Last night, I attended a young adult ministry event and the pastor started a dialogue about why my generation (young adults or millennials) are missing from the church. I couldn't speak to many of the issues brought up last night because they were specific to that denomination and I'm not a member of that denomination. However, I've seen tons of articles online about this same topic, and even responded to one previously.
While I shared the reasons I stopped attending church, I didn't explain why these things made me leave or how to fix them. Also, since that post, I have actually been attending a church service so I wanted to talk about that too!
Leaving the Church
The full story of why I left the church I grew up in is already on the blog, but I'll summarize it for those who are new (and the original post is linked below in references). The gist of why I left was a combination of hypocrisy, elevation of tradition over Biblical doctrine, and stagnancy in growth.
From my generation, I don't think any of us attend that particular church anymore, which makes sense because most of us moved away. However, those that stayed don't attend, and I don't know how many of those who left found new churches to attend. New families have moved in to the neighborhood, but I don't think they attend either... That church is basically dying out.
You're probably wondering how I would know who does and doesn't attend that church if I stopped going, right? Well, here are two important facts that not only answer that question, but also say a lot about why my generation isn't returning to the church after leaving. 1) The church I grew up in is literally across the street from my house—not diagonal or down the road, but straight across the street. 2) This church is literally a family. There are only two families that attend this church—well, three if you include the pastor, I don't think he's related to anyone. I am related to 90% of the church.
Despite living across the street from the church and being related to a large portion of the congregation, to this day, no one has asked me why I stopped attending services at the age of 16. In the end, that bothered me more than the things that made me leave in the first place.
The Assumptions of Church Folk
The straw that broke the camel's back for me, was when the youth leader told me I wasn't a Christian. Over the years, I tried to rationalize their statement to be a miscommunication. I tried to give this person the benefit of the doubt and assume they meant to say I wasn't a member of the church. However, at that church, those two statements are synonymous. As a child, I knew that was wrong and it was one of the things that bothered me at each service I attended. There was clear favoritism towards “members” of the church. An example of this was the time they handed out Mother's Day gifts, but only to members of the church; visitors were excluded even though there were extra gifts after they'd been given out. Some of those visitors were known to be members of other churches in the area, yet somehow that still wasn't good enough.
Jesus only has one body.
Individual congregations seem to forget that if you worship the God of the Bible and you follow the Jesus of the Bible, you're part of the same church. What's more, Jesus didn't go out blessing only His disciples, He went out to find people who were not in the body and bring them in. Child me was sitting in a pew thinking it would be more godly to give to those who are not members first, and adult me still agrees.
The reason I can't chalk the youth leader's assumption about me to a misuse of words is the simple fact that no one bothered to see why I stopped coming. I was part of the youth choir, and up until that day attended church almost every week. After that day I never went back to choir practice or to church. The only function at the church I attended was Youth Ministries, a Wednesday night Bible study that was under fire from the same person. My Sunday school teacher, my choir director, the youth leader, the pastor, the deacons, the mothers and fathers of the other kids my age saw me all the time. They saw me each Wednesday as I slipped into the Youth Ministries Bible Study (they were at prayer meeting). They saw me sitting in my yard when they came out of the church each Sunday. They saw me when they picked up their kids from school. They saw me at the community picnic. Even if they hadn't seen me, I lived across the street. Yet, not one of them walked up to me and said "Ree, I haven't seen you in church lately. What's going on?"
Why didn't they ask? Because they really believed I wasn't a Christian.
Neither of my parents went to church (I'm coming back to this, because it's another missed opportunity). My mom and her family are Methodist, so her membership was with her family's Methodist church. The church I attended was my dad's family's Baptist church. I don't know if he was ever a member, but after talking to him about my own experiences, to which he said he experienced growing up as well, I'm guessing not.
