Guest Post Laura K. Cowan
A week or so ago, I posted a blog sort of in answer to another blog post by a young, millennial atheist. Her blog is fascinating and necessary reading for anyone who professes to be a Christ follower, especially if you call yourself a “religious” person. Here is the link to her post: “This is Why We’re the Atheist Generation”. Well, I got slammed from well meaning “Christians” and from “atheists” who refused to return to the “manacles of the mind”. The comments came so fast, I decided to pull the post and regroup. But, there was one comment from a writer and novelist whose book I reviewed in the past. I asked her if I could post her comments as a guest blog. I find that her analysis of the current state of the church and its relationship to the twenty somethings out there is spot on. I asked if I could post her comments and I encourage every professing Christian and every church goer (whether a practicing Christian or not) to read her comments with a fresh mindset and respect. It gives us all great insight into what our “church” is doing wrong and what it is doing right in today’s world. I find it ultimately encouraging.
Millennials Leaving The Church: The Story of a Child of Evangelicals
Laura K. Cowan
for Bruce Hennigan 6/15/14
I am the child of Jesus People, radical hippy Christians, who were near-original members in a charismatic, evangelical church that grew out of an ecumenical Protestant-Catholic community in the Sixties. My parents lived in Christian communes with their friends, pooling their money, praying together with Catholics in a setting I didn’t realize was rare until I grew up (grateful for that example of unity), reaching out to the community around them to share their faith. Sounds a little weird but all right, doesn’t it? I think most people’s hearts were in the right place. I know a lot of wonderful people who came out of that movement.
But over time the Christianity I was raised with moved from hippy early-Church-replicating radicals to the much more conservative, politically-hijacked and conflicted movement evangelicalism is today, and on the way I realized that even though I grew up immersed in the teachings of the Bible, all was not well with my faith. The community I grew up in was blown apart by leaders becoming legalistic and trying to strictly control many aspects of members’ lives. Goodbye, said my parents, and for this I’m grateful. It’s odd though, because my parents were themselves very controlling. They then left the church I was raised in during a church split that took place right on top of my wedding, largely instigated by them. It was a messy, painful situation, and I didn’t truly understand much of what had happened for years, but my new husband (whom I met in church—again, grateful) and I left about six months after we were married, disillusioned with the immature behavior we saw in the mentors who raised us.
And we couldn’t find another church that was any better. We tried, we really did, to find another church, and in the end the best we could do was settle for occasionally attending a more progressive church in our area and becoming involved around the edges where we occasionally found people we could still interact with without too much struggle or grief. There was just so much group-think out there, and confused and backwards sermons, and people professing one faith and living another way. This more progressive church, which has problems as all churches do but is involved in caring for the homeless, single moms, the environment, and other relevant issues of our time with an emphasis on social justice and loving people where they’re at the way they believe Jesus would, is where I’ve been ever since, at least occasionally, though I speak for myself now. My husband is more on team can’t-be-bothered-anymore.
Where I ended up is not where most millennials, or Gen X-millennial wedgies, which technically I am, end up. Most of them leave the Church entirely, disillusioned with the hypocrisy, greed, abuse, and politics. Why? Is my generation becoming truly atheist? Do they not see that the rest of the world behaves this way too? Are they just not willing to put up with things I put up with for too long and still am too permissive of? Why do they say they’re spiritual but not religious? What’s going on? Because I know my friends to be genuine and moral people. I don’t think they’re messing around with anyone. In fact, my parents’ generation the Baby Boomers strike me as much more rebellious than my own generation. Maybe I’m being naive, but the millennials I know and love are practical problem solvers, empathic lovers of humanity. So… why does social justice and church not mix? It should.
