By: Beth Terpstra
I’m a young adult, and I’ve left the church.
I guess I should qualify my statement. I haven’t left the church. I’ve left my church, my denomination; the secure structure of Reformed theology that was very formative throughout my childhood. While my move from one denomination to another may not seem like a big deal, I was born and raised in the Reformed tradition, and so leaving the denomination was a bit like leaving my family.
My husband and I chose to leave our Reformed roots for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we both were wrestling with big faith questions and we did not feel that our church had practical answers. For this and a number of other reasons, we left. We chose to attend a local church where faith questions like ours were being addressed.
But even once we were gone, we still had lingering thoughts about the Reformed tradition. We still had strong ties to it, and wanted to see and participate in positive change for a hopeful future. We lived with the tension of a broken relationship; wanting restoration with the church we left, yet wondering if we were even compatible anymore.
And so we did what any twenty-something would do in our shoes; we made a film.
I was asked to write and produce “something creative” for a conference for and about young adults in June 2012. Because my husband works in the film industry, we decided to team up and produce a short film about the many reasons young adults leave the church.
In preparation for writing the script, I surveyed dozens of young adults who were connected to the Reformed tradition. I asked them what they loved about it, and what they would like to see changed. Each story I heard was unique, the love and frustrations with the Reformed faith varied.
I heard many reasons for why young adults have left their denomination. The church is disconnected from the “real world”; it struggles to equip its members to represent the gospel in a pluralist society; there is no place to express doubt; there is a lack of diversity and a resistance to change. Many of the young adults I surveyed said there is a lack of vitality in the churches they left, and a spiritual climate that felt dry.
These comments are consistent with other research on the subject across many denominations. According to the Barna Group, 22 percent of young adults struggle with the “church ignoring the problems of the real world,” and 36 percent of young adults admit that they are not able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church.” About 20 percent of young adults who attended church in their teenage years said that God seemed to be missing from their church experience1. While I heard many stories of gratitude for the Reformed tradition’s strong emphasis on preaching and theology, many said that they miss a sense of passion in worship and an authentic application of the gospel to everyday life.
While I could relate, I knew that this was only one side of the story, so I talked to pastors and heard their perspective. They struggle with leading church communities made up of vastly different people belonging to vastly differing generations. They said that they are deeply concerned for the future of the church, yet unsure how to unite so many different perspectives and lead the church in one clear direction. Older adults also weighed in on the conversation. They admitted to feelings of extreme frustration with my generation, mostly for our lack of commitment and our sense of entitlement.
As we produced the film and began showing it to pastors and churches, I heard in discussion after discussion about the disappearance of young adults from the pews. The conversations were all the same. They focused on externals, such as how the church should become more diverse and more technologically savvy, or how young adults need to learn to commit. However, as I reflected on the state of the church and the identity of my generation, I wondered if we are missing something here. Perhaps it is not only about the external changes that need to take place, but about something deeper.
Suppose the problem is really about idolatry, on both sides of the debate. The relationship between young adults and the church seems to be like a broken marriage relationship; in order to be restored, both partners have baggage they need to work through and selfish habits they need to give up.
We young adults may need to give up our idolatry of “the way I like it.” Self-focused, entitled, and distracted (I’ll admit it), perhaps we need to ask ourselves if our critique of the church is based in the gospel and fueled by the Spirit, or just another excuse to complain. I believe there are legitimate problems with the way church is run right now, and changes that need to be made. However, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to criticize the church without being willing to get up and do something about it. I think Jesus calls us to pray, to listen to his desires for us and for the church, and then to give up our (precious) time and energy to serve the church and the world. Perhaps following Jesus means giving up complaining from the couch, and giving more of ourselves to his church.
However, other generations in the church need to give up their idolatry of “the way I like it” as well. Whether that translates as “the way things used to be” or simply “the way I think church must be run,” some members need to face their own motivations for wanting or not wanting change in the church. The most important thing could be praying that God will change and move the church as God desires, not as we desire. The church does not belong to us. Our denominations do not belong to us. Ultimately, what is most important is seeking God’s leading in prayer, allowing any outward changes to come (or not) by earnestly following Jesus.
What can we do about young adults leaving the church? For starters, we need to turn off our distractions and sit in silence before God. We need to confess our loyalties to ourselves rather than to him. And, just as in any marriage relationship, we need to continue communicating with each other, learning to listen to each other’s perspectives as we work on our relationship.
1“Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church”, http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church, Sept 28, 2011
Beth Terpstra lives in Hamilton, ON, where she and her husband Paul run a film company called Terpstra Creative. In 2012 they created a short film called “Shift” (www.ShiftCRC.com) about young adults leaving the church.