People are leaving churches in large numbers. And there has never been a subgroup that causes more hand-wringing among the faithful than “young people”. With so many potential years of church attendance, church leadership, childbearing and parenting ahead of them, young people are a church’s most valuable future investment. And just as every good advertising agency knows that the 18-35 year olds are marketing gold, churches have for a long time also been focusing on winning the attention of young adults.
Of course the trend of shrinking churches is not universal. Outside of North America and Europe, the church might even be growing and here in North America there are some congregations and some denominations of Christianity that show signs of growth. But in “the west” the overall trend is clear, and it has been going on for decades already with no sign of slowing down.
When Paul Ryan lost his bid for the White House in 2012, he explained it by saying “We have to do a better job of explaining and demonstrating why our ideas are better”. His reasoning was that his problem was communicating ideas, and not his ideas themselves. Democrats rolled their eyes. Naturally, it’s always easier to admit that you’re misunderstood than to admit that you’re misguided.
Many churches have said the same thing: if people are not coming to church, it must be because we are not communicating what we are really about. Churches – at least the ones I’m familiar with – are quick to humbly take the blame and claim that they need to change focus, undo past wrongs and even completely rebuild themselves.
I think that the problem with church is not a communication problem at all. The church’s problem is that it is a church. I do not mean to say that the problem is the legacy or institution of church. I’m not saying that the church is shrinking because churches can’t think of themselves as more than a weekly meeting within four walls. Other iterations of “being church” have been tried for a long time. What I mean is that just as most Americans did, in fact, understand the Ryan/Romney campaign, I think that most people do, in fact, understand what church is all about. People get it, they just don’t want it.
Scientologists believe that their Thetan has been trapped by engrams, Muslims try to aim prayers towards the Ka’bah and Christians believe that Jesus listens to prayers. What all of these beliefs have in common is that they are comforting, they provide us with an identity, they support our worldview and they are all equally and completely detached from reality.
However it is presented, the core proposal made by churches is fading into the background tapestry of all of the other supernatural belief systems of history. Jesus doesn’t standout from Ankhet, Pinga or Zeus. So it can’t be a surprise that more and more people are choosing to keep Jesus out of their daily lives and comfortably in the realm of myth and history.
Keeping the Good, Leaving the Rest
Churches teach a lot of good things like peace, love and harmony. Churches also teach a lot of bad things like how and why we should feel shame for victim-less sins. But let’s just talk about the good stuff at church. Many of the moral lessons are pretty obvious and specific, like don’t murder. Others are more general virtues like honesty and humility.
But which of the good things that the church teaches could you not have figured out on your own? To ask it another way: could you imagine God telling you to do something that you thought was bad, but doing it anyways, just because God thought it was good?”
Some Atheists and other people who don’t like church say that churches prevent people from thinking. While I’m sure that this is true in some churches, my experience has been different. I have seen many churchgoers think very hard about many big questions about philosophy, generosity, social justice, the environment and ethics. I interpret this as a credit to the character of the individuals doing the thinking, but not as evidence to support any conclusions about the existence of God.
While the thoughtful churchgoer may have experienced this process as prayerful or spiritual, there’s no reason to conclude that they did anything other than just use their brains to think through an important issue. Humans have evolved brains to think thoughts and feel feelings. Some people experience their thoughts within a religious or spiritual paradigm – usually when it was taught to them from birth.
Furthermore, if there’s a position that you can reason yourself into, it’s not necessary to invoke a spirit or God to explain how you got there. Many churches do things like grow community gardens, support summer camp and support LGBT rights. But these things all stand alone on their merits without any Abrahamic God there to support them. The church community garden is like a free sample of bacon in a grocery store: sure you’re interested, but it’s not worth it if they really just want to sell you something else.
And this is exactly what many young people are coming to realize. Bible camp isn’t better than hockey camp, hymn signing isn’t better than karaoke night and playing boardgames the third Thursday of every month isn’t any better if it’s done in a church basement.
Post-Christians are also realizing that rejecting the idea of God doesn’t mean that they need to reject every idea that comes out of a church. I don’t know churchgoers to categorically reject an idea just because it came out of a mosque or a temple or the mind of a non-believer. And there is no reason for a non-believer not to acknowledge the merits of “churchy” ideas.
Let’s take that foreboding no-sex-outside-of-marriage rule cast over us from the very first sex talk. Abstinence, marriage and monogamy have many ungodly benefits. To name a few: children are raised in committed relationships and there is a greatly reduced risk of contracting an STI. Chaste individuals may find that they have lower social anxiety in today’s “sexualized” culture and that when they do have sex it is a better expression of intimacy.
Leaving church doesn’t require the endorsement of promiscuity, it allows consenting adults the guilt-free freedom to define their own morality. If something is good, it can be explained with words, not God. And if something is good only when God is invoked, then it’s not actually a good thing.