I know many people on either side of this divide, most of them wonderful, and finding myself in the middle is an eternally uncomfortable place. I am not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, unlike most of my peers, and I see all the shades of gray, but being in church is actually a HUGE stumbling block to my faith, not just a minor challenge like people want me to say it is, and I haven’t been able to overcome it to be a part of the institution and change it from the inside out. When I left evangelicalism I was called a heretic by my best friend and my mother. And when I grew up, and started to feel I had some opinions to contribute to discussions of faith, or discussions even of completely unrelated topics, I was told point blank by a former church mentor that I didn’t know anything about these things. He didn’t even ask what I had been up to for the last ten years since the last time he had seen me. We had just been talking about a subject I had dedicated my career to, and he wrote me off without even seeing me as a person ten years older with some life under my belt. Sound innocuous? Then why has an entire generation left a religion citing the same kind of behavior only to be yelled at on the way out?
As Bruce has said, this issue is more a human condition issue than a Christian issue, but I think the problem here is that so much of this behavior is being found in one corner of Christianity—the boycotting of institutions that feed hungry children because they’re not towing the line on excluding gay people and so on—and it’s so loud it’s drowning out the core message of the faith. What I have found personally is that I run into much more of this behavior in a church setting than outside the Church. When I decided I had had enough of the bullying in my life, I discovered that the people I had to cut out of my life, because they just wouldn’t stop their disrespectful, abusive behavior, were nearly all family members and former church friends and mentors. I don’t think this is a fluke. I don’t buy the line I keep hearing that this is an extreme experience. Can you imagine how much more severe this abuse would be if I came out as gay or made some other lifestyle choice that didn’t fit with the culture?
I think this is a symptom of great dysfunction within the sect of Christianity I grew up with in the United States, a mistaking of sharing your faith with others for permission to tell other people they have to think like you do—that kind of Christianity in its perverted form attracts bullies and narcissists, frankly. And it just doesn’t quit. I left a comment similar to this article on a blog post written by an emergent progressive Christian blogger last week, and a conservative evangelical Christian responded with the most transparently passive aggressive nastiness thanking me for my boldness in grossly over-generalizing and offering to listen to my suggestions for how he could be more Christ-like because he would take the moral high ground and listen like I said he wouldn’t. That sort of nasty B.S. just doesn’t fly with my generation, I’m sorry. I don’t even feel the need to respond to it. It’s sit-down-and-shut-up, and last time I checked Christianity had nothing to do with that kind of bullying. My life has been torn up by this dynamic, and I believe this problem is the core reason my entire generation is leaving Christianity in the United States.
I think the group-think is why well-intentioned and concerned Christians can’t understand these charges leveled against them. Reality just looks completely different from the inside looking out when you’re being told over and over to perceive things from only one perspective. In fact I couldn’t see it until I had been out of the church of my youth for about 7 years of adulthood. It’s difficult, and made much harder by the fact that the older people still holding the reins to most western churches have no intention of letting them go and giving up control of how their churches are run to younger folks, which is hypocritical, disrespectful, and is one of the primary reasons many churches are dying. I have almost never been treated like an adult in church, at least until I found that relatively progressive church that let people serve before they were meeting a certain standard of Christianness, whoever gets to set those. It really spoke to me to be in a place where people believed I had something to offer and some level of maturity even though I wasn’t perfect. That’s Christianity, as far as I can tell. Following Christ, from wherever you start to wherever you end up, and it’s a little messy but it’s pretty beautiful too and full of healing and grace. I loved the focus on loving God, learning more about Him, and loving and serving the people around you.
I know lots of good people who go to church, lots and lots, but I have to say I know more sane and loving people who don’t, and this has disturbed me all along, not for the sake of the church institution but for the sake of people wanting to know Christ. There IS rampant hypocrisy, intolerance, and abuse in the Church, I grew up with it, and the few people in my generation who are willing to put up with the way things are run until, frankly, older leadership dies off, deserve a huge thank you from the seekers of my generation. Because that is a much bigger cross to bear than going it alone, though I do think that is my calling. I’m out there on the edge between worlds telling my friends that this behavior is not true Christianity, and they’re relieved to hear it but every single time asking me, “Then why aren’t Christians more vocal decrying this representation of their religion?” The same question we ask Muslims who don’t speak out in large numbers about terrorism. And it’s not enough to just wait for these people to die off, though that’s on one level all you can do. I know Christians strive for unity and peace whenever possible, but on this issue I’m afraid the silence has been deafening to millennials, appearing to be tacit approval. And the Church is losing them by the millions.
