If you pay attention to Christian news in America, you’ll notice that there has been a very popular trend ongoing within the Evangelical church. It’s popular and in right now to ask, “Why are young people leaving the church?” It’s been featured on CNN, Christianity Today gave us 6 reasons they’re leaving, not to be outdone the Reformed element posted 10 reasons young people leave church, and Relevant magazine (if you have to title yourself relevant, then are you really relevant?) just tells us what young people are saying. All these links are just the first few off any Google search; there are tons of articles out there trying to figure out why young people are leaving the church – specifically the evangelical church – in droves.
I should also mention that no one actually agrees on why young people are leaving the church. Some say it’s because of the church’s anti-homosexual, anti-abortion, anti-science stance. Others say because the church has been too soft on homosexuals, abortion, and evolution. Some argue that a lack of intellectual satisfaction is the cause, while others argue it’s an over-saturation of apologetics. Some think it’s a matter of no serving enough, while others argue that it’s serving without sharing the Gospel. And the list goes on. The fact that no one can agree and point to contradictory reasons actually shows us why young people are leaving the church.
If you really want to know why young people are leaving the church then look to Syria. I know, the two don’t seem related, but they are in a way. The conflict in Syria has created approximately two million refugees; imagine the entire population of Houston being relocated over the course of a year. War creates refugees, it creates people who leave a nation and if that war is never settled, these refugees begin to lose their culture in their new land. Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has been engaged in warfare (mostly political) since the 1980s. Young people are still battle fatigued and see no reason to belong.
Why have we lost Generation X, Y, Z or whatever? Why have we been losing more and more young people since the 1970s? Because Christianity, in particular evangelical Christianity, has created spiritual refugees. In attempting to legislate the actions of every American, the church has lost the hearts of most of its young people. This is not to say that the church shouldn’t be active in the public square, just that it works better in dealing with people, not politicians.
Throughout Church history, Christians typically wrote to and served the average person. Only on rare occasions did they write to government officials (typically to say, “Hey, we’re not that bad, please stop killing us”). When Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410AD, the Romans received a beautiful treatise from St. Augustine (City of God) that explained what occurred and how to get through it. When 9/11 happened for America, we got Pat Robertson. During the earliest centuries of Church growth, Christians would write to the average person and attempt to win his heart. The Christians would serve people and communities in an attempt to display the Gospel. Somewhere along the way, we lost that drive.
The Church always thrived, even during its own internal wars, because those who adhered to the true doctrine continued to teach and live that doctrine with conviction. These Christians were able to teach the young people the faith. They were able to teach and then demonstrate this faith. Most importantly, however, is that young people had to make this faith their own.
In the American church, we have been so busy becoming “culture warriors” that we’ve abandoned our duty as Christians. The belief that if we just pass the right laws, if we just enact the right moral codes, that our society will somehow improve puts our faith in the Constitution and Congress, not in Christ. Such an attitude exists for both the “Religious Right” and “Progressive Christians.” Both are waging a war for the American legislature, somehow believing it is the same thing as a war for the American heart. All the while, the Church’s young people grow weary from the endless, fruitless, and stupid battles and flee.
Attend any conservative Christian function and you may confuse it for an AARP convention, with a few sightings of young white men who you know were raised on a strict diet of David Barton, Bob Jones, and A Beka Books. Alternatively, if you just go to an Emergent church (which has really fizzled out) you’ll find it’s just the Christian wing of the Democratic Party. A lot of my friends who went that route have abandoned the church all together, because they realized that the Emergent Church was the Religious Right, only for liberals.
These young people are spiritual refugees, fleeing from a war that is not their own. They flee to the supposedly neutral ideas of secularism, where they don’t have to be religious, but can be spiritual. The cost to enter such a society is that they must abandon certain beliefs, or at least act a certain way, but they are willing to pay this price just so they can be free from this cultural war.
