Why Don’t My Friends Go To Church Anymore? [Guest Post from a Millennial]

Charlie wasn’t quite this cool when he was in my youth group.

Charlie was in my youth group when I was a pastor. He was, hands down, one of my favorite kids, and he and I have stayed friends in the decade since I left the ministry. He read my post on Tuesday and asked if he could respond. Here’s what he wrote:

Every week I go to church, not necessarily by choice, but by way of employment. I have been working at medium sized church in an affluent community for the last five years. When I realized that the the pastor was actually preaching on topics I could relate to I began to wonder where all of my friends from our forty-person confirmation class had gone? I even felt scared to admit that I went to church or worked at a church.

When I saw my friends on Saturday nights at the bar, I began to realize that this is our church, the bar, the social scene, dinner nights out on the town, not some suburban palace.

Growing up in a youth group run by Tony was a different experience than most high school students in our city. The “other kids” had flashy events, vibrant worship, and thrilling trips to go on, or so I thought.

In his latest post Tony highlights a conversation with his niece in which he responded to her questions with a question. I do not recall that being the case in which our group was conducted, but then again the maturity and development of my analytical skills had not been fully realized at that time. Maybe he did. This is where I ponder his statement:

One of the things that most frustrates me about church life is how quickly people abdicate their hermeneutical authority to clergypersons, and how quickly and easily clergypersons take up that authority.

In my generation, Millennials, we were raised to listen to our elders and soak up all the bullshit that was thrown at us. Then in college we learned reason and doubt and that there were other ways to look at the life we have been given. No wonder so many of my friends have run from the church, we never had an option to explore and question what we were being told. Furthermore, we were left feeling betrayed and probably in some cases lied to.

Thank goodness that God granted us forgiveness for our sins and to those who sin against us. So let us forgive the people that took advantage of our young minds. But also if you are in youth ministry, give the young minds a chance to sit in the unknown, let them question, do not tell them the black and white, instead let them and/or encourage them to explore the grey area. Stop being upset that kids are exploring something other than the environment you have created at your church. Culture and church should coexist and be embraced.

My generation loves culture. If you want us to come back to church, embrace who we are and where we are. Be real, question your own theology as a pastor, come to a bar with us, bring us into your vision for the church, walk with us toward Jesus, do not lead us or push us toward Jesus.

For some reason I have found myself working at the very church that I learned about faith, yet still questioning, exploring and wrestling with it all. My friends, they’re at the bar discussing women, work, and life. Yet I find myself there too, it still feels comfortable and rich with life and community.

Maybe as a church we should be teaching our young people as Tony puts it:

We should have given them the tools to further investigate the existential questions that are inherent to the life of faith.

  • http://www.briannakocka.com/ Brianna Michele Kocka

    My one problem with this post: “if you want us to come back to church.” The last thing I want is church-going people to try and evangelize me back through the doors of a church. I don’t want some pastor coming out to the bar with on Saturday night with his or her intention of “getting me back.” What I want is for them embrace me and my changed beliefs for what they are, and be okay with the fact that I’m not tracking with them anymore.

    But, that’s just one Millenials opinion.

    • Ric Shewell

      Just a little push back. I hear that you want to be embraced by the community. But I also hear that you do not want the community to require anything from you. Which is fine. But you can’t really belong to anything without some expectation. Maybe “embrace” doesn’t mean “belong.” In that case, what does “embrace” mean? What does that look like?

      • http://www.briannakocka.com/ Brianna Michele Kocka

        In this circumstance “embrace” isn’t synonymous with “belong.” I don’t want to belong to the community for which I left, otherwise why would I have left? So that community doesn’t require anything more of me than I of them: I let them have their beliefs and will spend time with them without any motive but our common humanity and enjoyment of one-anothers company. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that in return.

        • Gary in FL

          If I may paraphrase your comments: “If Millenials someday get an itch to check out Church again, then they will when they’re so inclined, and if they’re satisfied remaining outside the community, that’s fine too. Live and let live. Enjoy the common humanity. Anything more is pressure.”

          To me that communicates, “Save yourself the effort, Mr. Church-goer; we’re wise to you.”

          I think there’s three legitimate reasons why many Christians aren’t good with leaving it at that:

          1. You may have left for good reasons. If we who remain in the community can understand those reasons, we can address where we’ve done wrong, and in so doing better model the true essence of fellowship in and around Christ. You could help bring that about.

