Recently, a Christian blogger wrote a piece for CNN about why young people seem to be fleeing Christianity. Her conclusion: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She thinks that if churches become more ritualistic (an appeal to nostalgia fallacy?) and drop the hipster edginess, latte counters, and sexism/homophobia, that these moves will keep people from leaving and bring back those who have strayed.
Please understand I hold Rachel Held Evans in great respect (I’ve referred to her here in glowing terms in the past and probably will continue to do so), but she totally blew it on this ride. She missed the point completely.
She may well be describing why young Christians go church-hopping. She may well be describing the experiences of a small number of people who have left Christianity.
But the overwhelming numbers of people making tracks suggest another reason. The testimonies (or “ex-timonies” as you see them called sometimes) of ex-Christians suggest another story lurking here that Ms. Evans does not seem to want to engage with at all.
We are not leaving because we got fed up with the lack of ritual and nostalgic practices. We are not leaving because of homophobia or sexism. We are not leaving because we’re sick of being treated like consumers instead of as parishioners.
We leave because it isn’t real.
That’s it. That’s all there is.
We leave because Christianity makes a number of claims that are categorically not true. Some people don’t care if their beliefs center around something that’s demonstrably untrue. A lot of others do.
We leave because Christianity is toxic to our souls at its very core. Some people find Christianity very affirming and healing. A lot of others find it predatory and repulsive.
We leave because there are better ways we could spend our finite lifetimes and increasingly-limited incomes than wasting them in and on churches around packs of people who claim they are our “families” but abandon and vilify us the first minute we question and doubt the shared delusion. Some people find a true “church home” in Christianity. Lots of others do not.
Rachel Held Evans cannot engage with the obvious truth of why people leave. I can’t speculate as to why. Other than being blind to this truth, she’s not a bad egg at all.
It’s telling that the comments on her article fall into a predictably small number of categories. There’s the group yelling at her for “watering down” Christianity. There’s the group insisting that their church is doing everything right and of course people are leaving these other churches that are doing it all wrong. There are a few folks who are grateful that their personal stories are being encapsulated so well and are just wanting to thank her for sharing, which I expected–with the rise of “spiritual but not religious” Christians, there’ll be some of those folks. Of course there are a few atheists and other non-Christians trying to be heard as well, telling her that no, they left because they figured out that Christianity simply isn’t the objective truth, though these tend to be drowned out quickly by the vast number of True Scotsmen and zealots.
I want to see a Christian address and embrace the actual truth that for most ex-Christians, it wasn’t about how sincere the pastor and flock were, or how much Bible got thrown and thumped around us, or how many programs we got offered, or how well we got mentored. That stuff might have factored in to our eventual search for meaning, but it wasn’t why we left. Considering the stakes involved according to most Christians, I find Ms. Evans’ words rather disrespectful and demeaning. Hell was scary enough for me that I’d never have left if I’d continued to believe for a heartbeat that the Christian idea of judgement and the afterlife was plausible. It would have taken a lot more than hypocrisy and over-edginess to drive me out of the religion–and if you’ve been following along, you’re probably as shocked as I am today that it took as much as it did for me to wake up! And I was in a church that was about as Bible-soaked, hipster-free, and old-fashioned as Ms. Evans could possibly wish.
Ms. Evans makes it sound like if churches can just follow a formula she’s made up in her head, that we’ll all come trotting home–and churches can stop people from leaving. She can’t possibly address our real reasons for leaving–that’d require her to come up with some credible, objective evidence for Christianity’s claims that would demonstrate conclusively that that religion is better than any other religion or atheism itself, and we know that isn’t going to happen. So instead she frantically settles on this superficial nonsense. And some people are going to find meaning in the nonsense she ends up on. Most people, though, won’t recognize themselves or their journeys in her words.
This head in the sand mentality is a big part of why Christianity’s going to continue to bleed members and lose relevance. The American Republican Party’s going through this same situation, and their response is (unsurprisingly considering it’s basically the Jesus Party now) exactly the same as Ms. Evans: both of ’em think that the problem isn’t the message itself. The problem is how it’s being presented. And that’s totally untrue for most people.
You can’t fix a problem if you can’t even acknowledge the problem.