Imagine a young refugee from Syria arriving in the United States. At first, he wants to abide by his cultural upbringing as much as he can, but he realizes that staying in his culture means he must be reminded of the war he just left. As time goes on, he adopts aspects of the culture he’s just come into. And one day, while at a Fourth of July barbecue with his new friends, wearing a shirt with the American flag, drinking a PBR, eating pork ribs, and talking about the upcoming football season, he proudly declares he is still Syrian. Yet, there is nothing Syrian about him except he can speak Arabic. He has abandoned his culture and fully assimilated; what was once a place of refuge has now become home. His children will be fully American. Sure, once they’re born he may try to go back to his culture, but one cannot return home in a foreign land. His kids will come to resent the culture, thinking of it as backwards and weird. They might engage in it for nostalgia’s sake, but they won’t really consider themselves Syrian; by the time we get to his grandchildren, they won’t even speak Arabic anymore and Syria will be nothing more than a place on a map.
The same remains true for spiritual refugees. They leave the church to escape the culture wars. They arrive in the secular land wanting to still hold onto the vestiges of their faith. They think they’ll create a new kind of Christianity, but soon discover that even this alienates them from their new culture. As time goes on, they adopt certain aspects of the culture they come into. And one day, while denying miracles, that Jesus was God, while stating that Jesus was probably just a good person, while casting serious doubts about God’s existence, they will proudly say they still consider themselves Christians. Yet, there is nothing Christian about them except they still know the lingo (e.g. “saved,” “redeemed,” “inspired,” etc.). They have abandoned their faith and become secular; it may be a mystical secularism, a more spiritual secularism, but it is still secular. They might even abandon faith all together and become atheists, but they can never abandon their upbringing and culture entirely (which explains the evangelical nature of the New Atheists), just as a refugee can never eradicate his accent.
Within a few generations, their children will be completely apathetic, hostile or, worst of all, ignorant of their Christian roots. The children of these disaffected spiritual refugees will grow up ambivalent to Christianity. The grandchildren of these spiritual refugees will be completely unchurched, knowing none of the lingo (words like “unchurched”), and Christianity will be nothing more than a set of superstitious beliefs or philosophical arguments.
The solution isn’t to create better aid workers to these spiritual refugees. The solution isn’t to try to appeal to these young, disaffected youths. Refugees lose touch with their homeland because they don’t go home. Likewise, spiritual refugees will continue to move further and further away from the faith until they realize that it’s okay to go back home. They won’t return until they see that the pointless wars are over.
Calling for an end to the warrior culture, the idea that it’s us against the legislature, is not the same as a call for Christians to further retreat from the public discourse. In fact, abandoning public discourse is part of the problem of why people leave the church. For too long, Christians have focused on legislating morality – whether it be banning abortions and homosexual marriages, or promoting homosexual marriages and social reform issues – and not on creating a culture wherein people choose to do the right thing. Some things are still worthy of challenging in the legislature – such as banning abortion and some social reform issues – but what good does it do us if we never appeal to the hearts and minds of the general population?
We live in a time where our war against the culture has abandoned our youth. They are good at spouting off our pre-programmed information, but they are not good at thinking. It’s a sad day when young Christians (and older Christians) actually struggle to refute the arguments from Dawkins, Hitchens, Krauss, and others, when they struggle to refute the easiest of arguments in the world. It’s a sad day when young Christians are given party after party and only asked to do a mission trip here and there, when they’re asked to take and take from the Church rather than to give. It’s a sad day because our culture war has made our faith a political mechanism, but not something that is really owned by our children.
If you want to know why there is a mass exodus from the Church by young people, it’s because the churches have abandoned the heart of the Gospel. They failed to offer up something that is intellectually and existentially satisfying. We are offering something that youth cannot make their own because we tell them to believe, but never to understand. We tell them to act, but not to live. They then face the realities of this world, whether it be a Richard Dawkins or a 9/11, and they have no answer. I think of my own experience, entering high school to Columbine and leaving high school to 9/11 and a war, and there were no real answers from my church at the time. As long as Christians pursue the culture wars and then turn around and give youth “the next big thing” in Christianity, they will continue to lose their young people, they will continue to create refugees.