Rachel Held Evans made a huge splash this weekend with her article on CNN about the reasons people in the Millennial generation are fleeing the organized Church. She listed off a lot of things that she’s observed as complaints that Millennials make about the current state of the organized Church. I don’t need to mention them here, because they’re pretty well-known by people interested in the problem, and if you’ve come to my blog before hers then there’s been some bizarre fluke in the space-time continuum.
When I was a child I hardly ever attended church. My mother’s family was Methodist, and I think my father’s was Baptist. I remember going to the Methodist church where my mom was a member a few times, but it wasn’t a very interesting experience. It was highly traditional, with an aging congregation that lent me no opportunities to make friends my own age.
I knew Jesus’ name, but I didn’t really get who he was. I remember thinking that his last name was really Christ, which meant of course that Mary and Joseph were in fact Mr. And Mrs. Christ.
I didn’t receive a spiritual education from church growing up.
When I was in high school, I began wrestling with questions of mortality and eternity and all the things that adolescents who think they’re way smarter than they really are deal with. Though it was terrifying to think I had nothing besides my life, I decided that God must be a fiction.
At the same time I was withdrawing from my cultural Christianity, I saw many of my friends engaging with theirs openly and without reservation. It was in high school that I first became aware of the idea of Christ’s moral perfection, but I really didn’t want anything to do with it. Many of my friends tried to convert me, but I’d given up on God, and that was all there was to it. I loved my friends, but what they were talking about just didn’t make sense to me. I would not be proselytized into believing something that wasn’t true.
My friends who wanted to share their faith with me were poorly equipped by church to answer my questions.
In college, I met my future wife, Rachael. Within our social circle, she was the one we deemed “the Christian.” From our first encounter we were always at odds because we both loved to argue. It went without saying that if we were left to steer a conversation, it would go to God, and then we’d be at it for hours. Rachael is a far better debater than me, so she usually won. Winning the arguments didn’t move me though. God didn’t exist, and no amount of semantic gymnastics could convince me otherwise. I told her as much several times. I also told her that I hated being beaten into an intellectual corner. So Rachael did the first thing I remember as being a genuine expression of Christ.
She stopped arguing with me.
That’s not to say that we didn’t still talk about God, but there was a definite shift there from trying to win to trying to be a friend. Eventually we fell in love and had a tumultuous relationship that lasted all through college where the central tension was over how you make a romantic relationship between a Christian and an atheist work.
The short answer, in our case, is you don’t.
Late in my junior year of college, I became a Christian. I can’t tell you an exact date or point to a specific event, because my conversion seemed to follow a sort of catechesis whereby I gradually moved from being an atheist to an agnostic to finally saying, “The hell with it, this Jesus is on to something.”
So I waded into the pool of evangelical Christianity. It was awkward and embarrassing because I spent months in a weird ideological limbo trying not to let on to my non-Christian friends (who were all largely hostile to it) that I’d gone over to the dark side. To help me cope with that, I was taken in by Rachael’s friends from the college ministry that she went to.
So, late in college, I finally assimilated into church.
There were a lot of missteps on my part trying to understand the subculture I found myself in. I was adopted, not native-born, and this meant that I had some rough edges to polish before I properly fit in.
The biggest challenge I faced was maintaining my intellectual integrity while fostering my faith. As a recent convert I hoped that it wasn’t impossible to hold on to both, but I didn’t have any guidance on how to do it. The primary message of the subculture I found myself in was that faith trumped all intellect, so if there was something that conflicted with your faith, it needed to be thrown out. I had to discard evolution, acceptance of sexual diversity, and a lot of other ideas that had become core parts of my intellectual identity in high school and college in the name of upholding my faith.
Upon leaving college, church had replaced my identity.
After Rachael and I got married, we tried multiple times to find a church home (a Christianese term for the small community of believers and their building that you regularly associate and worship with). Though neither of our families had prioritized church attendance when we were growing up, we got it in our head that we needed to be going as a way of practicing our faith.
We tried a lot of places, but the three that really stick out in my mind go like this:
We first tried a church that a friend of ours had attended growing up, and for a while it was good. We even joined a small group while we were there, but things never quite meshed. Rachael and I had been taught to take Bible study very seriously, and when it came to be our turn to lead one for our small group, we kind of frightened everyone away with how rigorous we were in flipping through the Bible for cross-references (this was also at the height of our literalist phase when even the suggestion that Paul didn’t write one of the letters that are attributed to Paul set us in a tizzy). Besides alienating our small group, we also failed to connect with anyone in our own demographic. There was just no other young married couples without children there.
The second church we gave a shot was a megachurch. We liked the pastor and felt that his preaching was orthodox but still challenging, and the in-house worship band was phenomenally good. Connecting with a small group was even harder there, because church membership was required before you could get in touch with anyone. We did manage to score an invite to a dinner party for one small group, but to our chagrin it was populated by people in their fifties who spent the entire evening talking about how much better things were when they were kids. It was also the most rigid display of hospitality I’ve ever seen, because I keenly remember there was a set form to everything the host family did in terms of food service. They always served the people who were least familiar first, starting with the woman in each couple, then gradually moved down the line to the most familiar. Several weeks later when we saw the couple who had hosted at the church, they didn’t even recognize us.
The third church seemed like a much more promising fit because it was a young congregation of college students and college graduates, and it had a major emphasis on social justice for the poor and homeless. Rachael and I went to an after-service brunch that they threw one day and accidentally ended up sitting at the table with all the pastors’ wives. They were not very friendly towards us. Despite that, we kept going because we felt like there were no other places within driving range (these churches all got progressively farther and farther from our home at the time) that even remotely fit. Then we took Rachael’s parents to a service one time when they were in town for a visit.
That happened to be the week that one of the associate pastors announced that he was quitting to pursue another job, and the congregation saw fit to extend the service by an extra forty-five minutes to wish this guy farewell. Rachael and I realized after that incident that though they were a tight-knit group, clearly they were not a tight-knit group that was open to extensions.
So after three years of marriage, church had left me with no spiritual home.
It’s now two years on from that point, and I’ve found my faith reinvigorated by participation in the progressive community through online discussion. I’ve developed strong friendships with non-Christians who I no longer feel pressured to proselytize, because I’m comfortable with Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. Though I fail frequently, I aim to be hospitable and gracious to people, because that is how I understand evangelism to work. I’ve reclaimed my old positions on evolution and sexual diversity while finally reconciling them to my faith, which I feel is stronger than it’s ever been.
These stories don’t give a full picture of what’s happened with Millennials within organized church. All they do is reflect my experiences, which are admittedly limited. Even so, in my experience organized church failed me and my peers as a place for spiritual education, asked me to change my identity so I would fit its mold, and rejected me repeatedly when I couldn’t exactly fit the communities I wanted to join. This is not the whole story, but it’s my part of it.
I am a Millennial, and I left organized church behind me to find better spiritual growth, to reclaim things that no one ever told me I didn’t have to abandon to be faithful, to find a true community of believers who care about exchanging ideas and growing toward Christ together. From organized church, I rejoined the Church where Christ is Lord and all are welcome. It doesn’t have any walls, and meetings aren’t regular, but it is good.