          2. The dogmatic “solutions” you were offered were perhaps directed toward challenges your generation doesn’t really think are all that important, and the “answers” you were taught may well have been to questions you weren’t asking and, thus, had little interest in. All that being said, it doesn’t mean the REAL questions you ask have no answers in the message of Christ. It doesn’t mean your life wouldn’t be enriched by a Church completely serious about following Christ as all of us TOGETHER face the life-or-death challenges ahead.

          3. If I say we’d like your generation to come back and be included because we _need_ you, I can already guess what your response might be: Yeah, you need us, because when you get old and begin passing from the scene who will be there to keep the wheels of your institutions turning? But that’s not the reason. We need you because the world needs Christ, and the way Christ makes his presence known in the world is through his Church. The world is desperately in need of renewal, and even though the world (those outside the community of Christ) won’t believe it, the Church is only agent capable of being the catalyst for that renewal. But to carry out that role, the Church itself needs to experience renewal, and for that we need you.

          • http://www.briannakocka.com/ Brianna Michele Kocka

            Hey Gary. Thanks for the response. I wouldn’t say your paraphrase is totally accurate, esspecially when it comes to the “pressure part.” It’s not about pressure for me, it’s about acceptance. Acceptance that I no longer define myself as Christian. That I don’t believe in hell or heaven. That I find that the gospel has a really great narrative arc, but that to me, it’s not much more than that.

            I think the world needs Christ in as much as the world needs any figure that defies the status quo and challenges us out of our egos.

            Now I can’t speak for all Millenials, but I’ll tell you some of my reasoning.

            1. I left the church because I don’t identify as a Christian anymore. When I’m feeling particularly existential I’m an agnostic, on my more confused and apathetic days, an atheist. So I don’t really need anyone in the church to address what they’ve done wrong, because while some wrongs were done to me (and I’m sure I’ve done some wrongs to the “church” myself) at the end of the day, my not participating in a Christian community has little to do with those wrongs, and more to do with the fact that I just don’t see the point in “doing church” if I don’t believe what the church is doing.

            2. I think some of my questions have answers in Christ, but I also think they have answers in Buddhism, Isalm, the Tao Te Ching, Hinduism, Paganism, etc. Call me a universalist, but I really can’t get behind the narrow path of religious exclusivity.

            3. As for number three, you kind of make me sound like a pompous and self-righteous asshole. I hope I’m not that, and your idea of how I might respond to “why you need us” wouldn’t even be as your worded. Also, I can’t get behind your theology in number three, because while I agree that the ideals of Christ might be seen through his church, I find that to be too narrow a view of how to find said ideals.

            All’s this to say, I’m realizing that I probably just shouldn’t post on this blog anymore, because my worldview has really shifted, and non of the Christenese jargon and theology makes any sense to me any longer.

            • Gary in FL

              Thanks for the response. I didn’t grasp from your original comment that you no longer considered yourself a Christian, and so what I wrote was guessing you were a believer in Christ who was abstaining from Church for various reasons.

              I think I can constructively argue some clear advantages of the Christian faith over/against Islam, Paganism and Hinduism. I don’t know enough about Taoism to say much. But I don’t see how anything other than Christianity is broad enough across the globe to be the kind of catalyst needed for real change. And Jesus himself was certainly an historical catalyst for far-reaching change.

            • Gary in FL

              Also, Brianna, I didn’t mean to make you sound like an asshole. Nor, for that matter, do I want to sound like one.

              • http://www.briannakocka.com/ Brianna Michele Kocka

                No worries!

  • Simon

    Thanks for the post Charlie. I have a question. Do your friends feel fulfilled by their substituting “bar” community for church community? If so, do you think the night on the town group will be as sustaining as the more traditional group of Christians you lead in your role as a vocational minister?

    Maybe this is just my impression of the “church” and the “bar” scene, its kind of like comparing “the family dinner” and the bar. One requires more effort, and may be more likely to include people and opinions that rub you the wrong way, but the two are just different animals and provide a different set of benefits.

    If you have a dysfunctional family and unpleasant family dinners, I don’t know if making it more like a bar is the answer.

    Also, as a side note, to be fair, if you grew up at a bar and turned to the “social scene” of your peer group as your “church,” I submit that you would have been fed all kinds of bullshit there (Tony Jones’ youth group is not the only source for this kind of fertilizer ;-).