Based on this, I think they truly believed we were just a family of heathens. Of course, even if we were, the duty of the church is to try to save us... The simple fact that church people have a tendency to believe there are people who belong in church and people who don't belong, is a problem. We shouldn't be making assumptions about people or their faith. That's not godly at all.
The Extra Mile
In John 4, we learn of an encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. Instead of going to town with the disciples, Jesus tarried behind and spoke with a Samaritan woman. Jesus knew this woman was coming and He knew He had something to say that she needed to hear. He could have gone with everyone else, but He chose to wait for this woman. Can you imagine being that woman? For starters, at that time, Jews did not associate with non Jews; the Samaritan woman states this fact herself. Most Jews would have avoided her altogether. On top of that, Jesus reveals that she had 5 husbands! The general assumption is that she was a repeat offender in committing adultery. Yet, here was Jesus, the Son of God, King of Kings, waiting just for her. Can you imagine how loved she must have felt?
We aren't like that in churches. We will stare you down, ignore you, and not bother to notice if you disappear. People leave churches for all sorts of reasons, but they stay gone because the church never goes the extra mile to reach out to that person. We should be waiting at the well to talk to each person and make a connection. I understand that in large churches this is a major feat (though not impossible!); but, the fact that the church I grew up in, which averaged about 20-30 people on a good week, failed to do this says a lot about the state of our churches.
Let's come back to my parents, who rarely attended church with me growing up. The sole reason I grew up Baptist and not Methodist is because I could walk to the Baptist church. On Sunday morning, my mom or dad would watch me cross the street and after the services, one of the older ladies at the church would watch me back across the street. The same was true for choir practice, play practice, or anything that required my attendance at the church. How hard would it have been for someone to walk me to my door and simply talk to my parents?
It's not about the invitation. I think we all know that churches are supposed to be open door. It's about people wanting you there and feeling as though we belong to something. You see, a church is not a building, it's the collection of God's people. The whole purpose of coming together each week is to fellowship and create a community. The Sabbath is supposed to be like a glimpse of Heaven, all of God's citizens present together as a preview of life in His kingdom. We're meant to build relationships with other believers so that we can encourage one another and help each other on our spiritual walks. At its core, it's about inclusion, not exclusion.
Knowledge is Power
The above two points are critical, but I think this third point is the nail in the coffin. When I left my church, it had nothing to do with my faith in God. Luckily, I'd managed to pick up a decently solid foundation in the Word and I continue studying the Bible even to this day. However, many people from my generation can't say the same. A lot of questions I had growing up just weren't answered by the church. I don't remember going into deep stuff growing up in the church. We didn't discuss any of the topics that are covered by apologetics; we didn't even learn that apologetics was a thing. We didn't talk about the intermixing of paganism in Christian traditions (such as Christmas and Easter). We didn't talk about the moving date of Easter or why it doesn't always align with Passover. We didn't really talk about the Old Testament at all...
So when we graduated, went to college, and met people who challenged our faith, not all of us had a foundation to stand upon. Those who didn't quickly fell prey to the devil's arguments. There are so many people who feel they are enlightened because they don't believe. A lot of Christians don't know their Bibles, and the devil takes pride in that. It makes it easy for him to quote verses out of context. It makes it easy for him to put doubt in your mind. Now that the trendy thing in the world is to reject Christianity, these opportunities are around every corner for this generation. Add in the unlimited and unchecked knowledge of the internet and you're bound to have your faith challenged at some point. If we aren't grounded in the Word, we will lose this battle. If we lose this battle, we're less likely to come back to church.
A lot of people believe attending church is the epitome of keeping the Sabbath holy. The fact that I didn't go to church at all from 16-19, infrequently from 19-22, and not at all from 22-29 led people to assume I was a a heathen. Except, I probably prayed and read the Bible the most when I wasn't attending church. To this day, I don't think the modern concept of a church has much to do with the church spoken of Biblically, and thus don't feel any obligation to attend one. Yet, as I told you in the beginning, I do attend church again. Why?
