There’s been a lot of talk recently about how young people are leaving their church. NPR published a story that features interviews with those who have left their faith–and not just the church. Their voices and faces make it more “real” than statistics and theory.
This issue is personal for me. I met my boyfriend (age 22) in church, and he no longer goes regularly. When he does, it’s usually for something special when my god daughter or I really want him there. His argument, and I completely see this, is that it is becoming too political and agenda pushing–and actually making him feel farther from the Divine. He’s also said that he feels closest to God when playing in a good band, so for him, that’s one of the most important factors in finding a community. The preaching, the people…not even a consideration.
From keeping up with friends in my confirmation class, I know I’m one of the few who still attends church regularly. My own faith story, as I’ve mentioned here, has been anything but a consistent upward trajectory. I’m sometimes frustrated with the amount of time that we spend on issues that I think are distracting us from our true purpose: homosexuality, premarital sex, ordination of women, etc. I understand that liturgy, as much as I treasure it, doesn’t exactly make people feel welcome or at home if they didn’t grow up with it. It can be all too easy to make church feel like a popularity club or closed community, even unintentionally.
And there seems to be patterns to the stories that I hear on why my friends and peers leave the church.
- Theodicy, aka “Why do bad things happen to good people”
- Politics, i.e. homosexuality, birth control, etc.
- Confusion and frustration on texts. The Bible says some strange things, and it comes from a time and culture that for many of us is unfamiliar. It teaches using references that don’t speak to us. God as a shepherd? I can safely say, though my boyfriend shears sheep and my grandfather raised them, I’ve never met a shepherd. I doubt I’m alone.
- Not feeling a sense of belonging within the community
Yet here’s the thing: in these faith stories, I also hear again and again a longing for a loving, Divine presence in their lives. People crave something that they can believe in, that they can trust. We have a lot of uncertainty, uncomfortable memories, confusion, frustration, time commitments in our lives. Why would we volunteer for by going to church?
My answer–and take it as you will–is because we need it. For our minds, for our souls. We need community, and technology and the nature of our lives is making that increasingly challenging. We need people who care about us and who are united around a common goal, much as the sports teams and other extracurricular activities many of us had as children. We need a place where we can unplug. Can these things be found outside of a church? Maybe.
But I think especially, we need a place where we can practice and witness forgiveness. We see human frailty at work, but in the church, we learn to accept it, honor it, and to love people. We learn to question it in an environment that won’t cost us our jobs. We’re challenged, and we learn to balance mystery and awe with understanding and compassion. We learn to challenge the wrong in our world and to find support in others who are trying to do the same things: advocate for the poor, feed the hungry, comfort the grieving.
Madeleine L’Engle puts it well in her book And it was good: Reflections on Genesis. She says “Faith consists in the acceptance of doubts, the working through them, rather than the repression of them. Faith is a gift, a gift of knowing that the light shines in the darkness, of knowing the light cannot be put out.”
Faith isn’t easy, and it doesn’t entirely come through a church. I admit that organized religion has its problems and that I haven’t always been faithful to it, nor to the God that I serve. But I also know that I can’t live without my faith.And to keep that faith alive and growing, I need a place and a people who are on that same search for holiness, leaders I can question and challenge, middle schoolers who give me hope and laughter and invite me into their faith lives. I need a place where my vulnerable faith can be nurtured and encouraged to grow.
And I’ve found I can’t find all of those things–things we need as human beings–anywhere except a church.
I would welcome your thoughts and insights on this. Agree? Disagree? Do people need a church?