It’s no great revelation that scores of young people leave the church as they move into their college-age years and beyond. It’s been happening since at least 2007, ample time for a litany of books and articles to be written on the subject. What’s often overlooked, however, is that many of these millennials don’t give up their faith when they give up their seat. Two-thirds, according to a Pew Research Center study, continue to believe in God with one in five continuing to pray every day. But if their relationship with the Lord endures even after they leave the local church, where do they turn to continue that spiritual conversation?
For many, the answer is podcasts. As NPR‘s Michel Martin and Scott Greenstone recently wrote, podcasts like Toby Morrell’s “Bad Christian” and Mike McHargue’s “The Liturgists” are helping to fill part of the void left by losing the local church. The reason these sources are becoming so popular is that, for many millennials, the hosts understand why they left the church establishment in the first place. They aren’t afraid to talk about the topics—sex, LGBTQ issues, difficult theology, etc.—that, unfortunately, are too often seen as inappropriate in a proper church setting. They also do so without feeling the need to get defensive with those who disagree.
That last part is especially important. As Morrell described, “We get a lot of criticism and I think that is good. That’s one of the biggest critiques we have of the church—is that you can’t critique it.” He would go on to say that too many churches “want to just give you everything in a pretty little package, and that is what your Christianity is. I think what we’re doing is opening up a door where people go, ‘No, I own my faith. I’m wrestling with God.'”
Podcasts have provided a helpful place for many to explore these kinds of questions, but that people didn’t feel as though they could do so in their local church is tragic. You see, while podcasts are great, they’ll never be able to take the place of having a community of faith in which you worship and walk with the Lord. They can be a helpful supplement, but never a full replacement.
You see, while it’s great to listen to people discussing issues of the faith, and even interacting with listeners through email or other avenues, it can be dangerous to do so without having other believers to help you process what you hear. Just as we should never take a pastor’s teaching as gospel just because it comes from the pulpit, so too should we test what we hear in podcasts or other settings (Acts 17:11). Church, if done right, is a great place to have those kinds of discussions because we are surrounded by people hearing and processing the same lessons as us.
Moreover, discussion with other believers is one of the main ways that God likes to help us understand him better. I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve learned something new about the Lord or come to some deeper understanding of him because of a conversation I had with other Christians. And while everyone is wired a bit differently, the Holy Spirit’s presence in each of our lives means that each of us will have something unique to contribute to such a dialogue. Podcasts, unless experienced as part of a larger community discussion, usually lack that crucial element.
That kind of community doesn’t necessarily have to take place in a physical church, but I think it helps. And if we leave the local church for selfish reasons rather than because of God’s call to do so, then we risk missing out on part of his will for our lives. I fear that far too many Christians, and especially millennial believers (of whom I’m a part), have left for the wrong reasons. But while they bear some of that responsibility, those of us who remain can often do a better job of creating an atmosphere that is less prone to drive them away.
So, if you are part of a local church community, take a minute to ask God to help you evaluate whether or not it’s fostering the kind of atmosphere in which people can ask the hard questions without fear of being silenced. Jesus never shied away from difficult or uncomfortable topics, and neither should we.
If, however, you’ve either left the church or are simply looking for a new place to worship, take a minute to ask God to help you understand what drove you away in the first place. Far too often we have a tendency to make our faith about us when it was always meant to be so much more. God has a place for every believer to serve him in community with others, a role that you and you alone can fill. When one of us neglects that responsibility, the rest of us suffer as a result. Are you playing your part today?