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Millennials And God: What Young People Want Out Of Church and Religion

(Photo of Ryan Meeks courtesy of Twitter)

When it comes to religion, I’ve noticed a pattern amongst my friends and family: you go to church, synagogue, mosque when you’re a kid, you quit during the teen years, and then maybe go back as an adult when you have your own kids to raise. But many people never go back. The Barna Research Institute reports that nearly 60% of churchgoers will leave at age 15, either for an extended period of time or they’ll never come back.

A recent CNN article, that’s been getting a lot of attention, is by 32 year old Rachel Held Evans. It’s called “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.” The church she refers to is Evangelical Christian and she says many young people can’t relate their modern lives and beliefs to the church’s traditional ones.

“They feel that they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith,” Rachel said over the phone. “So they feel like they’re being told there is this conflict between faith and science and they’re really interested in exploring both and want to put an end to that conflict.”

She says many millennials consider the churches they grew up in to be too political, too old fashioned and unconcerned with social justice.

“They feel like the church is hostile to gay and lesbian people. A lot of millennials have gay and lesbian friends and so that’s one thing we care a lot about. We want our friends to be welcome with us in the church.”

Seattle’s Stephanie Drury writes a blog called Stuff Christian Culture Likes. She’s the daughter of a southern Baptist preacher, who now considers herself to be agnostic because she has a lot of unanswered questions about religion.

“I think a big turn off would be the utter disconnect between people coming into the church who have religious curiosity, spiritual curiosity, and are told by the church, ‘You have to believe these things in order to be approved of by our conception of God.’ There is no way for them to give validity to the other person’s views.”

Of course not all churches are void of young people. Ryan Meeks is the founder of Bothell based Eastlake Community Church. Four to five thousand people pack the church on an average Sunday, most of them between 20 and 35 years old. Ryan started the nondenominational church when he was 25. His office is a VW bus and he wears shorts and sandals to church.

“We recognize that there is a large percentage of people, myself included and a lot of my friends, who would never probably go to church as usual. So our concept was, you know, what if we started a church for the rest of us? There are plenty of churches for the already convinced. But what about the rest of us? A lot of us have questions. That’s not always a welcome reality in a lot of circles. I wanted to create a space where it didn’t matter where you were coming from or what beliefs you held. I wanted a community where people disagreed with each other. People talk a lot about unity and harmony but a lot of time fear makes us want to actually be around people who always agree with us. And that’s not harmony.”

His approach may seem modern, but in a way it’s very old fashioned since Ryan connects with the original concept of Christianity: living and loving like Jesus did.

“I wouldn’t say that religion appeals to me at all. Jesus appeals to me,” Ryan says. “What you see in Jesus is this god who empties himself for humanity.”

Which is why his church is dedicated to charity work.

The main idea I heard over and over again amongst all three of my interview subjects is wanting to question things and not treat the Bible like a history book.

“The last few hundred years the church has had this, like, ‘We have all the answers, it’s all super clear,’ certainty model. I think people today are just like, ‘I just don’t know how you can have that kind of certainty.’ I don’t have certainty. I have trust,” Ryan says. “But, you know, I wasn’t there. I’m placing my faith in this idea that Jesus came and died on the cross. But I don’t know it! A lot of times I think people hear these pastors talk with certainty. So people are looking for an authentic faith journey that embraces our unknowing.”

In the end, all three of these people have returned to church. Ryan created his own, and Stephanie and Rachel found churches that suit them.

“We’ll use the bible, it’s a Christian church, but you’re allowed to question,” says Stephanie. “There’s time set aside when they’re like, ‘How did this land with you? What’s going on with you right now?’ It just ends up being kind of therapeutic. I just want a place where I don’t feel alone in my doubts. It just feels like loving, there’s family, that kind of vibe. I look forward to it. Our kids really like it. It feels like you’re part of something bigger.”

Rachel doesn’t feel quite as strongly about her church, but she’s working on it.

“It’s hard because I always feel like I don’t quite fit in. But I’m learning that that’s not the point. That I don’t have to surround myself only with like-minded people. Being part of the church is sort of like being part of this big, historic, dysfunctional family.”

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