Written by:
Chris Wilterdink

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Is The Church Irrelevant?

I need to make a confession. Sometimes I feel like I failed as a youth minister.

I don’t think I failed, but I feel like it sometimes.

I can remember great stories. I now enjoy some friendships that evolved since my youth have grown into adults. I can even point to some excellent lessons, mission experiences, and God moments. Yet, there are times where I feel like I could have done better, like I could have done more. Sometimes I feel like I should have known then what I know now, and that families and youth missed out on some amazing connections with God and the church because of my own inadequacy or inexperience. I feel like if I had done a better job, maybe they would still be connected with a church or growing in their faith. Instead, I know many  I worked and prayed with that no longer connect with church.

Many of us who work in church circles have become familiar with a term that arose through religious research by Pew, Barna, and other organizations: “Nones”

Nones are people who report “no religious preference” during research or census activities. The US has a lot of Nones currently. Some of these Nones are youth and adults who were involved in the local church youth ministry I led from 2003-2012. There are also people who believe that church is irrelevant. I have friends, in addition to youth and volunteers from my previous church, who have that stance.

I connected with and called several current Nones to talk about their experiences. In the end, my interviews gave me more questions than answers. Most annoyingly, this question arose as I read their responses and wrote this blog:

“Are the ways that the church offers ministry and connection to youth creating Nones?”

And perhaps more personally, did I create some superficial, potentially emotionally-manipulative programming that did not do justice to Jesus’ vision of the church?

That said, I also reached a few conclusions form the interviews. Here are my observations:

  • The church should not be afraid to engage in difficult and real discussions. Nearly everyone I spoke with said the church was irrelevant because it stayed superficial in its engagement with culture during a person’s formative years.
  • People with no religious preference, or who think the church is irrelevant, are still itching to talk about their thoughts and beliefs. Often, all it takes is an invitation and a promise that there will be no judgement or sales pitch.
  • Loving a religious experience or group as a youth does not necessarily translate to involvement in a church as an adult.
  • The church can prove its relevance by engaging with others, and not having its sole focus on its preservation of those who say they believe. If the church ignores those with no religious preference, or those of different beliefs, it creates a self-fulfilling perception of the church as “irrelevant”
  • When asked about “the church” most people think of local congregations. Not a larger, abstract understanding of the church universal, or even denominations.
  • People who invest a lot of themselves into a church can more easily get harmed by that church. The sense that giving of one’s self as opposed to giving of money does not feel equally appreciated by church.


Those youth who matured in my youth ministry that now think of the church as irrelevant and say that they have “no religious preference” are part of the reason that I sometimes feel like I failed in youth ministry. In business terms, I could think about “retention rate” (youth who became and remained active members of the church), or “churn rate” (the rate at which new youth connected to the ministry and then either became members or disconnected from the church) and say that I actually did pretty well. But I’ll always have that nagging feeling, that I could have done more.

I do believe that God works at a speed different than I can measure, and that seeds planted in youth will often bloom when the gardener may not be present to see the fruits of the labor! Church and youth ministers should be involved in communities. The end result of that involvement should not solely be the creation of church members, or perhaps not even the creation of the next generation to carry on the faith. Really, that involvement with communities and individuals should be an expression of love. One that we can give because God first loved us.

If you’re interested to see the individual responses from my interviews, by all means, read on! These are all individual opinions, and do not reflect and statement from the United Methodist Church. [They are edited and redacted for ease of reading and the protection of identities!]

 

No religious preference? If so, why?

