Exit Stage Right: Why are Young People Leaving the Church?
It was a tradition for many families like mine to have all of their children trained as altar servers. My brothers and I often signed up for Sundays mornings, Easter mornings, and Christmas Eves. We were the A-team. It’s different watching a service from behind the scenes, helping the priest and deacon running the show. It seems almost like a grand theater performance, backstage and frontstage, a mostly attentive audience with a few falling asleep during the monologues. It’s only when we get a little older do we realize this. We realize the layers behind it all. And many of us leave at intermission. But why? We see a trend of young adults leaving the church for various reasons. In the past years, I’ve grown and spoken with other exvangelists and ex-catholics, each of their stories varying. I’d like to share a few stories, with their permission, and shed some light on this movement away from the theater of the Church.
I had a classmate in Catholic school who instantly stood out in the class. She was well-read and ahead of her time. Her mind was vast and ever growing. My favorite time of the day was always religion class. This friend, we’ll call her Maya, would continuously question the lessons, Scripture, anything the retired nun standing at the front of the classroom would teach. I remember the time the nun explained that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. I furrowed my eyebrow and went along with it, writing it along the margin of my diocese issued religion textbook. However, Maya raised her hand so high it was hard to ignore. Yet the nun tried and failed, continuing her lesson while Maya waved her hand back and forth. The nun’s shoulders lowered and she allowed Maya to speak.
“I’m no good at math but that does not add up.”
And so the religious debate began, the questioning of God’s power and the whole conversation, the many minutes it lasted. No conclusion was reached and the day continued on. Many conversations alike began and ended with no answers throughout our years. It was a revolving door of “how dare you question God’s Word” or “don’t you use the Lord’s name in vain.” We were silenced and dismissed until we felt as if any doubt wasn’t allowed, that we were weak for not understanding. After Catholic school, Maya drifted from God and found peace elsewhere with her faith and spirituality. She took up literature and became a beautiful writer, her pieces full of raw emotion and characters full of insecurity and real humanness. Her family still holds a strong faith but she never steps foot in church unless her parents force her on Easter and Christmas. She just doesn’t see the possibility of a higher being and I understand. I suppose too many questions were left unanswered. Too many plot holes in the play.
Another friend of mine, Jane, also grew up in the church. Her family attends every week and are kind people. Jane told me stories of her growing up in the church and the beautiful community she was raised in, something I found myself longing for as we discussed one morning over coffee on campus. However, what I found most intriguing was a piece of fiction she wrote for our campus’ literary magazine. With her skill and way with words, she crafted a brilliant piece about Lilith and the book of Genesis. When I asked her about this piece, she said writing in this style helped her understand the Bible and God better. The piece delved into the feminist side of the Bible, the cruelty towards women yet the strength of them in spite. This was a refreshing take on the Bible and caused me to think more critically and analyze the Bible in an updated way. Through her writing, she discovered traditional praise and worship wasn’t the only way to delve in closer to God; by leaving traditional ways aside, leaving the stage of gold chalices and marble relics, she found a more personal way to grow with God, intercepting the Bible in a new and rejuvenating way.
A very good friend of mine, Cindy, lost a parent shortly before we came to college. When we first met, she had mentioned it casually and that was it, yet I knew there was more to it. Our other friends and I saw her struggle with the grief and trauma of the loss and tried to help in the best way possible. It wasn’t until I had been in the Apprentice Team, which is training to become a leader, for InterVarsity, a Christian fellowship club on campus, that she and I had begun to talk about where she stood with God. I remember the conversation quite well. I asked Cindy if she could describe her relationship with God. There was a long pause. It was hard to find the words. I felt the tone of the room change and this was no longer a little conversation. And then she stopped and said, “I’m not sure God is entirely good.” And it got me thinking as well. We talked for quite a while and the essence of her stance was that if God is so good, how could He let these things happen, like losing a parent? And she’s right. This question fumbles so many people and, mixed with grief and trauma and depression, it is no wonder why they leave. It was part of my reason to leave at intermission as well. Since then, I have seen her heal through therapy and on her own, her light growing and changing over these past two years and I am so honored to see her be happy again.
As for me, things changed after I realized I was gay. In my first piece, “Joseph and the Rainbow Coat: How Pride Month and Faith Can Coexist and Heal,” I explained how being gay and being a Christian doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Yet, it took me a while to get there myself. For the longest time, I denied this part of myself in order to stay close to God. I lied to myself. I pushed for it so hard that I drove myself away from God because of the self-hate and shame. It didn’t seem like I fit the role I was supposed to play. I wasn’t the perfect, straight girl I was supposed to be. I had confrontations in myself, mental breakdowns in the middle of the night, wondering who I really was. I felt like a hollow shell, not only because I didn’t come to terms with who I am, but that I was raised to think that, without faith, I was nothing. Growing up in such an epicenter of faith and community, sacrificing that for the sake of being myself was the most terrifying thing I could imagine. Thinking that, I was forced off the stage by myself and I’ve been taking baby steps back up there in a healthier way.
Though I don’t have any stories myself or of friends to explain this next part, the stories of others stack up well enough. In the Church, we’ve seen the values of the Good Book conflict with the actions of the hierarchy of Christianity. We have all gotten the news notifications on our phones on random afternoons of indigenous children’s bodies found in old schools, or we’ve watched documentaries like 1946 or The Keepers on Netflix where priests’ and bishops’ hands are not so clean. Or we’ve even heard the countless testimonies of inappropriate deeds done by these men who we were supposed to be able to trust. I was lucky enough to not have experienced this trauma but others were not. The stage was no longer safe. Was it ever?
You see, the theater of the Church isn’t built for everyone. Whether the actors aren’t well casted, or there are problems with the main script, or the audience is rude, there is something to be said about the people leaving. They have found the issues and confronted them, but have opted for finding another production to be a part of or quit theater altogether. Perhaps, we can suggest a different route though. Instead of leaving, could we understand the script differently, more accurately? Recast the roles? Educate the audience? Or is the answer elsewhere? Could we enlist the aid of those who have been burned? Could we finally listen to those who left at intermission or weren’t allowed into the theater at all? Perhaps a more inclusive play is needed. So, I suppose we should speak with the stage manager, or even ask the Director for help. Until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Or, if you’d rather, the exits are located at the side and rear of the building. Your choice.