Why Young People Leave the Faith (part 1): Religious Diversity

Rev Don’s Relection from September 11, 2022

For those of you who don’t know, I am beginning a series of reflections on an important topic, one I think about often. The topic is basically question – why do young people leave the faith? The answers are complex and multiple, hence more than one reflection devoted to the question.

I begin by saying I have firsthand experience with this topic. When I was a young man, in my early 20’s, I left the Christian faith. I’d eventually return, but for about 12 years, I was not part of the Christian faith, the faith of my childhood. My reasons in many ways mirror the ways that researchers say are the reasons young people today are leaving the faith. Here were those reasons:

  1. Other worldviews I was discovering made a great deal of sense to me, sometimes more sense than the narrowly defined Christian faith I was taught;
  2. I could no longer conform to some of the key doctrines of the Christian tradition I was raised in;
  3. The Christian faith I knew seemed to ignore and sometimes even condone the reality of injustice, inequality, war, and racism;
  4. Core mentors in my church, including my pastor, were experiencing falls from grace, which shook me.

As I mentioned, these reasons, my reasons some 30 years ago, in many ways mirror why young people leave Christianity these days. That’s what the research and consultants who do research seem to say.

Young people leaving the faith – we should be honest about it. Expecting everyone to remain Christians is naïve. Its not realistic. Young people will leave the faith. We cannot get around that.

What’s also clear is this. Coercing people to remain, or judging them if they depart, this is not effective. Nor is it compassionate.

Our goal as the Church and as Christians is to help young people come to a well-informed, educated, wise decision, and helping them in a way that is not coercive or judgmental. We must also assure we build a bridge back in case a return becomes desired. These – helping young people make a well-informed choice without coersion or judgmentalness and making sure there is a bridge back – are essential approaches.

All of us have doubts. But doubts and leaving the faith don’t have to go together. Too often, doubts too quickly give rise to leaving without first delving deep.

Doubts should bring a delving deep into the beautiful diversity of the Christian faith, not a sudden, superficial departure. Jumping ship too quickly – guarding against this is important And the pastor can be a big help in a doubting one delving deep.

This talk about the diversity of the Jesus tradition leads me to the major reason I mentioned as to why young people leave the faith – the reality of religious diversity outside the Jesus tradition.

When I left the faith in the mid-90’s, a big factor was my study of Buddhism. Buddhism is a beautiful tradition and teaching. Compared to the faith I grew up in, Buddhism had a more positive view of human nature. Buddhism helped me to see that I am not bad by nature but I am prone to both good, neutral, and bad decisions, and making good decisions needs to practiced at. I needed to hear this at the time. I was dealing with a really low self-image and issues of guilt. Hearing I’m not a sinful person through and through, but merely a human being dealing with the messiness of life, this message resonated with me.

Another thing that was aluring: Buddhism doesn’t put its weight on a God defined as a big man in the sky. It points to the essential truth of the universe and the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. This made sense to me then.

Now, I discovered and learned about Buddhism through hardcopy books from the library and from bookstores. There was no Google or YouTube where you can find lectures, teachings, and studies on Buddhism. There were no meditation classes to attend remotely anytime you wanted.

For someone like me today, it would be so much easier to access the Buddhist tradition and teaching. This ease of access has meant more and more find meaning in religious traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Islam, etc), spiritual practices (e.g., meditation, yoga, tai chi), or philosophical claims (e.g., atheism, postmodernism) outside the Christian faith and eventually more and more leave the faith. Religious diversity has always been real, but it is so much easier to access, delve into, and become part of.

What I eventually learned, and what eventually drew me back to the Jesus way, was that the Christian tradition itself is so, so diverse. What I eventually learned was that for each Buddhist teaching and practice I found meaning in, there was a corollary, a similar teaching within the diversity of Christian thought.

To put it simply, the answers I was looking for were already there within the vast and diverse Christian tradition. I simply didn’t know about it. No one helped me see it. I was the poor man in a Buddhist parable. I was down and out and desperate, yet all the while a priceless diamond was there lost in my coat, unbeknownst to me. Thinking I was poor, I went looking elsewhere for answers when the answers I needed were already there in that diamond in my coat.

So here is the takeaway. As a church, as a denomination even, we need to do much better at educating our young people, high school and older, about the priceless diamond within their coats. We need to educate our young people about the rich diversity within the Christian tradition, about the different approaches to life’s questions that the vast Christian tradition offers. We also need to relate the world’s religions to the Christian religion, even learning and applying what we learn from the world’s religions to our walk with Christ.  

Young people may leave, and will leave the faith, but let’s make sure they leave knowing the full gamut of what they’re leaving! From the Eastern Orthodox focus on theosis, the central teaching that growing into divinity is part of the faith, to the Quaker tradition and its focus on the Inward Light of Christ, to the Black Church tradition and its profound struggle for freedom, justice and equality, to Christianity’s rich contemplative tradition that now crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide, we have so much to learn, teach, and pass on when it comes to the beautiful and diverse Jesus way!

I’ve believed for awhile now that the church of the future will be more akin to a mini-seminary. Seminaries are focused on educating about the diversity of approaches within the Christian faith, while at the same time include opportunities for worship and spiritual practice.

Making sure those who are moved by their conscience to leave the faith know what they are leaving – this is a task for us the church and this entails ourselves learning the full gamut of the Christian faith.

This entails ourselves digging deep and knowing the Bible, knowing our history, knowing the diversity of our faith. If parents and the church community sees a deep knowledge of the Jesus tradition as merely kind of important, that “kind of important” gets passed on to our young people. And “kind of important” quickly becomes “not really important.”

But with our own deep knowledge of the Bible, of Christian history, and the diverse approaches of the Jesus tradition, we can guide our young people who may have big questions and big doubts and who are looking elsewhere and are pondering leaving, we can point to the beautiful diversity of the Jesus tradition with its vast approaches to the big questions and doubts.

The Christian tradition is a big tent! There is room for big questions and big doubts, and there are rooms for a diversity of approaches to those questions and doubts.

Okay, I will stop here, but we will continue for the next 3 weeks to look at our big question – why young people leave the faith. Next week we will look at how young people leave because they simply cannot conform to some of the important doctrines of the faith, or at least some doctrines that are said to be important. We should be honest going forward. Young people don’t leave in a light, glib way. There are real reasons they’ve pondered and thought about. And how Christianity has been defined through its doctrines serves as a major source of doubt and difficulty for some. We’ll look at this next week.