  It's that, in all likelihood, they haven't been taken seriously for many years now.

And considering that so many of our churches (mine included) proudly post "Everyone Welcome" signs on their yards, we should expect better of ourselves.

Indeed, if the church is to thrive, we *must* expect better of ourselves.

Yours in Christ,

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