    The same is true for being “forced” to soak up BS. If you’re substituting, bars, the social scene, etc. for church leaders, and church culture I don’t know that you are necessarily avoiding a group that says “Do as I do, think as I think, dress as I dress.”

    Even as adults, if you dress the wrong way in a lot of bars, bring up the wrong kind of politics, etc. you will know it.

    Maybe your church was filled with nothing but fundamentalists, and your high school, college and post college friends where never anything but a bastion of tolerance, insight and acceptance, but if so, I don’t think that would be normative.

    Bars and parties serve a social function, but I think a quirky-antiquated-stuck-in-its-ways fellowship may still be better equipped to serve a hurting and lost soul than most bars, or on-the-town social groups.

    • Ric Shewell

      You’re going to the wrong bars. People bar-hop just like they church-hop. People find the bar where they can be themselves, where there isn’t a lecture or judgement. There’s no expert (except in beers and cocktails). There’s mostly just fun conversations with friends and acquaintances, bitching about sports, politics, work, and laughter. Nothing is being taught in the bars, its just a place where you can be you. And that’s awesome. If you don’t have that in your bar, you need a new bar.

      Also, the problem that Tony and Charlie are describing isn’t a conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist problem alone. In fact, conservative/evangelicals keep their children in the faith much better than mainliners (86% to 68% according to Christian Smith’s study in “Soul Searching).

      • Simon

        I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying. But you could just as easily say that Charlie is going (pastoring?) the wrong churches. My point is not that there is something wrong with a bar with your people that dress like you and think like you and where “you can just be.” That’s great. My point is that, like a family, a church isn’t simply a place where you just hang out with people that are like you.

        Bars aren’t less judgmental places. IMO, they just tend to judge the outsiders, just like other homogeneous groups (I am excluding everyone’s favorite bar that totally doesn’t do that).

        My point is that a good church will have more expectation of you and rub you the wrong way in ways that a bar never would (but in ways that family might). I am not knocking bars. I am just saying a church isn’t a bar, and fulfills a different function.

  • Ric Shewell

    I don’t know man. I’m a 29 yr old UMC pastor, so the question of “where are my peers?” comes up around me and my friends a lot. I think it’s too simple to say, “We gave them bad answers when they were young. We should have taught them how to live in the questions, and how to keep questioning, growing, etc etc etc.”

    I don’t know the definitive answer for why millenials leave the church, but I think that American Christianity’s myopic emphasis on personal salvation has nearly destroyed the church all together (ironically).

    When the whole of the Christian Faith gets reduced to simply getting human beings to say the sinner’s prayer, then the whole goal of Christianity becomes a sales pitch, where the means justify the ends. So Christians do ridiculous and even underhanded things to get people to sign up.

    When I look at religions that hold on to their children, like LDS or Judaism, I see people and families that tell the story of their family. Each child’s identity is wrapped up in the stories of their ancestors, their struggles and triumphs that have created the world that they now live and breathe in. These stories are memorized and shared, one generation to the next.

    In American Christianity (for the most part), telling the story of our family, our people, is completely eclipsed by the impetus to convince an individual to make an individual choice to accept a set of principles. And until that child does so, he or she is outside of the community. Outside of the community of their own family… until they “choose Christ” or something.

    And since getting our kids to accept these principles is job number 1, we hire experts to talk to our kids for us. Parents feel inadequate to talk to their children about the faith, because it’s not about passing down a shared family story, it’s about a sales pitch. And parents have never been good at selling things to their kids.

  • http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B006M68MNI Maurice Smith

    This article is interesting, but not as extensive as the recent post by Rachel Held Evans on why millennials are leaving the church. My own response as a Christian “Boomer” is same to both, and is posted here: http://www.safehousesofhopeandprayer.org/

  • Simon

    Thanks for the kind words Thomas.

    It is hard to here that your response to doubt is “truth,” as if the doubter’s only problem is that they haven’t understood your point of view yet.

    I would guess, that many of your fundamentalist truths started as other people’s doubts (e.g. somebody doubted that communion was literally Christ’s blood, as Jesus proclaimed in John and the church taught for over a millennium.)

    I am not scandalized that you think your right, and say as much. (I do the same.) But I my experience, the evangelical/fundamentalist vision of an “environment where questions can be asked” is a false promise of intellectual safe harbor. These safe places for “asking questions” tend to remain safe only so long as the questions don’t turn into answers the truth-gatekeepers don’t like.

