It’s a well-known and often-quoted statistic that young people are leaving the church in droves during college. LifeWay Research published an article in January 2019 stating that 66% of Protestant American teenagers who attended church regularly as children (at least twice a month) stopped when they reached those critical young adult years (18-22).
In some ways, this is my letter to that 66% (I was almost among them) and the parents, grandparents, pastors, and friends who pray for them.
But this is also to the 34% to prompt us to consider why we stayed in the church (or came back). I think it unlikely that it was some strength in us that allowed us to resist the seductions of “worldliness,” as if our journeys in the real world bore a distinct resemblance to that of Pilgrim’s Progress and mere moral fortifications would make us better travelers in it.
The first Saturday night after my own college orientation, I dumped a wrinkled fistful of church flyers out of my backpack and sorted through them, meticulously looking up their websites and eliminating denominations I knew I didn’t agree with and, perhaps more importantly, any whose services began before 10 a.m.
I was choosing a church on my own for the first time, and it would be perfect.
Church shopping became church hopping, then church stopping.
This is telling about what I thought church should be. I saw church primarily as another classroom, an institute of holiness that would make me holy too, as if “good Christians” can be processed through the machinery of doctrine like so many cartons of eggs. I searched for that kind of church with the same cost-benefit analysis that had brought me to Calvin College. The church search exhausted me. But I encouraged myself with the thought that somewhere out there was the perfect church, and once I did the hard work of finding it, I could retire to pew sitting and simply absorb all the right answers.
But is that what church is?
The more people I spoke to and read (good Christian voices spanning centuries) Monday through Saturday, the less I felt satisfied with what I heard on Sunday. My experience stepping into adulthood from the warm embrace of a loving, Christian family was certainly a privilege, but did anyone else feel like questions and ideas were hitting them like a sonic boom?
I had been prepared with arguments to defeat the world’s lies and, it pains me to say, proudly rebuff theology different from the tradition I had been raised in. I took meticulous notes on the services I attended, determined not to be “corrupted” by some new, strange doctrine.
Maybe more than half of young adults leave the church because we’re taught that most of the people outside of our particular practice are entranced by heresies.
Yes, the church should ground and govern us. Yes, we must develop some sharp reasoning to slice away those things that leech onto the gospel, to parse out what is finite, human understanding from eternal truth.
But I do not know that the “perfect church” is the right desire at all.
The easy moral to extract from this story is that there is no one “right” church, that everyone has to find the place they are called to.
However, I am wary of fracturing faith to tailor it to approximately 7 billion desires. Many of my post-church peers call themselves “spiritual,” and I see the allure of meeting God on mountaintops, in quiet books, and mostly on my own terms. But I resist the idea of Christianity as merely a personal relationship with Jesus.
I recently spoke with a man who saw his great-granddaughter baptized in the church his family had attended for eight generations. He kept referring to “the life of the church.” In my head, I pictured this thriving vine, a dynamic, frolicking, ambitious, clematis-like plant with all sorts of branches grafted on and tangled together. How often we forget the church is a living thing, that we are it as well as in it!
My apologetics courses had perhaps prepared me to define church, but not to be church.
What does this “church life” look like? And is it something we choose?
I don’t think so. I thought I could sign up for church like I did for college. If I didn’t fit in a church, I could leave.
I stopped going to church, but I never felt like I left the faith—just as a duck cannot cease to be a duck by walking far enough away from a pond. I am part of the church, and I’d have more success abandoning my shadow—no, my classification as Homo sapiens, or the nuclei of my cells.
You too, in Christ, are the church.
The church by its nature is big enough for you, for your pain, your doubt, your sin.
And for your passion, your sudden, sacred revelations, your courage.
Church is neither merely balm nor blame nor law nor love. Church is the experience of Christian life as we commit to doing it together under the name and blood of Jesus Christ.
We, the rising generation of the church, are drawn to energy like moths to flame. We want things to happen. This is our gift to the church, but it is a gift so easily twisted and corrupted into self-righteous dogmas and hurt, which turns to apathy or isolating spiritual silos.
We can be the nervous system of the church, sounding the alarm when we are broken, but also never forgetting that we are a living, growing thing too and must change in our own turn. Neither we nor the church are healthiest when stagnant.
Psalm 122 speaks to me, to this cry in my heart. The first two Psalms of Ascent are songs of lament, confusion, and demands for God to do something about the state of the world. Psalm 122:1, 6, and 6-9 reads:
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord .” ...
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. ...
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.
For every young person I know who has left the church, who didn’t make their faith their own or didn’t feel their full self was welcome in the church, I know two for whom the process of finding where they fit in the body of believers was a critically formative experience of self-discovery. I belong to my church not because the sermons are particularly rigorous or the doctrine perfectly agreeable, but because I commited to live in confession and community with these people. I could not tell you why these people. But I’m here now. And I am home.
This letter may have begun addressed to the percentage of my brothers and sisters leaving the church, but I challenge us to resist yet another division in our body. My prayer is for 100% of the Christians I bitterly disagree with, have wronged in my prideful self-righteousness, have mentally crossed off the communion guest list to prosper: “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.” Because I love the church, and you are the church, I love you. I need no other syllogism.
- What do you think are some of the reasons some young people stop being part of a local church community?
- The author used to see church as primarily “another classroom.” What image would you use to describe how you have primarily regarded church? Do you think that’s an accurate or healthy image of church?
- How would you describe “the life of your church” currently?
- What would it mean to be the church rather than simply define the church?