We need to start listening.
Too often, we dismiss those leaving the Church as outliers, or unfaithful prodigals. We rarely take the time to listen to their grievances, or if we do we simply chalk up their exodus to moral failure, lackluster devotion, or compromised allegiance.
But maybe some of it is our fault.
Maybe most of it is our fault.
And maybe the ones leaving have something really important to contribute to the conversation.
When I started investigating why people were leaving the Church, I knew I had to do more than just read a few books or cite a couple of research studies. I needed stories.
So I posted a request on my social media accounts for stories from those who had left the church. And people responded. Lots of people.
There is much diversity in these stories. Some were raised in Protestant households, others are from Catholic backgrounds. A few have left organized religion and their faith altogether, and some are simply dissatisfied with their current church experience and yet continue to attend anyway.
But despite their differences, a few key themes will become readily apparent. I want the reader to notice how well articulated and thoughtful these testimonies are. For all of these people, leaving Church was not a careless or casual decision. For most of them, it was a culmination of spiritual abuse, neglect, and frustration.
The decision to leave did not come easy.
And neither will reform.
Note: Because some of these stories deal with sensitive content, I’ve changed all of the names. Additionally, this article is a supplement to an original post titled The Future of Religion, or Why Church Needs to Change.
After Carson graduated college, he moved to a large city in Texas. He’s been a part of the Church for his entire life, including attending a private Christian school. He’s struggled to plug into a faith community in spite of a concentrated effort on his part:
I haven’t completely “left the church,” but I’ve found myself being significantly less enthusiastic about participating in it and its community. I’m sure there is plenty of selfishness on my own part that causes this hardness, but as far as outside forces are concerned, I think there’s a number of reasons.
I just don’t see the point many times. I think the way the western church operates its services is extremely contradictory to what the church (universal) is about: community. I’ve been part of a lot of churches in my life, and the structure of the services is almost always the same, regardless of the denomination: lots of listening, not a lot of participating. As someone who is in a new place and doesn’t really know anyone, “going to church” is nothing more than going to a place to listen to some music and a teaching, then going home. “
Rachel and her husband left the church following the well-publicized sexual abuse scandals that embroiled the Catholic Church:
My cradle-Catholic husband decided he was officially done with the Church after we saw the movie “Spotlight.” No joke. I think for him that was the first time the reality of the sexual abuse of children by priests scandal really horrified him to the core, even though he knew about it before. From there, his faith just continued to unravel as he confronted the various hypocrisies between the Church’s teachings and its practices. I think we’d both long been hung up about the Catholic Church’s teachings about sexuality (re: birth control in marriage, especially, and also toward the LGBT community). But “Spotlight”… it was the final straw.
I’d say Millennials are far from lazy. If anything, we are more willing to question what older generations accepted as truth point-blank. I think regardless of faith, there is a yearning for authenticity in our filtered world. We want people to do as they preach. Too often I find the people who claim to represent an all-loving and merciful god are judgmental beyond their own comprehension. For me, it’s really hard to see past that.
My next-door neighbors host house church, and if I ever felt an inkling of faith again, I’d totally go there. I enjoy listening to the praise music through the walls every Sunday morning at least.”
Congregational hypocrisy and selective moralizing were frequently mentioned as reasons for an exodus. Sarah shared these thoughts with me:
I attended an Episcopal school age 3-15 and continued in church about halfway through college. I started to really despise the hypocrisy of the congregation. It seemed like everyone was of the opinion that they could judge everyone else as hard as they wanted for their sins but forbid they be judged similarly. I still consider myself to be semi-religious— I just don’t attend church.”
Heather, who still attends church, echoed a similar frustration:
I haven’t left the church by any means, but I have been frustrated by the acceptance of some sins and stiff arm rejection of others. Pushing people away because they don’t fit in the ‘box’ of what the church says a Christian should look like, struggle with, etc.”
While Morgan returned to Church in college, she disconnected from her local church during her high school years as a result of an overzealous, but insensitive youth pastor:
I left the church in high school because I felt like my church only cared if I was a warm body filling a seat at Wednesday Youth Group and Sunday morning service. Nobody ever bothered to ask if I was okay or if there was an actual reason for my absence on Wednesdays or every other Sunday (my parents were divorced, and I spent every other weekend with my dad).
I left after months of my youth pastor sending me public Facebook posts and text messages about how my absence was noticed, prayers for my heart to turn to Jesus were being prayed, and then he expressed that he “wasn’t sure that my heart belonged to God based on what he could see from my attendance and lack of effort.”
