I don't blame you for leaving the church. I really don't.
When researchers report, 'About 8 million twentysomethings who were active churchgoers as teenagers . . . will no longer be particularly engaged in a church by their thirtieth birthday' (You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church, and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman), we should not be surprised. When I hear of the pain many of you have experienced in a church, I understand why you want to leave.
When I consider the complexities of life in which you and your friends find yourselves, and the feeling that the church is not willing to talk constructively about such issues, it is natural to think that maybe the church is not even able to comprehend what you are facing in life. Honestly, I do not blame you for wanting to leave.
Recently I was reading 1 Samuel 3, the story of Eli and Samuel. You may know the story because of that powerful verse when Samuel completely surrenders to God's will for his life by saying, 'Speak Lord, for your servant is listening' (3:10). The passage also beautifully demonstrates how older generations must invest in, love, care for, and trust younger generations to lead in the Church.
All generations must make commitments and sacrifices to move a church toward being intergenerational. Yet, there is much more to 1 Samuel 3.
At the beginning of the chapter, Samuel is referred to as a boy, but by the close of the chapter he is referred to as a prophet. A point came in Samuel's life when he had to decide for himself whether he was going to grow up and fully surrender to the plans of God for his life, even though the religious situation and institutions of the day were a mess. Samuel had good reasons to leave the temple, for it appeared as if God was no longer present: 'In those days the word of the Lord was rare' (3:1).
God was calling Samuel to a life fully surrendered to him. It would entail incredible challenges, for even the first prophetic message Samuel was required to proclaim was announcing God's judgment against the House of Eli: 'He was afraid to tell Eli the vision' (3:15).
I wonder if Samuel was tempted to focus on the religious turmoil of the day and the challenging work which God was calling him to as an excuse to run from God's call on his life. Is it possible that some twentysomethings are doing just that?
Is God calling you to live and proclaim a prophetic Word of God in the church, and you are focusing on all that the Church is not, instead of focusing an all that she can be?
College students often share with me that as they reflect upon their spiritual journeys, they see how their churches were not fully proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, some now recognize how racially segregated their churches were from surrounding neighborhoods, yet they did little to be people of reconciliation.
Some churches were very active in caring for the poor overseas, but did little to advocate or care for the poor who lived only blocks away from them. These congregations also did little intentional mentoring and discipleship.
When you come to realizations such as these, may I suggest that perhaps your response should not be to leave the church, but rather engage more fully into the life of the Church?
I cannot help but think that the church would do better in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ if more people were fully committed to her.
You cannot be a prophetic voice and presence in the church to advance God's kingdom if you flee from her.
Finally, there is this incredible statement of great hope in 1 Samuel 3 that I missed for years. Just before Samuel hears the voice of God calling him, the author writes, 'The lamp of God had not yet gone out.' The lamp of God would have been lit in the early evening, and the fact that it had not yet gone out suggests it was probably the predawn hours. The lamp of God symbolizes that though the religious situation of the day was dark, the light of God was still present and a new day was about to begin in the house of God.
When I hear of a young couple who has made the intentional decision to make a small, under-resourced church their church home, I am reminded that the lamp of God has not yet gone out. When I see congregations entrusting leadership to younger generations and being open to learn from them what it means to be people of justice, reconciliation, and caring for 'the least of these,' I am reminded that the lamp of God has not yet gone out.
When I see older congregations with an evangelistic spirit reaching out to younger generations even though they are intimidated by tattoos, piercings, and ear gauges, I am reminded that the lamp of God has not yet gone out. When I see college students beginning a nursing home ministry and building loving relationships with their elders, I am reminded that the lamp of God has not yet gone out.
Be encouraged, for the lamp of God has not yet gone out in the church. Perhaps a new day is about to begin. Recognizing this truth, the question now becomes: how will you respond? Will you respond as 8 million other twentysomethings have and leave the Church, or will you respond by saying, 'Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!'
Corey MacPherson is vice president for spiritual development and church relations at Eastern Nazarene College.
Watch the author speak on this topic here.
Holiness Today, September/October 2012