    • Thomas Haviland-Pabst

      Well, not to have a prolonged discussion (as time is limited), but I would like to respond to a few things that you have said.

      First, I was vague when I said “truth” was the response to doubt. Part of the reason for this is that what I mean by that would require many more words. Basically, we all have an intellectual starting point, a worldview, which determines how we understand God, ourselves, and the world around us. The search for “truth” is in many ways an existential one, so I recognize that people will struggle with accepting certain truths, and this struggle could be attributed to various things such as culture, upbringing, or, more fundamentally, the human heart living independently of God. But, there comes a point when a person has to submit there mind and heart to the word of God. Put differently, for one to persist in doubt, which I am distinguishing here from struggle, for a long period is, in my mind, not a theoretical issue but a spiritual one.

      Second, I am not equating “truth” with my “own point of view.” I’m sure you know this. But, returning to worldview, I feel that this kind of reduction betrays an adherence to the belief that truth cannot really be known, or not in a way that is authoritative. Of course, Scripture is not clear on every matter, and there is much debate about the interpretation of various texts, but this doesn’t mean that certain basic truths of Christianity cannot be known with certainty. Rather, I believe that Scripture speaks clearly about such things as who Christ is, who we are as humans, what the gospel is, and who God is — to name a few.

      Third, you portrayed the safe environment that I urged as “a false promise of intellectual safe harbor.” And, perhaps this is often the case, but I’m curious what you questions you have in mind that “the truth-gatekeepers” wouldn’t like.

      As an aside, you raised a good point about how doubt may have factored into some theological conclusions.

      • Simon

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I don’t think any particular question is the problem for most fair-minded evangelicals. The risk is in finding the “wrong answers.” When coming to the “wrong” answer means you could lose your friends, community and in many cases, your entire spiritual/social eco-system that is NOT SAFE.

        Doubt a core doctrine of the church? “No problem, here are a couple of books.” “Let’s dialogue.”

        Suggest a different understanding of that doctrine, or reject it? “There are some things that are so foundational that…” “Now I am no fundamentalist, but when you start questioning….”

        If you vigorously ask questions and doubt your faith and the answers you emerge with are considered heterodoxy, there is a huge risk to even ask those questions.

        The more particular, and strident the community is about orthodoxy, the less safe it is to ask questions (no matter how nice and open and accepting people are when you ask the question.) Orthodoxy by its nature is the thing that is unsafe to question.

        This is a problem for lots of other groups too, but liberal Christians and Evangelicals seem more burdened by this problem because they want to be safe and nurturing. Most groups that accomplish great things aren’t safe places to ask questions. They are efficient places to get things done. Think of a political party, or advocacy group or civic organization.

        The DNC is not a safe place to explore the writings and ideas of Ayn Rand. Why would we think that your local Conservative Baptist church would be a safe place to read Richard Dawkins (or even Marcus Borg for that matter)?

        Can you imagine if Barack Obama encouraged local DNC party leaders to start groups where kids could have a “safe place” to ask political questions? “I don’t have an agenda,” the local party activist says. “I just want to build a relationship with you and really hear your questions about politics and we’ll explore them together in this safe little group we call the Democratic party.”

        If you were a conservative, it would be hard not to view this rhetoric about “safe places” and “dialogue” with a lot of skepticism.

        It seems the only way for a church to transcend the trap of becoming another political machine is to let go of its bigger agenda’s and consider the possibility that someone’s doubt may in fact be pointing towards an error in the group’s understanding of the truth.

        If churches are really capital T Truth seeking groups, no doctrine is safe from reexamination. Churches would have to be less like political organizations and more like the academy or scientific communities. Where the goal is to disprove current theories, and build through creative destruction and an increasingly clearer view of the truth.

        Maybe that would be a bad move for the church. Certainly, if the DNC or the GOP took that approach, they’d probably be out of business within a generation.

        Maybe churches shouldn’t be a safe place. I don’t know.

        I just know that most aren’t. I would bet many of the millennial “nones” asked their questions in the church, but could probably only share their answers in the bar.

  • Ryan Hite

    Instead of coming to us, make it interesting so that we would want a reason to come back. Pastors need to research the millennial generation a little more and they can find a way to retain their members and gain new ones at the same time with some really simple changes.