When I graduated this past summer and moved locations, I realized that I was regaining time and that I needed to do something with that time. I wanted to be more involved with the community and I wanted to have people to hang out with. Growing up I always imagined that my late 20s and early 30s would be akin to Living Single or Girlfriends and there I was, a year away from 30 in a new place with no friends...
Making friends as an adult is hard. As a child, you're almost always in situations that warrant friendship, or rather, you don't view situations as inappropriate for friendships the way adults do. Many of us socialize with our coworkers, but we don't go to work to make friends and we don't really hang out with our coworkers after hours. We tend to be guarded in those situations. In the same vein, children don't care about differences. When I was 4 it was nothing to walk about to someone random, introduce myself, and the next day that was my new best friend. Adulthood is more cliquish. We don't often invite new people to our circle and we're often afraid to try to break into a circle. Suddenly the concept of making fiends becomes difficult.
Growing up, I had friends from lots of social groups, with diverse backgrounds, and beliefs. I like meeting people from different walks of life, but I wanted my core group of friends to be rooted in the Holy Spirit. When you surround yourself with secular friends, it's easy to lose sight of your beliefs or be tempted to into worldly behaviors and thoughts. What I was yearning for was fellowship with my fellow believers. The most logical way to find people who were grounded in their faith was to attend church. Sure, these people may be in the band you join, or work out at the gym you go to, or even be your coworker. They may even be like I was and not attending a church at all. However, churches really are set up for the express purpose of fellowshipping. So, I decided to go to church.
When God moves, God moves.
I prayed about this whole re-attending church thing for a while. I was nervous to the reception I'd get and doubtful that any young adults would even be there. While I don't consider myself shy, I'm definitely the person that will avoid talking to you if I can, so the probability of me showing up to a service, speaking to absolutely no one and going home was high. Since I've been keeping the Sabbath on the Sabbath and not on Sunday, I also decided to go to a Seventh Day Adventist Church. I had only ever been to one Seventh Day Adventist service (in a totally different city) before and I didn't know what to expect. However, God was giving me a resounding "go forth" about the issue, so I went.
I met at least 15 young adults in Sabbath school that day. God had directed me to their group the same day they'd planned a potluck and they extended an invitation to me. Even though I'm skeptical of potlucks and people in general, I felt compelled to accept so I did. I met a huge group of people (even more people showed up to the potluck that weren't at Sabbath school) and ended up going to the movies that same night with a subset of them. Like I said, when God moves, God moves.
Since then I've been actively involved in the young adult ministry at that church. I've been trying to speak to people and make them feel welcome (even though that's not the most natural thing to me), and I've been blessed to find a group that was willing to go the extra mile to make me feel welcome.
An Idea on Fellowshipping
My dad told me that when he was a child, people used to come over for dinner after church. That was a time of fellowship. I love that the young adult group I joined has a potluck after church once every month. I'm sure many people feel the same way. Of course, that still only connects me to my age group... I wondered to myself, what would happen if churches had a designated plan of fellowship for visitors? Just as we have a welcoming committee, what if we had a fellowshipping committee? What if each Sabbath, there was a group of people who prepared a meal for after church and visitors were invited to fellowship with members of the church? This committee would need to be diverse. It would include people from different races, different ages, both married and single people, as well as people at different points of their spiritual journey—maybe even the most recent person or family who joined the church. Hmm... These fellowshipping events wouldn't have to end with visitors either. There could be church wide potlucks, or for large churches, smaller potlucks that tie back to the visitor potluck (so visitors can be included in the future). How would that change the dynamics in our churches?
- Ree Hughes. ““. PSALMS to God. July 27, 2016Lessons from Lack of Church Attendance
- Ree Hughes. “". PSALMS to God. June 13, 2015Keep the Sabbath Holy
- Daniel Burke. "Millennials leaving church in droves, study finds". CNN. May 14, 2015