For four months out of my 22-year existence, I spent my days and nights in a small, canal-ridden country across the ocean. I attended church in a foreign language with a family of six, only three of whom spoke my native tongue. I met and fell for a native of that country. And I loved the whole of my time there. But even as I toured places I had only heard of in books and travelogues, I felt that there was something missing.
I went to worship every Sunday, and I listened to the verses I knew so well being read in a mostly unfamiliar tongue, and I felt the lack of something. I hummed along to songs I didn’t know and listened intently for the words I had memorized months before in preparation for that semester: dienst, bidden, liederen, Mattheus, Markus, Lukas. But in between God and Amen, there were so many words, so many ideas, that I could not grasp with the limitations imposed on me by my inability to understand the language.
Now, I speak Dutch conversationally—I will never say fluently, at least not until I can out-converse my Dutch teacher when I visit my alma mater years from now. But even if my path brings me back to the Netherlands, I know that there would always be something missing when I step across the Fontein Church’s threshold.
I believe somewhere deep down that this must be a familiar feeling to those who have not grown up in the Christian tradition and walk into a Reformed church today. Words like predestination, Arminianism, and reprobation are thrown around in Sunday school, catechism, and even in the fellowship hall. The children of the church grow up with these words ringing in their ears. And sometimes, I think, the heavy language of our theology—the inclusive, jargon-like feel of it all— drives these visitors away.
But, what about those who grow up in the church who walk away? Why do they leave? That depends on who you ask, and when. An article by Ed Stetzer of Christianity Today lists some possibilities drawn from a survey of young adults: “They simply wanted a break from church. They had moved to college. Their work made it impossible or difficult to attend.” Some slightly more discouraging reasons include “Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical. They didn’t feel connected to the people at their church. Church members were unfriendly and unwelcoming.” It’s hard to judge why on anything but a case-by-case basis, but these reasons can at least offer some insight for the reformers of today.
When I talk to my fellow Gen Z’s about their church attendance, the most common answer involves the difficulty of making the decision to go—whether that means deciding to get up when the alarm rings, finding your car at the edge of the parking lot crammed with student vehicles, or choosing to prioritize worship over friends and leisure. Everyone who lives on their own or is left to be responsible for themselves reaches that first Sunday when they wake up and think, “Am I going to go to church today?”
Additionally, there are arguments in the church today that seem like they will never be reconciled. Opinions on politics, homosexuality, and science divide families and friends, and the harsh rhetoric from all sides creates an inhospitable atmosphere for young adults to ask the questions that matter. Along with this, the American church swirls about in the consumerism and greed of our affluent culture. From the American dream to the wealthiest tycoon, it feels as though we are raised to be greedy by nature. Granted, every generation is dissatisfied, but especially—or so it seems to me—Millennials and Gen Z. “What needs to change?” is the question we should not be afraid to ask or search for answers to.
While reasons differ, what is certain is that in ever-increasing numbers, Millennials and Gen Z are leaving the church. This may involve temporary physical separation, as when a 20-something decides to skip a service or two. This may involve mental separation, as when a young person zones out for the entirety of the church service. Or, finally, this may involve spiritual separation, as when someone who has been to the same church for his or her whole life suddenly experiences complete detachment from the faith of their fathers—even though he or she continues to show up faithfully each Sunday for worship.
But these separations are nothing new. It used to be called “apostasy.” It used to be “anathema.” And now, the flock of young people leaving the church is best described by the word “apathy.” There is a spirit of indifference in our society today that speaks to a greater disenchantment, the loss of the inherent spirituality of all things. Western society used to believe in the goddess of the moon and the god of thunder; then, in The Screwtape Letters and Tolkien’s Melkor and Varda; now, we believe in everything and nothing with the same unswerving devotion once reserved for a collective mythos.
Today, there is a new factor to the “spiritual wandering” of so many. Primarily, I think, there is a lack of knowledge, a lack of the background Gospel narrative that our parents and grandparents grew up learning.
The church is not meant to fix all your problems and unburden you of your trials. But there should be something about the church community that serves you by allowing you to serve others, by suggesting meaning for your life. There should be something about missing church for a few weeks—or four months—that makes you feel a lack of something.
What is there to be done? I cannot speak to those who leave church permanently. But I can speak as someone who recognizes a problem in the way we—the Christian church in America—present ourselves and our theology. We have all too often forgotten how to dialogue honestly, earnestly, and safely. The rhetoric of extreme dichotomy and straw man argumentation does not serve us well, and never has. Education precedes behavior—and we should be educating our children to be able to speak to the new Christian and the non-Christian as clearly and confidently as we speak to each other.
Still, we should be encouraged. As a member of Gen Z, I have experienced all of the separations mentioned above. I have been absent physically, mentally, and even spiritually more times than I would be willing to tally. But there was something that brought me back. It was not exceptional guitar solos during heartfelt renditions of “Oceans.” It was not the warm and welcoming draw of the church community. It was not a talking donkey or a flash of light or a vision in a dream. It was the Holy Spirit at work inside me that said, “This means something.”