Millennials and the church, or, How evangelicals turned me into a cynic

It seems that everyone these days is talking about millennials leaving the church. CNN even gave Rachel Held Evans valuable front page real estate to write about it. Since everyone else is writing about it, I figure I might as well add my two cents, especially because I feel like nobody’s actually asking those of us who have left or are leaving the evangelical world. This is my story.

Ahh, but Kathryn, you say, isn’t everyone saying that millennials are leaving the church because of how evangelicals treat LGBT people? Aren’t you just another example of that? Here’s the thing though. While that may be the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, it’s a far cry from having anything to do with what turned me into a cynic. 

I’m a cynic about American evangelicalism. I might as well just say it. I don’t trust evangelical leaders and if I see you on TV or find your books in giant stacks in the front of Barnes and Noble, I’m going to automatically be on alert. I have a hard time shutting off the cynicism and distrust when I’m in an evangelical church. To be blunt, I can’t step into an evangelical church without my bullshit meter going on high alert.

I think the breaking point for me was when I was living in Vietnam. The South African interim pastor at the international church sent out an email to the church mailing list that said that the election of Barack Obama was the WORST THING EVAR and we should all pray for American Christians because they would soon be facing persecution. There was also something about how the California state supreme court challenge to Prop 8 was the WORST THING EVAR and proof of the coming persecution because people dared challenge the constitutionality of the amendment. There was something about being halfway around the world, in a country where Christians do face actual struggles, and having the American evangelical bs being thrown at me (bs that was attacking a president I had voted for and praising a ballot measure I opposed) that snapped something in me. 

It was just so absurd, sending that email to people in a place where we had to watch our words, and telling us that in America, Christians were facing a great oncoming persecution. It was the greatest hits of all that’s wrong in evangelicalism, from the conflating of faith with party politics, to the obsession with forcing everybody else to live by their rules about whatever the latest WORST THING EVAR is, to the complete lack of proportion. I could no longer contain my cynicism. 

How I got to be a cynic is the most important part of the story. This is what kids who grew up in the evangelical church grew up with, and while my story is my own, this is the backdrop to being young and evangelical in America.

As a product of the ‘80s, I’m a product of the scandals of the ’80s as much as anything. I have never not experienced evangelical christendom that wasn’t rocked by scandal. My earliest memories of public Christianity are of the televangelist scandals. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Private lives lived in dichotomy to public image and public proclamations. I learned that if anyone gets too famous you should keep your fingers crossed because scandal was sure to follow. 

If it was just the televangelist scandals, that would be one thing, but that impression was reinforced in the churches of my childhood. Early elementary school, the vague memories of tension at my Southern Baptist church, being too young to understand but knowing that something was very wrong as the tension spilled over into barbs in sermons, barbs I didn’t understand but tension I could feel. People leaving the church, more tension, weirdness of people coming and going in leadership and fuzzy snippets of memories I’d think were imagined except that others remember them too. The memory of asking my mother whether the church service had gotten longer, when the length had remained the same but the tension in the service was coming through to me as a sense of dragging time.  Finding out details many years later and learning that there had been affairs and scandal and a pastor who was trying to maintain control of a congregation by challenging his critics with pointed sermons directed at individual critics.

Rinse, repeat, the variations on the same theme several times throughout my childhood. The stories may have been different, but time and again, pastors who had overstayed their time at a church dealing with conflict through pointed barbs in sermons. That’s not to say that there weren’t good things too, but the conflict and tension punctuate my memories, the way points that allow me to figure out the timeline of my memories. Church to me has always been as much about tension filled congregational meetings as it has been about worship and teaching. 

The reality is that while there are a few pastors that I respect, it’s really hard for me to trust and respect a pastor because I’ve seen too much over the years. 

And that’s not going into how I’ve watched evangelicalism’s pet culture war issues shift over the years as they suddenly decide that whatever was the WORST THING EVAR last year is now totally fine. In my lifetime, I’ve been lectured about rock music, tattoos, long hair on men, earrings on men, Dungeons and Dragons, and half a dozen other things that are now all good. I think they lost me around the time that every hip evangelical youth minister became obsessed with U2, pierced their ears, and started getting religious themed tattoos. Or maybe it was when I listened to Iron Maiden as an adult and realized that all of the “satanic” stuff were Biblical allusions. 

We were given a set of seemingly arbitrary rules to follow and those rules kept changing.

And yet I’m supposed to get all worked up at the latest set of rules and culture war issues and to toe the line even as it’s become obvious that they’re just making it up as they go along. 

I’m supposed to beat myself up and hate myself for not being straight when thirty years ago the bulk of the religious right were lined up in support of Bob Jones University’s right to discriminate based on race.  

Give it another thirty years and they’ll have another WORST THING EVAR. 

See, here’s the core of the problem. The evangelical church has forgotten about grace. Sure, I can recite the cute acronym God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, but grace as the heart of the gospel? I’m not sure the evangelical world has ever known what that kind of grace really means. 

That’s the reason for all the rules, for all the culture war battles, for all of it. There’s no understanding of grace as something that cannot be earned. Sure, they say that, but there’s always the nagging suspicion that you really have to be doing the right things to merit that grace. 

The gospel isn’t about following rules, it’s about Jesus. 

The evangelical church has forgotten that, if they ever really understood it to begin with. 

All I know though, is that I can’t handle it any more. I’ve tried really hard not to be cynical about everything, but every time I try to venture back into the evangelical church it makes me more cynical. Less trusting. 

I don’t like the person that I become when I’m in the evangelical church.

Since the church I was a member at since a teenager folded a few years back, I haven’t really been anywhere settled. It’s not because I’m in law school now and I’ve got limited time for sleep, not really. It’s because I can’t do it any more. 

I believe, I believe because even though it feels like it would be easier to just let my faith go and to stop caring, God doesn’t seem willing to let me go. I hope to find my way back into the church some day, though probably not in the evangelical world, but for now the only way I can keep from losing my faith is to stay away. 

Published by Kathryn Brightbill

I was born at a very young age.

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