The stories I received weren’t limited to millennials. Meredith, an older woman who grew up within the Church, finally left institutionalized religion after feeling neglected and invisible to her local church body:
I stopped going to church because the church does not know what to do with older single women. I was invisible at church. Introduced myself to the same people and the minister for a year. I showed up with a guy and the people fell all over themselves to meet him. No one spoke to me. It’s hard to be single in our culture… it’s double hard to be single at a church.
I am a member of a feminist theology group and we read, study, and discuss significant women’s writings and stories. I consider myself religious and spiritual and a child of God.”
And others felt as if they were shamed out of the church. Carrie, a mother of three, worked for years behind-the-scenes at a megachurch in another state. She led Bible studies, organized retreats, and spoke at women’s events. However, all that changed when she decided to finally divorce her drug-addicted husband:
I worked as an administrative assistant for several years at a large church in another state. I loved my job. But after an injury at work, my husband became addicted to painkillers.
But after seven years of drug addiction, rampant infidelity, and an escalating pattern of abuse, I decided that enough was enough. It wasn’t just about me, it was about protecting my children.
The day I disclosed my impending divorce to the Church leadership, I received a phone call from my best friend. She was crying and she told me I was going to Hell unless I stuck with my husband. My church quietly asked me to resign from my position because it didn’t want a divorced woman on staff.
That was it for me. I never went back.
I’m still passionate about the Bible, prayer, and my faith. When I remarried, my new husband and I tried attending another church. But it felt so phony. I had seen behind the curtain and I couldn’t go back.
We host people for dinner all the time now at our home. Nearly every weekend. Instead of going to church, we invite people over for a big Sunday brunch and watch football. We love it. Honestly, my faith and love for Jesus has never been stronger.”
Church volunteer Hayley experienced similar shunning and shaming when she disclosed some private information to her supervisor:
I worked in the church nursery for more than three years. I started dating someone and pretty soon we were having sex. I felt guilty about it and asked my co-worker at the church for advice on how to tell my boyfriend that I wanted to stop having sex until we were married.
The next morning, my supervisor called me into her office and told me I was fired. I had violated the church’s handbook. I begged to keep my job. She put me on unpaid leave and told me I had to visit the church counselor if I ever wanted my job back. After several months of counseling, the counselor told me I could return to work now that I was showing shame for my sexual relationship. But when I contacted the nursery again, the supervisor told me I had been fired and could not return.
This destroyed me. The church I had grown up and served in rejected me because of a prayer request. During this time period, my boyfriend and I had stopped having sex. After he proposed, we couldn’t find anyone in the church to do our premarital counseling. We asked five people and they all said no because they knew about what had happened. We had to use someone we had never met and did not know.
Because of the counseling I had to attend, I now have negative feelings toward sex. It’s hard for me to have sex with my husband because of the shame I feel during the act. We no longer attend that church anymore, and it’s hard for me not to associate it with hate, rejection, and false teachings. But my faith is stronger than ever before.”
Instead of support and assistance, Caroline found only judgment and criticism after she became pregnant as a teenager:
I stopped going to church after I got pregnant as a teen. While I understand the consequences of my actions, I was hoping for a more supportive church. I felt ridiculed and judged because the very people who criticized me sat in nearby rows in the church. It didn’t feel like a church family full of support and helping people get closer with Christ.
What I was learning in church wasn’t matching the actions of the people teaching and I grew resentment and felt even more ashamed of myself to a point I felt like a failure and enough of one where I didn’t feel like I belonged in church. I had to start working on my beliefs on my own and reading my bible and doing bible studies with a very close group of friends before I started to fulfill my relationship with God.
I had to separate the people from the church in a sense before I felt like I could go back and feel comfortable in my choice rather than it feeling like something you just do. I needed to restore my faith.“
An overwhelming majority of those who responded to my request for stories mentioned that they didn’t feel there was any room for theological conversation unless they fit within the narrow parameters established by the church. However, in an age of the mass information, most young people find their beliefs through questioning and dialogue. Sarah no longer attends Church for this reason:
I disagree with some of the more Orthodox teachings of the church, but in my personal opinion you should question your religion continuously. That’s how you find answers and truly evaluate your faith, in my opinion.”
Carson mentioned that he frequently feels as if he has to “fake it” every time he gathers with other believers for fear of alienation:
For one, my theological views tend to differ significantly from those in the church, and I feel that I would be ostracized if I expressed them publicly. I guess I just get tired of faking like I’m on the same page as those around me.”
