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Kimberly Knight Kimberly Knight

Kimberly Knight is the online organizer for the Beatitudes Society. A graduate of Candler School of Theology, she is the pastor of Koinonia Fellowship, an online church at Second Life.

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Leaving is Part of the Journey

May 12, 2011

The question - why do people (particularly young people) leave church?

First, Joanna Shenk has a good point, they are not leaving faith so much as they are leaving one concept of organized religion behind.    I love a couple of her incisive points:

“Do we value their journeys or merely see them as a group we need to keep on track?”

“I’m getting to know young people all over the country who are creatively living out the biblical call of shalom. I would even venture to say that they are creating new tracks for the future of church.”

“Many young people are looking for places where theological questions are valued just as highly as answers.”

So much so that I wanted to add my voice to her already clear evaluation of what she is seeing...
Here are a few things I think are part of the picture:

First, I agree with Joanna 100% that stopping attendance at a local congregation does not, DOES NOT equal leaving or losing faith.  It may well be that faith is growing beyond what the walls of a stale congregation can handle and they must venture beyond the pews (or even sofas) to experience for themselves.

Relevance - how is church relevant to anyone’s day to day life?  Why should I attend church when I can be...fill in the blank - gardening, meditating, doing yoga, sipping a mimosa, walking my dogs, serving in a homeless shelter, playing frisbee, hiking, catching up on Facebook, watching last week’s episode of Glee...the list is endless.  But guess what, young people are looking for meaning, that which stitches all these random experiences together into something more.  Can your church do that?

Infighting - well?  Too many committee meetings over what coffee to serve or if you can hang new curtains in the narthex?  Arguments over what to serve for Wednesday night meals or what kind of worship music is “appropriate”?  Who is welcome at the table or to be ordained?  Can you turn disagreement into faithful, loving dialogue that honors questions as much as tradition?

Lack of engagement of social issues - secular non profits are perceived as making more of an impact for social good.  The church is so busy navel gazing that we forget to tune in and engage the world outside our brick and mortar enclave.

Gospel seems to come second to polity + hypocrisy = frustration and aversion  - When I walked away from church in my teens it was profoundly because what I was reading in the Gospel didn't match up with what I was hearing in the pulpit and definitely did not synch up with how I saw people living their daily lives.  How many meetings have you sat in where folks spent more time debating the minutia of church law rather than getting up and welcoming the "least of these" into God's gracious banquet?  Have you ever been flipped off by the driver of a car with a "God is my copilot" bumper sticker?

Stylistically weird in today’s world - Doug Pagitt makes a wonderful argument, in Church in the Inventive Age, for one of the reasons mainline denominations have seen a decline, especially in young folks.   We all know that evangelicals have experienced phenomenal growth (though what that looks like is shifting too) while we hear over and over again how the mainline is dying.  There are many factors (see above and look within) that impact the growth or death of a body but here is one issue, and I think Doug is right on:

Evangelicals can change their style - the packaging can change, music, seating, lighting, clothing - but the message is rigid, never open to questions or interpretation  or, I would even day, room for the Holy Spirit  to open a church or person to a new understanding of God’s word and will for the world.  Thinking and values can never change but the aesthetics and tools are always shifting to meet cultural tastes where they are.

Mainliners - well they are open to theological diversity and change (to a certain extent) - open to questions and welcoming of new ideas and social change...but God forbid the Sunday morning liturgy change.  Thinking and values are open to reinterpretation as the ages pass but the form, the tools and aesthetics must remain constant.
Quite a puzzle...

Here’s another issue - Authoritarian rather than egalitarian - in a social media world this just doesn’t fly and especially in a world where more and more believe there is no such thing as capital T Truth. Trust and authority must be earned and only through authentic, transparent, fallible lived experience, not just cuz I told you God put me in charge. How do you create an community where the learning and learned are equally honored?

Conformist rather than open to change - communities of faith often offer one way to fit in and that is well, to fit in.  The goal is seems to be to mold new people, and young folks becoming their own persons, into what is acceptable.  If you just act like us, think like us, pray just like us  and don’t ask too many hard questions THEN you are welcome.  But please don’t expect us to change as you bring your gifts to us.

Perception that Christians are narrow minded, angry, judgmental folks - come on, you know folks see us that way.

Let me echo what I think Joanna was getting at - the journey is paramount and questions are holy - and I for one believe that Jesus is with me on my journey even when I dip on church to... hang out with my kids in the park, meditate, walk, dig in the dirt, sip a frosty beer, and most especially when I am about God’s work in the soup kitchen, blogging about social injustice or talking with my state rep about human right’s issues.  I may have followed a long and winding road in my own faith journey but here I am, hanging out with churchy types all week long - in and outside the walls of a congregation.

But really, what do you think?


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