  • "Each religion I pursued utilized shame and criticism that didn’t resonate with me."
  • "I’ve never had a need for, or seen a need for a religious preference. Since I could think for myself, I never found any sect, branch, or denomination that could offer me more than what was truly needed (in my opinion). It felt like fluff."
  • "I believe church is good if you need that community and other types of people to talk with besides your school or your neighborhood. Since childhood, I have leaned toward agnostic because I don't know that there is a god and I have no proof that there is. I believe the Bible was written by people who thought things were real, but they misinterpreted reality. Religion has used the Bible and other books poorly and people have suffered for it throughout history. Right now, LGBT is suffering in the name of religion. It has been used as a way to control other people and bring them down. I also believe that some stories in all religions are good moral teachings and so I lean towards not closing in religion for moral direction, but looking at any religion that is a good guide."
  • "I also have had lots of experience with people with mental illnesses and think a lot of the crazy stories in the Bible or elsewhere might have been from people who had an episode. Or they are just stories meant to teach good morals and are not literal."
  • "As far as no preference goes - I think I have become disillusioned with the church, what it is standing for, how produced it has become, its lack of engagement with homeless, LGBT, education, health care, and its overwhelming support of [specific politics and politicians]. Maybe I am more of a believer than ever, but have simply shed the shell of a framework of fundamental, conservative, exclusive, and “better than” theology I was raised with? Or maybe my faith is gone...I don’t sense God much, - perhaps it is because I am mad at him for allowing pain, suffering, or because I often need support or help, and I don’t sense God there at all."

 

Is the church irrelevant? Why?

  • "I feel comradery, support, and respect have taken the back seat while condemnation and superiority have flourished. Organizations spread their own word, not the original caring values of their respective religions."
  • "That depends on who you are asking. If it’s specifically to me, then yes. Church is something different to each individual. For some, it’s community. For others, it’s a guide. For myself, since high school, I’ve not needed, nor wanted, to call home to church. I have no reason to go, attend, call home, be a member, or anything further with church of any kind. I’ve run into far too many Christians who attend church frequently and yet cannot apply what they’re told every week. Far better for me to be an individual who abides by strong ethics and does not attend church than for me to attend church with nothing more than a false sense of security."
  • "I see the church as not just irrelevant but growing more irrelevant each day. In the current world, given the disconnect between those who have and those who have not, the increasing distance between groups of people who are protected and those who are not, the church is stuck snugly in a world of peace and equality. Some of my issues likely relate directly to the specific church and community in which I work. I see this misguided notion of inclusion which seeks to make everyone feel safe and happy but that search has lost sight of truth and the people who need the church the most. There seems to be a real fear of talking about the hardest issues and taking a stand for those who need us because those who give might stop giving or those who have been with us the longest will leave (and who will hang the banners, gather the flowers and set the alter, for example). I have also long felt that what I think or how I feel (husband and I to be more accurate) matters less than those who give more. Deep pockets count. If you bring money to the table, you are invited to the inner circle. If you don't, you are always welcome but if you don't find what you need or have a suggestion, you will be politely dismissed."
  • "The church is needed by some people at different times in their lives. For instance, when growing up, the church was a great different community for me to have friends, seek guidance, and have fun in. Right now, I don't need those things as I have made my own community outside of the church and feel I have guidance through loved ones and reading. I also believe that the programs that churches sometimes provide to help out others are strongly needed. Even though my husband and I are not members of a church, we still help out local churches with providing food for the local community who needs it. We strongly believe that as people who are fortunate enough to have what we need and want, we have a responsibility to other people to do what we can to help them get what they need."
  • "Church Irrelevant - To me a lot of them are...I see this surge of prosperity gospel, or of Steven Furtick types, who it all seems like a big fashion show of coolness rather than reality. Or, we have hate filled groups. There will always be the grounded, reflective and active churches I respect, but they seem to be the minority."

 

Are there things that could change either of those opinions? Why or why not?