Jennifer, who grew up in a conservative religious environment, called this type of behavior “boundary maintenance,” and is the primary reason she divorced herself from conservative evangelicalism:
I think that one of the primary features of American Christianity is its preoccupation with boundary maintenance. You have to believe all the right things to be in the community, and if you don’t, you’re out. There’s no room for questioning or discussion or differing perspectives. You’re all in or you’re going to hell.”
After graduating from college, Stephen eventually completely left the church and his faith – despite being an active member of his congregation and multiple on-campus ministries:
Ultimately, I think I just got to a point where I didn’t feel like there was enough evidence of God to justify me making a positive claim that he exists. Nowadays, I just assume there isn’t a god, but if I find evidence in the future that there is, I’d be open to believing again.
With that said, even if I hadn’t lost my faith, I’m pretty sure I would have left the evangelical church around the same time due to hypocrisy I see in its politics and its focus on dogma over love and empathy. My political views had shifted to the left, and I didn’t feel at home in my church. Before I left, I was also getting tired of the church’s focus on “marketing”—big buildings, bright lights, loud music, cool people with nice clothes. It all felt a little phony to me in a way I think I maybe still can’t verbalize.”
Samantha no longer attends a church regularly, but still considers herself religious. She told me that going to church became a demoralizing exercise that never encouraged spiritual growth beyond self-loathing:
A few weeks ago during worship, the leader talked about “not being worthy” and this was at a time when I was going through intense therapy to confront how guilt and shame has influenced my life. It really made me furrow my brows, if you know what I mean. I’m a sinner worth being loved and I know God loves me, so why would I question that? I don’t understand why we live a week and come back every Sunday to feel bad about our past week only to be told to do better in the upcoming week.”
Shame and guilt were pressed upon Jennifer’s identity at a young age, and her evangelical upbringing elevated her anxiety into a form of spiritual abuse:
I’ve had clinical-levels of anxiety for pretty much my entire life. I was taught that God (through the Holy Spirit and whatnot) communicated with you, and you had to listen for Him. If you felt uncomfortable internally, this meant that you were doing something wrong and God was upset with you. As a child with anxiety, I pretty much felt uncomfortable all of the time. Which means, on some level, I thought God was mad at me basically all the time.
I was taught that, when I did bad things, that was the human part of me. When I did good things, that was Jesus working through me. As a human, I was physically incapable of doing anything good. I was taught it was wrong to ask questions. I was also taught negative emotions were wrong, and that God wanted me to be happy and worry-free.
Eventually, I just got tired. It seemed pointless. I had worked and worked and worked, and it was just making things worse. So I stopped.
It’s no secret that I’m liberal. But pretty much everyone I grew up with firmly believed (and literally told me) that it was impossible to be liberal and Christian. Obviously, this is dumb. But in practice, it meant that I couldn’t hold my new beliefs and be a part of the faith community I grew up in. I had to choose, and I chose my beliefs.
I miss the community. I would love to find that sense of belonging again in a faith community. But not if it means sacrificing myself again.”
Addendum: The Other Side
Some people may think this article is extremely one-sided and unfair.
What about all the stories about how the Church helped someone overcome their addictions, or saved their marriage, or assisted an international adoption?
You want to know why I didn’t include those stories to “balance it out?”
Because we’ve heard those stories before.
Consider Diagoras’ Doubt.
Diagoras of Melos was an atheist philosopher that lived in ancient Greece.
In trying to convince him of the gods’ power, priests told Diagoras stories of sailors who were caught in storms and prayed to the gods and were rescued.
But Diagoras fired back. What about the sailors who prayed and weren’t rescued? Or the sailors who didn’t pray and were rescued anyway?
Diagoras revealed to the priests their faulty and manipulative logic – they only told the stories that benefited their narrative. The stories that didn’t fit the narrative were dismissed or ignored.
Diagoras’ Doubt works on many different levels – from personal feuds and implicit racism to political ideologies and media biases. And it still lurks beneath institutionalized religion.
When we flood our collective narrative with stories of success and blessing, we’re drowning out the voices of the poor in spirit, the brokenhearted, the exile and the prodigal.
We lose the voices of whom the Church has failed.
Whom we have failed.
I often end my articles with a hopeful denouement.
But I’m not going to do that this time.
but because I think we need to sit and, perhaps for the first time, listen.
“The Lost Voices” is the second part in a trilogy of articles titled The Future of Religion. The first article is “Why Church Needs to Change” and lays the groundwork for the reasons many mature Christians are choosing to walk with Jesus without the institutionalized Church; the third article is “How Church Can Change” and is six recommendation guided by my research, conversations, and observations.