The following is a guest post written by Leah Holle, a student at Yale Divinity School. A version was originally published at her blog.
Too many articles have been written about millennials leaving the church, and they’re usually written by someone from a different generation and from within the church. I am a millennial. I grew up in the church, and I made a conscious decision to “leave” the church. Somehow, I’ve ended up attending Yale Divinity School in pursuit of my Masters of Divinity. I hope I can provide a more nuanced perspective.
When we talk about whether millennials leaving the church is a bad thing, there’s an underlying assumption that turning away from the church is synonymous with carelessness about the world and a lack of responsibility. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are turning our back on faith, spirituality, or God, though.
There are a handful of reasons that millennials are fleeing from the church, and each is unique to every individual. I’ve noticed a few threads, though, that run through most of the millennial narrative:
In the last 20 years, there has been a shift to more contemporary, upbeat, and modern services. It feels authentic, ingenuine, and fake. Millennials have strong moral values, and we’re growing to be defined by our activism. It seems hypocritical to claim that you believe in the Gospels, and fall short in actually living them out.
2. All Talk, Little Action
The church seems to practice a faith that is dead, in that there are few social justice initiatives. The focus seems to be more on the “right” words, indoctrinating more people, or preaching a message that people want to hear. The current church is a proclamation of faith rather than a call to action or a challenge to the system. There needs to be more than mission trips once a summer, or a volunteer day at the homeless shelter. I’m talking about real, raw, consistent initiatives that build relationships, and foster fellowship.
3. Innate Sinfulness
There’s something that disturbs us when we are portrayed as innately sinful beings in need of the grace of God and the death of Jesus to save us from ourselves. Seeing ourselves this way creates mental distress, particularly to children who might be growing up in the church. We are still recovering from traumatic events that happened to us within the Church, which is another reason we are leaving. We’re looking for a philosophy that more strongly encourages a strong sense of self.
4. No Room for QUESTIONS in a World Where We are Seeking Truth
As millennials, we are searching for meaning and purpose within a bigger narrative. Within the church, though, we have been given answers that leave no room to ask questions, let alone the sometimes difficult questions that others are afraid to ask.. If we are courageous enough to voice our questions and vulnerabilities, then we quickly learn that questions are consistent with doubt. But the church often leaves little room for questioning or a difference in thoughts, opinions or beliefs.
I left the church as an undergraduate after becoming a religion major. I started to think critically about my beliefs, actions, and faith in Christianity. Nonetheless, I still consider myself a person of faith, maybe even an unconventional Christian.
The Church can be a sacred space, filled with fellowship, and community, but it is deeply politicized. However, I find the practices, and beliefs of the Church to be inconsistent with the foundational beliefs in which we claim as our faith. I attend Chapel weekly at Divinity School, but church is never enough for me. I’m almost always sorely disappointed, and I yearn for more.
Jesus, like the other prophets of monotheistic religions, preaches a message of liberation to the marginalized of society. These prophets directly challenge the social norms of their culture and society. They not only preach a message that allows the oppressed to have voices, but they also exercise empathy by fellowship, advocacy, and action.
The Gospels within Christianity serve as a perfect example of this narrative, and greater call to action. Personally, I spend my time on Sunday morning’s mobilizing love, and bringing the values of the early “Church” to the marginalized. I volunteer my time working with refugees, and building lasting relationships with others. I feel that I honor God more by going out into the world and doing “unto the least of these,” rather than being comfortable within the institutional walls of the pale male Church.
I find service to the world allows me to have an authentic connection with the rest of humanity. It reminds me of my own humanity, while experiencing God in an intense, but real, and authentic way. The stories, and fellowship with the oppressed bring about the divine connection that gives me life, purpose and meaning. This is what communion, fellowship, and the Church look like for me. This is my Truth, and what I feel is at the heart of all religions.
Maybe there needs to be a shift in our understanding of the Church. Maybe we need to revolutionize the mission, goals, and faith of the Church. Maybe the Church is leaving, and abandoning the millennials. Or maybe we should start creating a space for millennials, when their voices are actually the ones that need to be heard.
Leah Holle graduated from Greensboro College in 2014 with a B.A in Psychology and Religion. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree at Yale Divinity School with an interest in the role that religion plays in mental health. Her undergraduate career consisted of extended research on different psychological diagnoses of biblical characters. Her current interests include interfaith conversations, refugee work, and the intersection of psychology and religion