  • "Inclusivity and critical thinking."
  • "No, because I feel very happy and very whole in my beliefs and how I conduct myself as a person. For myself, I would gain nothing. At this stage in my life, I ask myself if I would gain anything by it. The answer is no. When it comes to church, I’ve realized my time is better spent elsewhere."
  • "I believe there is a path back. I see a great opportunity here for the church to reach out to those who need it most. If the leadership invited conversation and feedback and made changes based on those conversations the church could quickly become the social force it can and should be. This is a big change and requires great courage of the leadership."
  • "Yes, there are things that may change my opinion. If I feel that I need a community again, or more guidance, then I would consider going to church. If I had a child, I would consider exposing them to different religions so they were knowledgeable about them and could make their own decision."
  • "Is there something that could change that? I have to say yes, but it seems like I am a little ways down the road. Of course some contact with God that felt significant, or connection with some people who seem to think on deeper levels and could make some sense of the world, and where God could be amidst what’s happening. I also need to stop reading political articles and especially their comments section...those people make my soul burn when they talk about [politics without love or compassion]"

 

What do you remember from your time in youth ministry (if you grew up in church)?

  • "I loved it. Dressing up, seeing my friends, the music tumbling over wood pews and across colored glass, the smell of incense, the feeling of belonging and providing gratitude for my existence."
  • "I was briefly involved in youth group during high school. I have some lasting memories, for certain. But even now, looking back, I was there because I was lonely and wanted to be with friends. It had nothing to do with the church itself. I just wanted to spend more time with friends. At that time, I felt very adrift in terms of my social circle. I was looking for people who wanted me around, not just tolerate my presence. I wanted friends who noticed when I was missing and made sure I was okay. When I found those friends, I wanted to be with them as much as possible because I had never had that in my life before. So much so that I was willing to sacrifice other aspects of my own well-being (such as my studies) in order to fill what was, at the time, a giant hole."
  • "I remember open and honest conversation about real topics and a deep longing for connection and engagement. In my youth I experienced the same apathetic response I see today and I hope this is just limited to my community and not a pervasive trend."
  • "Ironically, I was very involved in both church and youth ministries. I was lucky to have been surrounded by leaders who were welcoming of all people, not judgmental, and did not use religion against people. I was very, very active in my church during grade school through high school. I was a camp counselor at a religious camp during college. I also was an administrative assistant to my pastor in college. I was lucky to have many fond memories and be allowed to make up my own mind about how to interpret stories and old writings with guidance."

 

Looking back, what should your church or youth/church leaders have talked about more when you were younger?

  • "Challenging questions weren’t just discouraged, they were dismissed. Science was met with anger and rejection; I was forced to choose."
  • "I feel I was very fortunate, during my brief time in youth group at [church], to have been working with the youth leader there, [name]. He often challenged us to think critically about what we believe, not simply expecting us to believe. I feel far too often, church seems more about trying to reinforce the walls of a glass house, instead of building a better house. Because of this, many individuals are often scared of challenging even their own thoughts for fear of not being able to find an answer. When individuals are faced with worldly knowledge or viewpoints that challenge what they believe, their reaction is to reject what threatens their safety outright. Building a strong foundation is key, giving people the tools to think critically so that they can strengthen the church in their heart."
  • "I was raised in a very conservative church and we didn't talk much about community or engagement in the world. We focused a lot on self and how we were loving God. I wish that focus was shifted to how God’s love in us changed us and how we change the world. These are the principles that could have saved the church from a dip in attendance and might have changed where we are today."
  • "I believe the church should talk more about other religions including agnostics. It is valuable to be knowledgeable about world religions so that you can first allow other people to follow what they believe and not force them to be like you, and second to make up your own mind about what you believe and allow yourself the ability to grow and change with new information. Religion should be a person's choice, not something they are pressured or forced into. And a person does not need a religion to be a good and moral person. In fact, many people are not religious but act way better and kinder towards others than people that call themselves religious. I strongly believe the world would be a better place if we had morals instead of religion."
  • "I wish in my youth group time it would have gone past the surface. We have students living with anxiety, trauma, depression, cutting, and real questions around God, world events, different religions, sexuality, fear, shame, and more, and in my experience, we just stayed real surface, and presented a God who was holy and separate and we lived with fear and shame towards that God. My youth group and many I have seen are often scared of questions, scared of not having answers, scared of it getting messy, scared of sitting with pain and honesty. That is sad to me...if we can’t talk real, and ask questions, I am not sure what we are doing."