As a pastor, I get to hear stories from a wide range of people. I’m on the front lines of people who are coming to church for the first, second, or thousandth time, and so through relationships and membership interviews I hear many positive experiences of church.
Sometimes I wish this net of stories could be cast wider though. Beyond hearing entrance stories, I wish I could hear every exit story too. Why do people leave church, really? What are their reasons?
I have read the statistics. I’ve read research on this. And occasionally I get to hear someone tell me a reason. (But who knows if it is the real reason—people have a hard time sharing the truth with a pastor.)
But I’d love to hear more good and bad stories about church.
My own story of church is entangled with both good and bad experiences, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I grew up in the church, left the church, came back to a megachurch, went to no church, then went to a house church, then started going to a small church, and finally accepted “church” as a necessary part of the Christian religious experience, to the extent that I even pursued ordination in the institutional church! Wow, what a journey right?
Since coming back to church, I’ve had lots of mixed experiences. Sometimes I’ve watched leadership operate tyrannically, and that made me want to leave church again. I’ve seen people get spiritually beaten and bruised, and had to process those bad forms of leadership. In Christian circles, I myself have been spiritually abused and had to deal with the trauma of mentors and advisors not living up to biblical norms. All of those bad experiences did make me want to leave church, but by the grace of God, I never did.
Sharing my experiences with other millennials is typically met with acceptance and general agreement. But something different happens when I share what I’ve gone through with older generations (Gen X and Baby Boomers, specifically). When a millennial shares struggle and angst with older generations, its usually met with eye rolls and accusations. (“Stop being a baby” is the sentiment.)
In case you are wondering my take, that is not the right response.
When someone—no matter who they are or what generation they belong to—shares with you reasons why they feel hurt by the church, the right response is to say “I’m so sorry. What happened?”
Let’s give space for people to share their story—it’s not yours or mine to give or share. So we have to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Any other response is immature and just cruel. Do we want to turn away and break bruised reeds? Are we trying to snuff out a burning wick?
I don’t get why Christian circles, communities, and churches respond in this sort of way, but we have to change our posture if we’re ever going to reach leaving millennials and non-attending Generation Z (or i-Gen).
So what I’d like to do from here is offer space for others to share good and bad stories about church. The truth is, there are problems with the institutional church. And at the same time, there are also wonderful, healing things that come along with the institutional church. We need to leave room for people to have either, or both types of stories to be shared, heard, and believed. The good stories remind us of God’s grace, and the bad stories point us to our need to do better as Christ’s church. Often, the bad stories highlight our blindspots or idols. We need those precious reminders, not just for our sake, but for the sake of the world we are called to serve.
Some of us have great, beautiful stories. Others of us will have dark, tragic stories. We are each beautifully broken though, in the end, and need to listen to the greatest story ever told. But not yet. For now, there’s space to share the good and the bad.
What story do you have about church? Is it good or is it bad? Share in the comments below. I’d love to hear your story if you’re willing to share it!