Confessions of a Former Church Cynic
Why I thought I'd moved on from the need for church. And why I came back.
Scrolling through my social media feed, I see reoccurring links surrounding the same theme—“Dear Church, this is why we are leaving you,” “A rising of the Dones,” “Why church and I are through.”
These titles allure me to click. As an early thirtysomething, I admit wanting to hear someone else’s story of walking away. I read it—because these stories represent me.
Growing up, I never considered myself one to contemplate leaving the Church. I was homeschooled K-12, mostly within “umbrella” church contexts. During my elementary school age days, I spent six days a week within the walls of a church. I was “that kid” in youth group—the kid that went on every retreat, mission trip and purity conference. After college, I spent 10 years in and out of yearlong ministry internships.
But then I was “Done.”
After several years of meaningful, yet widely frustrating ministry internships—my heart was embittered. It wasn’t that I didn’t love God. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel called to make a difference inside of the context of “ministry.” It was that many of the organizations and churches I worked alongside were brutally mismanaged. This mishandling of a ministry ultimately meant a mishandling of me.
During these internships, I was not considered a part of the equation when it came to ministry decisions. I was paid inappropriately for my labors. I went without basic needs at times. I did not have emotional or spiritual support from experienced, adult aged leaders. I often felt alone—ironically all in the name of ministry. After all, the executive team was busy trying to put on another big event to reach the masses.
As I scroll through the mentioned articles going viral on social media—I realize the core complaints are similar. They rally around an undertone of abandonment.
My result? I left. I was done. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Jesus. I just didn’t know if I trusted His followers. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be involved in a meaningful mission, I just didn’t know if I trusted a ministry to lead it. Churches and organizations around me promoted great promises but often fell short in one-on-one, relational action. As a then-twentysomething with a rash of slight cynicism, I grew tired of disappointment in trying to make new attempts at church once my internships were over. I had not consistently been a part of a church community for nine years. I didn’t see the reason to go back. So I didn’t. After all, I can just podcast a sermon right?
Later, I met a pastor’s family who gently drew me back into a church fellowship. They never pushed or told me attending church on Sunday mornings was the answer to my issues. They listened, sat with me while I cried, invited me into their home.
Reflecting on my journey, I realize that there are probably many other millennials like myself—those who want to connect, but feel awkwardly on the outside of the Church. I have since discovered a few common traits that made the shift for me and might provide some insights into how to relate to those who have decided to walk away from the formal version of church:
1. We Crave Relationship
I am not talking about the cute stuff, the fake stuff or the potluck get-to- know-you events. When I say we crave relationship, I am referring to the crying in someone’s living room, caring for someone else’s kids, “non-agenda” life happening moments, and the ability to unveil your “ugly.”
The question for those who have left: If we get an opportunity like I did will we choose to be vulnerable and take the unstable first steps to build trust with people who represent Christ even when others let us down?
The question for those within churches: Could there be young adults on the outskirts of your influence who just need to be invited into your everyday life? We are messy. We are often insecure, but the truth is, we need you to invite us into your lives. We won’t forget your example.
2. We Desire Wisdom
Many millennials haven’t got a clue what they are doing in life. I barely do at 30. We often look to the Church as a source of advice and clarity from the pulpit, meeting all of our needs. But do we attend church in order to grow in our faith and depth of understanding of the Lord, or do we simply want ego-centric answers?
The question for those who have left: Will we pursue more than a Sunday morning gathering? Will we pursue wisdom from human-to-human interaction instead of wanting the answer to come from a podcasted message?
The question for those within churches: Will you be willing to look beneath young people’s tendencies for over-zealous idealism or somewhat self-centered side of church-shopping and ask guiding questions? We long for relationship, and being asked our opinion can be an invitation for us to open up our everyday life to you, leading to restored fellowship in which we can learn from you. On top of that, realize that many times these conversations may not happen within the walls of a ministry setting—and we will respect you even more for it, because it means you are living your example on days other than Sunday.
3. We Seek Resolve
I will be the first to admit that there is plenty of ministry messiness to go around. I currently work for three independent ministries and contract with numerous others. There are genuine mistakes prevalent to the church administration world. When it comes to seeking resolve on how to handle past resentment, bitterness and hurt—it is no small task.
Some of that healing can come from personal prayer and devotion time. It is true that the Lord is the first one who we should turn to. But I also believe He can choose to bring the healing and resolve through the men and women who represent Him. After all, if it was relationship that damaged you, doesn’t it make sense that it would be through relationship that you would find deep healing?
This leaves my last question: What if the restoration we are looking for came from within the Church instead of outside of it? Knowing that this could be the answer many young adults crave—I would encourage those within the Church to be genuine in admitting moments of mistakes and seek forgiveness when it’s needed. But at the same time, the Church doesn’t need to cave to the whims of those who have left. Stay true to the mission of the Gospel of Jesus.
As a millennial coming up behind these leaders, I know that these are attributes I now deeply value and respect. After all, I had a good example. It was one pastor and his family who invited me into their living room before I had to peel off my “Done” nametag. It was an invitation that changed everything for me. And there are many others out there waiting for the same invitation.