Think of the Children
Sometimes when an older generation watches the majority of their young people leave the church when they leave home, they assume that they just need a few years to find themselves before they will rediscover their roots and find their way back to a church. Sometimes the assumption is that this will happen when they have kids of their own.
It makes sense for young people to return to church when they have kids. Since a lot of who we are come from our parents it’s unsurprising for us to follow their example and make going to church a family activity.
A friend of mine once made a comment to me about how it must have been really hard for me to make “that choice” – referring to my intention to not raise my future kids with church. This comment reveals what I believe is an unfair framing of “choosing not to believe”. Anyone who goes back to church as soon as they have kids is obviously also making a choice – it’s just that they may not be thinking of it as a choice. People have worshiped innumerable Gods throughout history, and sometimes people just choose to make up a new God if they don’t like any of the options available. So of course raising your kids in the church that your parents raised you in is a choice.
Obviously, every new parent has a responsibility to raise their child as best they can. I know many young parents who believe the best thing for their children is to be raised in church, and I understand that. However, one day your kids might ask you why you raised them as you did, and saying “because that’s what my parents did” will be a terrible answer to that question.
I love my grandfather, and he tells many great stories around the dinner table. But he also reveals his dated stereotypes about women, Jews and Mexicans. Clearly I’ve decided that these ideas will not be passed to my children.
To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s completely impossible to justify raising kids in a religion. What I’m saying is that you owe your future adult children a genuine explanation of your choice of the worldview in which you raised them, and ancestry, social pressure and convenience are not good reasons to explain your choice of default worldview of your kids.
I’m not trying to rewrite history, of course ancestry is important. Whether we want to or not, as parents we will all impart our language, culture and idiosyncrasies on our children. When you teach a child to speak English you’re giving them a tool that is one of many languages that they may learn and use in their lifetime.
Of course your child could also learn about other religions, but ultimately if they’re growing up in a church they are going to be indoctrinated into Christianity and merely informed about other religions. The only way this would not be the case is if every Sunday morning your child attends educational classes on world religions and philosophies without being instructed to actually practice any of them (which I think is a great idea). Kids need to be taught to speak a language, but they do not need to be taught to practice a religion.
Many of us have been lucky enough to grow up with great parents who loved us very much and tried their best to raise us well. I know mine did. And in my upbringing was a whole lot of church. We owe our parents a lot for everything that they’ve done for us, but the perpetuation of their religion is not something that we owe to our parents.
Churches, for as long as they exist, will always have an open door and wait patiently for anyone who wants to return. But I encourage you not to think of the secularization of our society as simply a sad and one dimensional move away from God, morals, and family and towards apathy, self interest and soccer practice. I encourage you to make the choice to leave religion and to own every aspect of this choice. I would like to see less people drifting away from religion, and more people actively deciding not to be a part of a religion.
All people should be good and moral. My motivation is not vengeance against a church that wronged me. That’s not my story. I’m concerned that the church has shackled morality to the unreasonable idea of an Almighty Loving God. And since God seems to be a losing proposition, I’d like to encourage everyone to unshackle their morality from God and to make a smooth transition from being good Christians to just being good people.
PS For anyone new to this blog, I invite you to learn more about me in my introduction post. I’d love to hear from you.
Coincidentally, for the past couple of weeks the sign at the front of the Danforth Mennonite Church has said “Helping believers think. Helping thinkers believe.” I’m not sure exactly how that relates here, but it does open, or enlarge, the focus on “thinking” to include the question of the relationship between thinking and believing.
I suppose that’s one way to grow in our understanding of “thinking,” that is, to examine how thinking relates to other things that go on in a human mind. Is thinking always a “rational” thing? Do artists think? I’m just exploring some avenues that could be followed.
I suppose there are different kinds of believing. Scientists holding to an hypothesis while testing the same hypothesis could be said to be believing it. A judge weighing evidence, and trying to discerning whether evidence is “adequate” might be said to be believing some presentations of evidence over others. A doctor can listen to a patient’s descriptions of symptoms, and can then test and verify some of these, but others, like descriptions of pain, need at least temporarily to be believed. Religious belief might be like some of these or unlike them.
Believing shouldn’t entail not thinking. On the contrary, believers should be very careful thinkers. And, is the corollary not also true? Should thinkers not also be good at choosing what to believe? Do we… should we… hope that ultimately it would not be necessary to believe anything? Somehow I don’t think that is a very adequate or satisfactory description of the human quest. Being human involves more than “thinking” in that sense.
Anyway, I’m just finding the “scope” of the questions here.
Recently I’ve taken a bit of a look at West Hill United Church Pastor Gretta Vosper’s thoughts. (http://www.grettavosper.ca) And I’m wondering how her self-identified atheism might relate to CRD’s thoughts. I need to read more of her stuff.
