Why so many young Christians are leaving their churches — and coming back again

The Washington Post, Acts of Faith, March 2015

By Erin S. Lane

“Young people these days” aren’t exactly known for our commitment.

Many of us aren’t planning to stay at our current job for more than three years, according to a recent survey. And three out of four of us are planning to move in the next five, another report predicts. It’s no surprise nearly a third of us (the so-called “nones”) balk at the idea of formal affiliation in a religious organization.

But are we really flunking fidelity when it comes to our relationship to faith and its institutional bodies? Or are we simply re-imagining the structure of belonging?

While mistrust in the church is nothing new, the cultural acceptance of it is. Whether we choose to affiliate or not, it’s largely seen as an individual decision with little or no social repercussion. Many young people are reconceiving their relationship status with the church and other worshiping bodies as an ongoing reality rather than a one-time pledge.

Those of us born after 1980 didn’t grow up with a lot of structure. A cover story in Time magazine called us the “most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because [we’re] trying to take over the Establishment but because [we’re] growing up without one.” We became adults during a widespread epidemic of mistrust in the institutions that brokered belonging, institutions like marriage, civic groups and faith communities, too.

Many of us have seen the fallout of failed promises in our parents’ marriages, our economic policies, our religious leaders. We’re cautious – hyper-intentional even – not to make commitments we can’t keep. Our on-again, off-again relationship with the church may have more to do with our impossibly high standards for commitment rather than the common complaint that we don’t take it seriously enough.

A slew of recent and upcoming books by authors like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans point to the growing struggle of young people to find their place in the church.

My own story reflects a patchwork faith common among folks my age. Like many spiritual hybrids, I inherited more than one faith tradition. I was raised Catholic, found non-denominationalism in high school, became a feminist in college, married a Methodist (pastor, no less), and now work for a Quaker-based nonprofit. Asking me to pledge loyalty to only one is like asking me to choose which parent I love most, a choice I learned early was best to avoid. Not committing has always seemed the more authentic choice.

Those under 35 seem committed to at least one idea: authenticity. We want our inner longings to align with our outer choices, like a Mobius strip of identity that has no sides. There is only singularity. We’re especially prone to feeling ourselves torn between the many options now competing for our loyalty. Perhaps this is why we curate wardrobes, playlists and Pinterest boards: We’re trying to feel whole by discerning that which doesn’t fit.

The problem with young people using authenticity as a precondition for commitment comes when it turns into a pursuit of perfection. When we’re always discerning whether a partner or a church could be “the one,” we find it difficult to commit ourselves for any solid period of time to the one we’re with. It often doesn’t feel right to commit when we can’t be sure we’ll be around in five years, let alone be the same person we are now.

“Many feel it is wrong to join a group unless they can subscribe to all its principles,” Linda Mercadante writes in her book “Belief Without Borders.”

But no human community, not least one that professes to know something of the unknowable, can ever fully align with all our beliefs. The Catholicism of my childhood does not share my commitment to women’s ordination. The nondenominational church of my youth does not reflect my belief in the sacraments. The Methodist church of my husband is in some ways a more palatable version of both but lacks the intensity I’ve come to expect of families, church or otherwise.

Many of my friends have started returning to their childhood church communities, if for no other reason than it feels more faithful to recommit to what they already know than commit to uncertainty. As for me, I’ve decided to recommit to going to church with my husband rather than continuing the search alone. I am less interested in fidelity to an institution than belonging to the people who make it up.

An increasing number of millennials seem more comfortable living on the edge of belonging than at its center.

In an article in Faith and Leadership, the Rev. Dori Baker reflected on a pilgrimage she took in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

“The young leaders I journeyed with [didn’t] see the borders, the divisions, the walls, the pews or the collection plates,” Baker writes. “In fact, they are drawn to the edges between race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, worship style, denomination, cherished biblical passages, paid work and volunteerism.”

Old structures are giving out as we experiment with more fluid ways of life together.

American religious life will look different in 20, 30, 50 years as my generation tests our millennial ideals with experience. We may not be fully in or fully out of the church, but we’re committed to something.

We’re committed to rethinking commitment.

Erin S. Lane is author of “Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe” and co-editor of “Talking Taboo.” She works as a program director for clergy and faith leaders at the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit www.holyhellions.com.