Why We're Leaving Church: A Report From the Nones

"People don't want to have to side with the church and against their friends who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic."
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The same day news outlets around the country carried a notable headline -- "Protestants Lose Majority Status in US" -- I was in a jam-packed church, speaking about my new book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world. The article explored recent Pew research about the rise of the "Nones", religiously unaffiliated Millennials, and the corresponding decline in both Mainline and Evangelical Protestant church affiliation.

After my lecture, several young Christian adults talked with me about how the headline resonates with one of the book's main ideas -- that Christianity has carried on a long affair with empire and colonialism, and as a result, has picked up the imperial auto-immune disease of "hostility to the other."

A young man introduced himself, explaining that he had heard me speak several years earlier at his Evangelical college. "Of all of my fellow students who were in the ministry track at my school," he said, "I'm basically the only one who still even goes to church, and I'm only hanging on by my fingernails." I asked what it was that had driven his peers -- all preparing for ministry work -- not only from the careers in ministry that they planned on, but from even attending church at all.

"It's just what you spoke about tonight," he explained. "Hostility to 'the other.' People don't want to have to side with the church and against their friends who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic."

Later in the evening, two young women, current college students, told me the same thing. "We grew up in the church," they explained. "We're still followers of Christ, but we're not attending church any more. We can't find a church that doesn't load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It's just not worth it."

One of them added, "But tonight, you gave us hope that there's a way of being Christian that doesn't mean we have to hate on anybody."

Their comment reminded me of something a woman about my age had shared during the Q&R session after the lecture. She explained how she, a lesbian, had left the church years ago, deeply wounded by the hostility she experienced. "I didn't choose this as a 'lifestyle,'" she said. "This is the way I am." She told us how hard it was just to show up in a church for the lecture that night, and asked me if I saw a connection between hostility against gay people and hostility against people of other religions.

I explained that I think there's a deep and powerful connection: religious communities often take a short-cut to building a strong group identity -- by defining themselves in opposition to others. Muslims, atheists and gays are high-profile "others" which can be scapegoated to build a strong "Christian" identity. On top of that, Christians have been taught to see in "us vs. them" terms for centuries, and it will take time to reorient faithful people in a new direction -- "us with them," working for the common good.

Later, this woman was in line to get a book signed, not far behind the two college students. With tears in her eyes, she gave me a hug and said, "Tonight gave me hope that there's a way I can maybe come back into the church, that there's a place for people like me."

As I was leaving, the two students who had spoken with me earlier circled back to talk some more. "If we can make the changes we talked about tonight -- finding a new kind of Christian identity that's built on what we're for instead of who we're against -- I think we'll make history," one said.

"Let's do it," I replied. "Let's do it."

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