Among the news headlines and trending topics on social media of the past few weeks has been the results of new polls that show a decline in people, especially young people who identify with any organized faith community. The “rise of the ‘nones’ (as in, church affiliation: none)” has occupied debates and discussions, both among pundits and in the pews of our churches. I just attended a church conference in my diocese and the questions were certainly asked: Why are young people leaving? Who’s to blame? What’s to be done? Of course, as a pastor, I’m concerned. I don’t want to see young people, or anyone leave the faith, and not because I’m worried about ‘institutional’ concerns like ‘membership numbers’ or needing to be validated by having more people in ‘my’ church (btw, it’s not mine anyway!), or, God forbid worried about the ‘church’ surviving financially. I’m concerned because I really believe this stuff, I really do believe Christ offers salvation and healing, and that Christ and His Church do offer something that can’t be received anywhere else. I believe this because I’ve experienced it and trust in the experience of centuries of people who believed. I don’t want anyone to miss this! I believe it is offered to all, and that as a follower of Christ I’m called to share that – not as a sales pitch (we’ll get to that in a minute, as I think that might be part of the problem) or a heavy handed guilt trip, but a real living experience, bearing witness to a transformed life – Good News! So when I read of the rise of the “nones” among young people, I care, and want to know more.
The discussion of young people leaving the church is not a new topic. I’m well aware of factors that have been perennially proposed as to why young people leave the ‘institutional church’ or even the faith completely. I’ve heard the usual enemies named: ‘secular’ culture, overscheduled, busy lives (i.e. sports on Sunday, etc.), too many distractions, the loss of a moral compass in society, lack of parental or family priority on church. I’ve read and listened to the complaints of those who claim to speak for those who leave: hypocrisy in the ‘institutional’ church, church is boring and irrelevant and doesn’t connect to what’s important in people’s lives, etc. And, I’ve seen various proposed remedies: relaxed service times, more ‘youth relevant’ music, worship space, and programs. Focused programs for youth and young adults to keep them ‘plugged in’. Oh, did I mention programs and buzzwords?
Been there, done that. Got the free t-shirt.
Look, I know there are real issues to be engaged when it comes to our culture and how distracted, hyper-stimulated, and perhaps unmoored it has become. I confess that I struggle with staying focused myself, and I know the deep ‘disconnectedness’ that one can experience in the midst of the promised ‘connectedness’ of our age. I also know there are real complaints, real hurts that people have experienced at the hands of the so-called ‘institutional’ church. There are real cases of abuse. There is the real problem of bad theology (that is, preaching a false Gospel, like Jesus and the Apostles warned against) that translates into some very destructive and damaging views about God and His relationship with mankind. There is the real problem of pastors and church leaders using what they teach about God, or using their interpretation of the Bible to control and manipulate people. I know churches can become places of discord, argument, and vicious judgmentalism. I know. And I know this can make someone want to have nothing to do with the ‘institutional’ church.
I’m sure the “why’s” are not at all monolithic, the factors for leaving diverse and unique as each person. Which is why the proposed remedies I’ve seen, experienced, and referenced above haven’t ever quite ‘felt’ right. My humble suggestion of how to begin to address the question of the “nones” or potential “nones” would be by first listening. Listening without assuming and without ulterior motives. Listen to their stories, their reasons, their understanding of things like faith, church, etc. What we think we say clearly may not be what they hear. Find out what the reasons are, not what we think the reasons are. I would also humbly propose that when it comes to what the Church is, what the Church offers, we should stop trying to cater, even pander to them (even with the best intentions). I think young people see through this. I think, even, that the answer might actually lie in not making church easier, less of a demand, more convenient, but rather actually embracing that, well, living the Gospel is hard, and so, well, sometimes Church will be hard. Many young people will embrace a sport, a skill, a career path that requires something of them. They will put in the hard work if the goal makes sense – because something of that old-fashioned ethos that anything valuable is going to require some sacrifice, some work, hasn’t been eradicated from our culture, as, I believe, it’s one of those things locked deep within the heart of mankind – something we intuitively know.
