I've noticed that over the past decade or so, there has been a LOT of focus in Christianity on the question: "Why are young people leaving the church?"
There is certainly no shortage theories as to why this is.
- Church is to old-fashioned,
- Church people just doesn't "get it"
- Church isn't "hip" enough.
- The only people that go are judgmental hypocrites, so why bother to stay?
- The church has nothing to offer.
Now I'm not saying there is anything wrong with doing that stuff and trying to "update" or "change" church culture. Heck, sometimes it does stem the exodus of young people from the pews (and sells lots of "How To" books!), but in my experience the changes are...temporary.
So what is the answer to why people, especially young people, have written the church off? I think all of the mainstream discussion and reaction to it misses the core reason people leave the church: THE CHURCH DOES NOT WANT ME.
That is a very hard pill for most Christians to swallow because it is a painful one. I don't think it's one we can put off much longer, though.
For example (and stop me if this sounds familiar), if someone brings up that the church does not want them, they are directed to a small group or study, or they are shown how the church has reached out to other people "like them" or in a similar situation. Because hey, if we can help that person that looks just like you, you have nothing to worry about!
But that misses the point.
What so many people feel is "the church does not want ME."
So how is the church showing a person is unwanted? Through acts such as intimidation, humiliation, intense criticizing, insulting, belittling, and name calling that have the effect of making a person believe they are not worthwhile.
Sometimes it is not always overt, but through an "off hand" remark. Or maybe by action, like encouraging volunteerism but when the role is done cutting people off with little or no word at all. It doesn't take my psych degree to know that insinuating that a person is not "good enough" or not "welcome" has virtually the same effect as if it is actually said out loud.
And most people, when faced with that, leave.
Unfortunately, that's not all. Sometimes people don't leave, even in the face of adversity (real or perceived). They may not really want to be at church, but they can't leave because their family is there, perhaps their children are in a Bible class, they may fear a public humiliation, or perhaps have developed a learned helplessness/hopefulness type of psychological dependency on the church.
You see, people that have developed a "learned hopefulness" continue to hope the situation will improve because they wish this to be the case, and often times the offending party promises to change (LaViolette & Barnett, 2000). And sadly, in the end, they are hurt all over again in a cycle that appears endless and unbreakable.
To me, that is THE reason people (young or old) really leave the church. It's also why those that don't leave outright never get connected in any meaningful way (like leaving without leaving). It is a painful issue in the modern church, but it must, MUST, be something we have to be willing to talk about.
One of the Seventh-day Adventist Church founders gave some really great advice way back when. And I know it's easy to just write off old-timey stuff, but it kinda still applies I think:
Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, "Follow Me."
There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.Do we still have what it takes to make a personal effort to befriend and come close to people? Or have we simple fallen back to good sermons, good music, and a couple of tent meetings to get people to come to us? Have we become more focused on filling pews with the proper swath of demographics, or do we have the courage to do what Jesus would do and build personal connections, friendships, and deep bonds with all people, PERIOD?
I truly believe that if we actually behaved like Christ followers (<cough> our name <cough>), really making it about Jesus over everything else, and treated people like He did, that the church would be bursting at the seams with people!
On the other hand, if we continue down this the path of mirroring a Jesus who does not want ME to people, then folks will just do what He said to do: "And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate." (Luke 9:5)
So how about it? Are we willing to get outside our comfort zone, leave our walls, and make personal connections with people? Or are we content with the one or two that straggle in out of the dust storm?