This article appeared in November of 2010 on Christianity Today‘s website about the generation of young people who seem to be leaving the “church” en masse. You should go and read it now if you haven’t had the chance yet. I read it only a few weeks ago and was really moved to respond.
Dear Mr. Dyck,
Let me say first, I am one of the leavers. My face is one with the big fat marker through it. I found reading your article both moving and infuriating. I believe that you are missing some very important points, as well as getting some other points wrong.
What I think it is important to understand is that each of these people, each one of these young adults who used to dwell among you, has a real story to tell. And it is a real story that revolves around them, not the church. It may be a hard story to hear if it is about a church that hurt or failed them or individuals who showed more care for institutions than people. These are not easy things to hear, or to fix. Addressing these issues means getting at the nitty gritty of the how-we-do-church question. How do you stay present and genuine to a changing culture? How do you adapt to the changing image of the family? How do you care and protect all the souls in your care?
A couple of new books, a different approach to catechism; this will not change how young people relate to the church.
The exodus of young people may requires addressing how the church views certain moral issues. For example, I can assure you that if the church at large doesn’t come to a loving and accepting view of the LGBTQ community it will find its numbers dwindle precipitously as young people reject judgement and fear in exchange for the happiness of family and friends.
Young people are tired of hearing that sex is dirty, that women need to hide their bodies for weak men’s sake, that non-virgins are used up and gross. You can have a positive sexual ethic without tying people up in knots over their perfectly normal sexuality. I know you don’t like this one. I know. But its true.
The church needs to reject the misogynistic treatment of women. This is the 21st century. Women should not be subjected to inferior healthcare, fewer life choices, or suffering under church-authorized patriarchy. This is a big deal. Women are half the world and more than half of the church population. The church is one of the last places women are regularly treated, in perfectly public way, as second-class citizens. This alone should give you pause before you ask any woman why she left the church. It’s truly appalling.
On the note of how the church treats women, let’s talk about Katie. This article should be about Katie. You should have put down this whole article and helped Katie. You should address the actual harm that abuse, sexual or otherwise, does and how it harms all of a person, not just their faith. No kidding she left the church! Would you hang around your abusers or hold their faith dear to you? It’s truly horrifying if you believe that. I “cringe inwardly” when I imagine you talking to Katie. Abuse and molestation are not a reason to leave, they are a way to violently chase someone away.
I am not surprised that an institution that questions the actions of the victim of molestation and calls her abusers “Christians” has problems with its membership. The overtly patriarchal, misogynistic, and insular church breeds abuse by default. Clear out your abusers! This should not need pointed out. Really.
Let me just get this out of the way, it might be small but it has been annoying the heck out of me: most of peers are non-Christians from Christian families and I don’t know anyone named “Morninghawk Apollo”. You know what they are named? Jessica, Tom, Liz, Mike… Wiccans may come from predominantly Christian backgrounds and therefore merit discussion here, I don’t know, but I am positive they do not round out 80% disengagement by age 29. For reals. Does anyone really think that?
One of the reasons you state for young adults leaving is their falling into sin and changing their faith to provide some cover. The “changing their creed to match their deeds” phenomenon.
I find it a little doubtful that this might be as serious a problem as you imagine it. The “deeds” young adults may find themselves doing certainly change from the deeds they do as churched children, wouldn’t that be expected? Children grow up and must learn for themselves whether what they’ve been taught is true and sensible. Many children from conservative upbringings may find themselves confronting truly convincing scientific data, totally normal friends who turn out to be gay, or clearly devout Christians who have differing beliefs. Reevaluating your beliefs in light of new information should be an expected and encouraged occurrence. I doubt many people find these conflicts “convenient”.
My creed changed when my deeds changed, it is true. But my deeds changed me by showing me all the ways my old beliefs rung hollow. When my experiences challenged my beliefs I found my creed wanting, not my deeds. I imagine this is a common experience. Maybe these “conveniently” timed intellectual crises had nothing to do with papering over sins but finding that one could no longer paper over honest difficulties with beliefs.
Young people are pretty honest. Have you seen what my peers will post on their Facebook page? If they say that moral compromise did not have an impact on their leaving the church, they are probably telling the truth. People change through the impetus of their actions and experiences. In order to be honest their beliefs must change as well. If this causes them to leave the church then perhaps the church should evaluate its beliefs, why do so many young people find it at odds with life as they experience it?
You also gloss over what folks with real, expressible disagreements with the church are supposed to do. The Western Tradition seems to fail them or the surgical logic of the New Atheists is too strong to ignore, what now? You list how people should not be treated: no trite answers, judgmental sermons, or non-engagement. But what positive actions can be taken? How do you honestly answer someone who questions the very philosophical underpinnings of your faith? Is it possible?
Adressing these issues will take more than some creativity and prayer. This requires a thorough re-imagining of the narrative of salvation. An upending of the current system. A reorganization of the very soul of the church. Are you actually willing to question these things?
Unfortunately, I doubt it. I see some genuine concern in your article but the cost is more than most churches are willing to bear. They cannot walk the extra mile with the hurting or bear the burdens of folks who are materially different from them. There is much talk about thoughtful engagement or rethinking ministry but it’s all hot air. It’s too bad. You may not believe it, but I love the church, even as I stand outside of it. Change, O Church! Be light. Be love. Be Christ.
All those blacked out faces, all those children you remember singing “Jesus Loves Me” who have left, all those brothers and sisters gone astray; this is the new reality. I can understand your concern. It seems terribly sad. But since I am with the leavers I don’t have much good advice except, maybe, to put away your big fat marker.