Helping people think is a noble endeavor as far as it goes. But people need to do more than just think. If young people are “leaving” the church, where are they “going”? It’s a bit of an unfair question. But if young people are listening to music and watching shows/movies, or whatever, then I would agree with CRD’s comment about “leaving” the church, namely, that they shouldn’t just “drift” there. They should consciously think and choose what kinds of art and entertainment they value. Deliberately leave, and deliberately “go to” something else.
Come to think of it, the Woodbine Heights Baptist Church around the corner had an even more concise sign a few years ago. It was completely blank except for the five letters: “THINK.”
Basically, I’m encouraging an examination of the scope of the term “think.” How does it relate to other important verbs in one’s life? like.. “love” What is the relationship between thinking and loving? Is loving a rational activity? Does loving undermine clear thought? What about other verbs like “honor” “be amazed” “desire” “despise” “enjoy”? The list could go on…
For years, all I wanted to hear when a parent spoke of surviving physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse was I SURVIVED, I AM STRONG, I DID IT. Not by the grace of god, not how they could never love or heal without god, not how unworthy they were. Just once, I wanted to see my parents acknowledge how strong and good they were despite their suffering at the hands of others.
Further, if one can only love or do good because of god’s grace, then how genuine is that love and how as a child do I accept that reality.
Lots of interesting stuff here…I’ll add my 2 cents…
On the nature of religion I thought this was interesting: “But which of the good things that the church teaches could you not have figured out on your own? To ask it another way: could you imagine God telling you to do something that you thought was bad, but doing it anyways, just because God thought it was good?”.
Isn’t this basically the problem with all the apparently religiously motivated atrocities we’ve observed through history up to and continuing today? That’s exactly what happens, isn’t it? People do fucking horrendous stuff because God tells them too. When God says so, bad is good and good is bad. Only if we’re properly connected to our HUMAN nature can we see it clearly for what it is.
On parenting I thought this was cute and I remember thinking this way not so long ago: “I love my grandfather, and he tells many great stories around the dinner table. But he also reveals his dated stereotypes about women, Jews and Mexicans. Clearly I’ve decided that these ideas will not be passed to my children.”
Shitty thing is, there isn’t much we parents can do about the ideas that our kids are exposed to. Hopefully we can continue to arm them with the ability to think. I’ll never forget when my daughter came home from kindergarten and said a word (don’t remember which one) that I’d never heard her say – wasn’t even a bad one I don’t think. Fucking wrecked me. I knew she had learned that word from someone else – was the thin edge of the wedge too.
I’m well into middle age now and I still hate that I believed my parents when they told me that Jesus loved me. They said they loved me too. I know they were lying to me or deluding themselves with one of those statements. Which was which? Problematic isn’t it? Still bugs me to be honest.
The last two sentences of your post raise two questions: First, what is a “church?” Second, what is morality?
Many years ago, I was one of those who “left the church.” But I would never have done so without a huge reason for doing so. After all, the church provided me with “community.” Community was, and still is, a huge value of mine. But I was faced with a huge question: Should I stay in one ideologically insular community that, in varying degrees, condemns other communities (basing their condemnation on a canon that they refuse to reassess)? Or should I recognize that the best way to uphold the “value of community” is to consider myself a part of a community that can be a community without condemning and/or harming other communities?
My answer was the latter…and, in my particular situation, I saw no other way to do that than to “leave that type of church.”
But my way is not the only way: As Tim Reimer commented, there are other types of “churches,” such as the West Hill United Church. This type of “church/community” is not just a recent thing: Here’s just one example from history: Well over a hundred years ago the “secular Judaism community” took root… and is now alive and well around the world. A local example is in Toronto’s Winchevsky Centre. The people there don’t call themselves a “synagogue” (because that is traditionally a religious term, just like “church” is). Instead they call themselves a “secular Judaism community.” See link: http://winchevskycentre.org/about-us/the-philosophy-of-secular-jewishness/
To their credit, they were able to leave behind the insularity of a religion and yet retain their community. And today, there are many “young people ” in that community. Will they stay? Is this type of secular community more durable than a religious community which places too high a value on divisive religious beliefs and insularity? In our increasingly multi-cultural world, I think the answer is yes.
“Leaving behind harmful beliefs” requires a huge inquiry into the question of “which beliefs are necessary and which are not.” This leads to the question: “What is morality?” As part of this inquiry, I would recommend W T Stace’s book, “The Concept of Morals.” This link is already set up to search for that book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/0-8446-2990-1
Thanks for the comment. Sorry I didn’t pay any attention for a long time… Eeep.
Yes, all interesting. Secular “moral communities” are interesting. I’ve attended one a few times, and talked to a friend about starting one too.
It’s always good to ask one’s self whether a given reason (in this case, a common type of morality) is a reason to make a community. Alternatively I could just be a moral person that is in a boardgame club and a moral person that is in a fantasy football league, but not a moral person who is in a club with other like-minded moral people. I hope that makes sense.