There is much ado about the “millennials” going around right now, of which I am a part. We’re doing a lot of unusual things, and among them we’re leaving the church. To explain us, everyone is throwing around the latest surveys and conjecture. I don’t mean to stifle good analysis, but why not just ask one of us? Since I’m a millennial, allow me to give you a sense of perspective. The situation is much worse than anyone has really had the courage to say. So, strap in and prepare to take a hard look at what we commonly accept about church.
The fact is that the church has tried to strip us of our identities. The individual exists to give power to the collective identity, not to exist as himself or herself. If you have thoughts or feelings — or worse, if you act — contrary to the accepted norms, prepare to face an onslaught of pressure to get back in line and submit. You will face everything from passive-aggressive suggestions to outright hostility.
It’s not just a church problem. We’re fed the “grow up, get a degree, get a job, get married, have kids who do the same” narrative even in the secular world. None of those things are bad. I just got married, and I love my wife. I’m about to finish my degree (finally), and I’m looking for a job. The problem is that the narrative is not presented as an option. Deviate and receive passive-aggressive suggestions from everyone around you, if not worse. Much of the time, it’s worse.
But the church is an especially stringent enforcer of the narrative, and it comes with a few extras thrown in for good measure. In addition to enforcing the societal expectations, they set out a bunch more requirements: believe some flavor of ad hoc reasoning about Genesis and creation; “love the sinner but hate the sin” when it comes to the LGBT community; vote pro-life 100% of the time while neglecting the complexities of life, politics, and bioethics; and the list goes on. Don’t worry about helping guide the community toward what it actually needs: the agenda is not going to change, and all that’s left is for you to show up and give your time, your money, your assent to the right beliefs, etc., depending on denominational demands. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Christ asked of us, but it’s what many of us Christians are doing.
I could rattle off a long list of people whom I know personally who have suffered under the church, with myself on that list. These weren’t incidental occurrences, as if each person just happened to go to church with a jerk who tried to wield power. No, the church system caters to this sort of thing: it turns the insensitive asshole who bullies people into conformity into a goddamned hero. It is a total inversion of values: the church weighs the worth of the individual in the degree to which he loses his individuality by conforming to the preset standard.
It is not strictly a matter of theology but also of practice. It affects every aspect of the church. The “grow up, get married” narrative is the defining characteristic of singles departments everywhere, with many of my female friends describing it as like walking into a meat market where they’re on sale. Conform. Even the kids’ Sunday School classes bear the same marks of manipulation and control. I remember very distinctly participating in an entire musical in children’s choir about how stupid evolution ostensibly was, even though I had no idea what it was about at the time. Don’t know what evolution is? Oh, well. Conform. In youth group, we talked about how having premarital sex was like handing your future spouse already-chewed gum, immediately shaming everyone in the room not only for the fact that many had already engaged in premarital sex but also because we felt ashamed of our very natural desires which were arising at that time. Conform. Everyone is so concerned that if we exercise our own autonomy, we might do something challenging. We might even make the wrong decisions. Which is worse, however: making a few wrong decisions on our way through life or instilling a culture in which people are not free to exercise their own human free will? The latter is totally dehumanizing.
Everything is about do this, don’t do that; believe this, not that; dress this way, talk this way, treat others like this or that or whatever. It tries to pass itself off by invoking church authority, but it’s not Christianity; it’s a very complicated social checklist devoid of any real meaning. Those who dare to be themselves and to challenge the narrative receive a heaping helping of scorn. Even minor deviation may meet with violent oppression.
There is no freedom to be.
This, more than anything else, is perhaps the defining complaint, it is the fist in the air against all the bullshit raining down on us from above. It is the middle finger I raise to the system that nearly stripped me of everything that I am. It is my courage to be in the face of the monster that tried to kill everything human about me, and it is my vow that I will spend every day of my life in direct defiance of that monster by daring to be myself.
. . .
A lot of the better, more mature music in my collection grapples with these sorts of issues. The lyrics from Isis’ song Backlit from their album Panopticon strike me as poignant and relevant:
Can you see us? Are we there?
Are we there…
Can you see me?
We are watching
We are watching…
You are fading…
In the daylight… Fading…
Always upon you, light never ceases
Lost from yourself, light never ceases
Thousands of eyes, gaze never ceases
Light is upon you, life in you ceases
Under the expectation of performance, the constant monitoring for conformity, we are no longer ourselves but objects. We suffer, we bleed, until we either succumb to being another clone, spitting the same bilious lies, tightening the very bolts which hold in place the chains of our subjugation; or we rebel on pain of humiliation, accusation, abandonment, or even betrayal.
These are not exaggerations of reality. Society, and especially the church, has become an institution for the abolition of the human soul. There are plenty of hoops for us to jump through like well-trained dogs, but where is purpose? Where is human flourishing? It has disappeared amid collective surveillance and expectation of conformity.
Don’t just try to pin this on a cadre of abusive pastors. The monstrous enforcer of dehumanization is our collective assent to distrust of one another. The Mark Driscolls of the world don’t just shout aimlessly into the darkness; they have legions of willing adherents who, by their tithes, attendance, and effort, manage to give people like Driscoll every last bit of their power. The Sovereign is our shared hatred of difference, seeking to make palatable our prejudices through elaborate rituals and social institutions — “churches,” or so we call them. We will not solve this crisis simply by ousting a few leaders, though it will help; the problem is in our hearts.
I left the churches I knew because I believe in a thing called truth, and in the core of my being, I knew those churches had none of it. Whatever they had right, I chalk up to either coincidence or their total inability to be both human and consistent with their abhorrent, dehumanizing system. I left the churches I knew because I saw how they only brought about control, suffering, and abuse.
Don’t think this is the church “over there.” Chances are, if you have a hard time accepting people who believe in evolution or who support gay marriage, then I challenge the notion that you are living in the light of true goodness, because although I look around and see functioning institutions which have cross-shaped steeples and say “Jesus” a lot during their services, I do not see many places of refuge for the outcast and despised. I do not see places of the freedom Christ promised. I do not see the churches seeking to be understanding of others. Maybe everyone else is just used to the dim light, but here I am holding up my lamp, looking for an honest church.
Not all is despair. I have found good churches, but many are not so fortunate. The remaining hope is like that of one who stands at the base of a mountain knowing that home is on the other side. The hope of home drives me forward, with the faith that even if I fail, God will make all things right in His good time.
Home is a place where the individual retains his or her beautiful, unique identity while working in cooperation with the rest of us toward building something truly great. It is a place where love, true love, is the standard, not the rigid application of a convoluted interpretation of the Bible. Home is where we recognize the fundamentals of life and the divine and don’t confuse them with the cultural constructs we use to understand them, as though mere participation in Christian culture will save us or bring real life. Home is a place that is safe for the hurting and broken, where they will not have to fear the scornful eyes of their neighbors, where the lost and sick may come for respite and healing.
If you want to know why I left the churches of my upbringing, I left because I am searching for my home.