The moral of this story might surprise you: Millennials leaving the Church is a good thing, in my opinion. For me the GOOD news is that my generation HAS refused to put up with gross distortions of Christianity. These behaviors we’re talking about are not compatible with the Christian faith. They’re not Christian behaviors at all, though we all behave in ways that aren’t consistent with our beliefs from time to time. But I think this situation with millennials leaving means they’re paying attention and they’re following their consciences and refusing to compromise their morality in order to belong to religious institutions. The pressure that used to be there to conform to religious norms isn’t there to the same degree anymore in our society, it’s true, but my hope is for a generation that walks away from the distorted practices of the Church and then walks right into Jesus’s arms somewhere else, creating an entirely new form of Christian spirituality we’ve never seen before. There are a lot of ways Christianity could take shape that don’t involve what church on Sunday looks like today. You’ll find the beginnings of hope for this in the emergent and social justice and creation care movements, and hopefully with those millennials who say they’re spiritual but not religious. Those are the people I serve with my life’s work: the brokenhearted, the abused, the people who are looking for light in the world and can’t find it. I’m grateful for the experiences of my youth, if only because they’ve given me the education I needed to understand this human woundedness that leads to such abuse. I am dedicating my life to not only stopping this dynamic from continuing in my family line, but to reversing it in my culture. It is not okay, it is not Christian, and so far as anything comes through me, it stops here.
This is just my limited perspective as the child of evangelicals, but to the best of my ability, I have thought this through a thousand times, and can only conclude that given the terrible options, God must be proud of young people who walk away from something that claims to serve him but is actually Phariseeism in its worst forms. Yes, it’s terrible that some of these people may never come back, but that’s on Christians, not millennials, given the reasons most of them are leaving or staying away, and I personally believe God is big enough to find these people where they’re at. He must also be proud of people who choose to stay knowing what a minefield western Christianity is at the moment. It has always been messy, and I think it’s going to be really ugly and messy while this revolution works itself out, but also really beautiful when my generation reinvents what Christianity looks like in the modern world. Naive? Just like the hippy Christians? Generalizing? Maybe. It won’t work out quite the way I envision it, I’m sure. But I don’t even care if the Church never quite gets this sorted out or if the official religion is smaller in this world, so long as it’s a beacon for what Jesus really came for—to love people back to life—and not a distorted monster of a thing that turns people away. My concern right now is that many of the most moral and innovative people are leaving. But I think the millennials already are changing the face of Christianity, just outside church walls, and that is the reason for the fraught intensity of these discussions. Things are changing whether religious bullies want them to or not. The changes are just slow to take hold in church, where millennials are really not welcome.
Laura K. Cowan writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Her work has been compared to that of acclaimed fantasy and sci-fi authors Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury, but her stark and lovely stories retain a distinctly spiritual flavor. Laura’s debut novel The Little Seer was a top 5 Kindle Bestseller for free titles in Christian Suspense and Occult/Supernatural, and was hailed by reviewers and readers as “riveting,” “moving and lyrical.” Her second novel, a redemptive ghost story titled Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection, The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen, received rave reviews, and Music of Sacred Lakes also topped the Kindle free bestseller lists during its launch, including #42 on all of Kindle downloads on Amazon. You can find Laura on Facebook, Goodreads, Pinterest and Twitter, or connect with her at laurakcowan[at]gmail.com or on her website LauraKCowan.com.
Posted on June 17, 2014, in Breaking News, My Writing, Speculative Fiction and tagged agnostics, atheists, church, disillusionment, Hope, millennials. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Guest Post Laura K. Cowan.