When I think about my young adult life, sometimes I think I could have become a “none”. In fact, when I was in my twenties, I very much flirted with the possibility of leaving, or at least minimizing the importance of the ‘institutional’ church as I understood it. I never had a crisis of faith in Christ, necessarily, but I came very close to letting the importance, and certainly the necessity of ‘church’ slip well out of practice. Now, I’m not from the current generation, and I don’t pretend to face the same things they do, but I do know what it’s like to wonder what exactly the point of church is, and whether I even need it. I know what it’s like to at least flirt with becoming “unaffiliated.”
So what happened? Fifteen years later I’m a priest (still not sure how that part happened!) and clearly ‘affiliated’ with the Church. I certainly am nothing special, nor did I have a “lightning bolt” moment. I certainly wasn’t wooed by a program geared at getting a twentysomething “plugged in”. More contemporary music, relaxed space and service times, “relevance”, none of that was what turned my ship around. A word spoken in truth is what did. A word that met me where I was, but offered something greater.
My wife and I were in the midst of trying out different churches, with the hopes of maybe finding a place that we could raise our children in. We happened to show up for a class at the local Orthodox Church (we knew little to nothing about Orthodoxy, but had been encouraged by a friend to visit). The priest giving the class spoke with us, listened to our story, where we really were, and then remarked by saying: “Well, this is a wonderful time for you, it’s like dating, but, if you come to the Orthodox Church, know that She is a beautiful place to live out your Faith, but She will ask your life of you.”
“She will ask your life of you.”
There was no attempt to “rope us in”, not even an attempt to coerce or convince, but rather, we were given a straightforward, fearless word that, really, to follow Christ is to go the way of the Cross. It is not a part of one’s life, it becomes one’s entire life. It is not meant to entertain or keep one comfortable. It is the way of imitating Christ through self-sacrificial love for others. Its serious business, not to be toyed with. I certainly am not one who has succeeded at living that calling as I should, but that first word, that first call, spoke deeply to our hearts. Without knowing beforehand, we realized that was what we were looking for. We wanted the Church to be Church – the Body of Christ. Our lives were to be conformed to the Church (the Body of Christ), not the Church conformed to us!
I think we sometimes worry that presenting the Gospel as something demanding will scare away young people. And, to be clear, we need to be careful to not present the wrong kind of ‘demanding’ that has nothing to do with the Gospel. The ‘hard’ part of living the Gospel has nothing to do with legalism or earning salvation. Its responding to the new life you’ve been given. A new life that should change everything – not just in a moralistic or pietistic way, but will bear itself out in the real, daily struggle of imitating Christ. Loving your neighbor (even your enemy!) is hard. Being faithful to those entrusted to you, whether that be in marriage, family, or those who you minister to, is hard. Turning away from the things in life that are destructive and wounding (that’s really what sin is), is hard, especially when we really want to do what we want. Serving the poor, needy, addicted, abused, and wounded, and not losing hope is hard. It’s hard, which is why we need the Church, why Christ established the Church, so that we experience this new life, which can be hard, together, and that somehow, miraculously, by Grace, together we truly become His Body in a way that we cannot be alone.
For any “nones” or potential “nones” reading this, first, I really would welcome hearing your story. Honest, no sales pitch. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. But also, as a former potential “none” myself, I give this small offering for your consideration: No matter what you’ve encountered, I assure you, Christianity is not just a statement of belief. It is not another ‘product’ to buy (but you are not another ‘product’ to be bought either!) Christianity, the Church, is not a social club, a political organization, or a self-help group, it’s supposed to be the Body of Christ, and that is worth staying in. Or, if you’ve not found it before or been burned (even in what you’ve experienced as the ‘institutional’ church, which may not be the church at all), its worth seeking until you find it. But be warned. When you find Her, She will ask your life of you.