A few weeks ago, Gallup published an article citing how church membership has fallen below 50% for the first time. I read the details of their findings and did not find their results particularly surprising. Most of the people I grew up with in church no longer affiliate with a specific church, let alone claim membership with one. Some have left the faith entirely. Others have moved into different denominations or religious identities.
As I reflected on the Gallup findings and on the many conversations I have had with my now adult friends about why they left the church, I was reminded of my youth group days in evangelicalism. One of my major take-aways from that time was that leaving the church, even leaving the denomination, was one of the worst sins you could commit as a Christian. When I was in youth group, I would attend city-wide youth conventions in these massive sports arenas, and the head of the denomination’s youth sector would speak to all in attendance. Over a loudspeaker with concert-type lighting and instrumental music filling the space, he would talk to us seriously about how so many people were leaving the denomination and the church. They would go off to college or become adults, and the faith they cared so passionately about in their youth apparently did not matter anymore. He implored us to stay the course, to stay committed, and basically told us not to become another Gallup statistic. His tone was not exactly inviting. It felt like a reprimand from a parent, only he was reprimanding the wrong people. We were the ones that stayed; the prodigal was not in the arena.
I did end up leaving. In fact, you could say I ran out of that denomination the second I could. It did begin my first week of college, so the speaker in my youth had something right. I remember it distinctly. I knew a friend from my youth group days who lived in the same city as my college, so she offered me a ride to a church service. I went, and halfway through the sermon, I regretted doing so. The preacher kept going on and on about how I did not need to understand my faith, I just needed to believe. I see an importance for faith in the Christian journey, but in that moment, as a first-year college student, I needed some understanding. I was away from home from the first time. I was trying to create my understanding of self beyond my parents, my upbringing, and my hometown surroundings. My faith too needed to break away and become its own.
As I look back, though, the real reason I left that denomination was not the constant reprimands. Rather, as I pictured life in that church as an adult, there really was no place for someone like me. From a very early age, I have always loved having a voice, taking charge, and filling a leadership role. While the denomination in which I grew up affirmed women in ministry, it was so rare to see them. The church board only had ever had two women serve. (When my mom became the third, she convinced them to do something daring and bring on a second woman to serve while she was still serving.) If you were not married or didn’t have children, there really wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for leadership or ministry. You would also hear sermon after sermon where almost every anecdote consisted of a nuclear family. If I stayed, I believe I would have been in a holding pattern until I had a family and even then, my chances for leadership were few and far between. But by the time I graduated college, I had no interest in sticking around. I look back now and realize that I worshipped in a church that was white with so very few exceptions when I didn’t live in an all white town. I also realized that while that church would have very happily married me to my future spouse, it would have rejected my younger brother for wanting to marry a man.
I am grateful I did not leave the church entirely, however. I found a church early on in adulthood that celebrates all gifts and all people. I kept being amazed any time I got the chance to do something I never saw in the church growing up. I received training as a lay preacher, and week after week, I got to hear sermons from women and members of the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. I was asked to serve on the church council, even being single and under the age of 45. I was then asked to lead the church council, as a woman and a millennial. In all these spaces of leadership, I would always feel this immense amount of gratitude for the support to use gifts of leadership, writing, and speaking in service to something I have always loved so dearly. Despite her flaws, the Church has been such an important space for me in my life.
As an adult, I would visit the church I grew up in with my parents when I came home for holidays. The pastor made small talk with me one Sunday, asking about my life in Pittsburgh, the city I moved to for grad school. I told him I was doing well and that I had found a church. He asked about it and when I told him about it, he said very succinctly, “Well the mainline church is dying.” I was somewhat taken aback. I hadn’t left the church. I had just found a church where I felt like home. But in his mind, I’d gone. He couldn’t celebrate with me the joy I had found somewhere else. I can’t speak to whether any denomination or category of churches is dying or not. But I do know I love the home that I have found; and that as a member of my church, I want to do what I can to help it thrive.
I wish though I could go back to that young girl, sitting in that big arena with all its grandeur. I wish I could invite her to a quiet, less intense space, and tell her she may leave the church, but it will never mean she left the faith. Faith can and will evolve. The church can fail us, and we can choose to leave it and that does not make us spiritual failures. I would tell her God’s love is deep and wide, like the children’s song tells us. God’s love reaches out to me with a love and a peace that pushes me forward, instead of pressuring me to stay where I am if it is not the right place for me. I had to leave, so that I could stay.