By Steve Austin
“Only those who recognize the extent of their wounds and their wounding can be made well.”
– Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday
I’m a 30-something Millennial, and a former pastor. Most folks would assume that combination would make me pretty cynical. For a while, they would have been right. While I was railing against toxic people and theology, my own righteous indignation and bitterness made me just as hurtful as the people and institutions I was preaching against. But these days, I’m learning to embrace my culture, my generation, and leverage my experience as a former pastor to make the most positive impact possible on those who are thirsty for a better way.
I earned the title of “former pastor” initially because of my mental illness. After a suicide attempt five years ago, I was transferred to a psych ward. This was my first experience with a breakdown, and my first time to be institutionalized. I called it the “arts and crafts floor”: we colored, ate, talked, and rested a lot.
The days I spent in there felt pointless, frustrating, and humiliating. And, after losing my job because of my own mental health, I felt the same way about church for several years. I wondered what the hell we were actually trying to accomplish.
Sunday School curriculum felt disconnected from real life. We would dress up, sing a few songs, shake some hands, put money in a plate, listen to a professional, and go home to repeat the predictable and well-worn patterns as the week before. Why did any of it matter? Where was the life change?
After coming to the end of myself, I learned one powerful lesson the church can take from the psych ward.
In the psych ward, our stories mattered, mutual support mattered, and finding our new normal mattered. None of it was possible without the emotional safety we offered one another. My life was changed by living in community – even for a short time – with unstable people at the lowest point of their lives. We broke bread together every single day and shared a common goal: we all needed to get better.
As the nurse wheeled me down the long and lonely corridor and through the locked doors of the psych ward, I felt hopeless and humiliated. But on the other side, I found help for my anxieties, rest for my soul, and practical ways to walk toward a new life. On the psych ward, our politics didn’t matter. Nobody asked about our religious pedigree. The clothes we wore and the bands we listened to didn’t matter nearly as much as the progress we were making in treating ourselves with kindness.
Millennials like me have grown weary of the message that if you don’t dress, act, vote, think, or look like me, you aren’t welcome at my church. From our perspective, that’s the message of closed-minded religious folks and it has nothing to do with Jesus. We work and go to school with people from every flavor and variety of life. And we care about them deeply. We have formed friendships and romantic relationships with people, not based on their skin color, political affiliation, or even their religious background, but because our generation is determined to remove labels and squash stigmas that kept us segregated and isolated for centuries.
We have been called the most anxious generation in history, but I believe our collective anxiety has also made us the most compassionate. We have learned the hard way that isolation can be a death sentence for our mental health, and we are heartbroken over the deaths of our friends and loved ones who could no longer bury their struggles in order to appease people who don’t understand. We are really clear on this fact: a lack of compassion is in direct opposition to the message of Jesus, who told us to come as we are.
We’re desperate for honesty. We are hungry for conversation. We want to show up at church with our success, failure, vulnerability, questions, and what’s left of our deconstructed faith. We have shifted away from and sifted through the excesses of man-made religious constructs. We have grown up and read the Bible for ourselves. And we are passionate about the overarching theme of the life and lessons of Jesus: that love comes with no strings attached. Anything else is just a loan.
We are choosing to step away from the in-fighting that happens too often in the name of God. We’re sick of petty fights over the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary, or the volume of the music. Deeper than that, we’ve had our hearts crushed because our friends aren’t welcome in certain sterilized churches. We’re convinced that Jesus was serious when he said, “Love one another.” But much of what my millennial friends and I have witnessed from institutions that operate in the name of God is pain and abuse. We were once baptized by well-meaning people in fear, shame, and guilt. But we aren’t buying that any more. We are coming up from those muddied waters, looking for new life.
We know what it’s like to show up on a Sunday morning and be met with everything but unconditional love and acceptance. We hurt for those who are sitting in the pews, barely holding on. We have been there, too. We are crushed for our neighbors who seek sanctuary at Christian country clubs, but find one more obligation they must meet or dogmatic belief they must blindly accept.
Many churches have become stagnant, refusing to catch up with culture and science. And as a result, people are leaving in droves. Our generation refuses to check our brains, political convictions, or common decency at the door. And although we love our parents and grandparents, we are carving our own path.
It’s time for the church to redefine itself.
We are looking for a spiritual community that welcomes weary travelers in their dysfunction, disappointment, and exhaustion. We believe Jesus welcomed people to come without production or pretense. We are issuing a call anyone to looking for a holy place to come, lay down their burdens, and simply rest.
A journey toward wholeness requires permission to be honest about our issues with people we trust. When we feel that we can show up in a safe community and confess our mess, our stress levels immediately drop. And it’s not just stress – the power of confession shatters our shame.
As we continue to step further away from the religious machine, we are being drawn closer to the story of Jesus. These days, we are finding the grace of God by acknowledging that each person has their own heavy load to carry. And we are showing up to fulfill the call of Christ to help carry those burdens. Whether it’s behind the pulpit or in the pew next to us, we are choosing to embrace our shared humanity, and finding that it makes us much better at this thing called Christianity.
Steve Austin is an ex-pastor, life coach, speaker, and best-selling author.