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.