    • Mark R D Long

      Hi, Ryan – I’m far too old to be a Millennial, and I’d be very interested to know what you consider “really simple changes”?

  • Phil Miller

    In my generation, Millennials, we were raised to listen to our elders and soak up all the bullshit that was thrown at us.

    I’m too old to considered a Millennial (I’m 37), but I still have a hard time believing this in some way. I don’t doubt there are some churches that are like this, but it’s so different than my experience. My dad is an AoG pastor, and even growing up in that church environment, I never felt that I couldn’t question things. I always questioned things. I went to a large, secular state university and I always questioned things. I never once felt that I was in a place where I had to simply accept the BS thrown at me. I mean, I’m sure there are people who wanted me to, but I would walk away from those people.

    I don’t know… I sometimes think that my Pentecostal grandparents had it right. There’s no point in showing up to a church if the Spirit isn’t there. And I have the feeling the a lot of people had the misfortune of growing up while being forced to attend churches that the Spirit had left. I can’t say I blame them for not wanting to be part of that.

  • Rob Bradford

    Phil, I agree that closed and open systems have different qualities regarding entropy. My point was that people cannot use the Big Bang as an argument for creation. There are too many variables, like the infinitely dense, infinitely small particle from which all matter and energy came into being. We don’t have enough data at this time to make a judgment call for how such a singularity event occurred. Christian apologists that want to argue the Big Bang from the standpoint of natural theology clues for creation need to go back to school for 21st century physics, chemistry, and biology.

  • corvelay

    Maybe Millennials just aren’t a very godly generation, and I say that as an agnostic Millennial

  • Patrick O

    The millenials talk seems curious. Twenty years ago, the term could have been “Gen X”. Forty years ago, Boomers were having the exact same experiences. The 60s and 70s young people weren’t lovers of culture?

    The difference is that there’s a decreasing social pressure to attend church, so the formerly nominal now just leave.

  • Dustin Ryman

    Why is ‘going to church’ or ‘leaving the church’ is the only way we identify ones godliness or lack thereof? See, we have it backwards. Going to a physical location has nothing to do with ones heart or desire to follow Christ.

    There are so many millennials outside the walls of the church that are truly making a difference, that truly care and who love Christ. They may not ever set foot in a church again or submit themselves to clergy or the religious ‘system’. But they are mature enough to know how to submit themselves to Christ by loving others.

    I say that godliness and faith should now be gauged by the lives we live and the difference we make OUTSIDE the walls of the church.

    Then, maybe then, others will have more incentive and accountability to become more than just ‘Sunday morning Christians’, and those doing work that matters outside the church can enjoy a sense of purpose rather than condemnation.

    • Simon

      I think we are using the terms differently when we talk about leaving the church. It is a good reminder that people may leave the institutions and organizations that support the faith, without leaving the faith itself. However, people aren’t crazy for making this association.

      Christianity has for the most part (granted, not exclusively) been a community endeavor. Whether it is a mega church or house church, small group, etc., I don’t know that it is a faith that long sustains itself without that thing that Paul called the body of Christ.

      • Dustin Ryman

        I agree. I think it’s important to make the distinction between the Church(the Ekklesia) and the church- the conglomerate of over 30,000 communities, denominationsand sects. One may leave the church but still be a functioning member of the Ekklesia, the Body of Christ.

  • wally

    But maybe folks leave because it really is what they want.
    Assuming Church includes a relationship with Jesus, folks may leave simply because they rather have the things that following Jesus forbids.

    I live in the “Far East” and we have all forms of mysticism and regular evangelical (Bible believing) Christianity around us. Folks who leave the Church here don’t leave because of a new found fascination with the Tao or Buddha, folks leave because work and friends rank higher in priority.

    Conspicuous consumption are the marks of the Millennial culture here.
    And the power to achieve it is in pursuit of the Material.

    So for all the allure of eastern thought, I still find Jesus’ call intriguing. To live in a material culture, and yet believe in a Spiritual relationship with Jesus. To not hide away in a monastery to develop my spirituality, but to understand my body is that temple that Jesus’ spirit resides in.

    And to embrace the unique claim of Christianity, that our actions can never overcome our Karmic debt and embrace the power of God’s forgiveness toward us in the sacrificial death of God.

    The Christian journey is a difficult one, but also one that holds great joy and power to do good.


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