Why Young People Leave the Church by an Orthodox Christian

Greek Orthodox church painting by Kandukuru Nagarjun Used in accordance to (CC BY 2.0)

A few years ago I started listening to Pop Culture Coffee Hour- it’s a Greek Orthodox podcast run by ministers in charge of youth and young adult programming in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The 4 hosts will talk about a book or movie or show and relate it to the Christian values and beliefs of Orthodoxy. They do an annual Star Wars episode and it can get silly, but they are also very serious about their dedication to Christ and looking for the things to point to Him in the media around us.

In their most recent episode, one of the hosts, Christian Gonzalez, gave a monologue about Millennials and Generation Z who are leaving the Church that felt relevant to our LDS circles, because so many religions are experiencing the departure of their young people and I wanted to share it here. I transcribed this and took out some “um”s and other in-between words/sounds.

I’ve been working in youth ministry now for a decade….The question that you get asked more than any other one is why young people are leaving the Church and what we can do to get them to stay. This is the big question. And we think “more programming” “more pizza parties” “more whatever” – all of this kind of stuff. And ultimately, I feel like after so much thinking and talking to people on “We are Orthodoxy” and after a decade of asking myself this question, I think I am getting somewhat confident in an answer and I think that the reason that they leave is that ultimately the Church doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t actually matter in the world. It has no other goal than the perpetuation of itself, and at the end of the day, young people look at the Church and they see an institution that exists for itself. When push comes to shove, they are forced to hear the words of Jesus- to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned, right? But what they hear about at church is the importance of sexual ethics and personal piety. They are told not to do things like pass out antidoron to anyone besides the people just next to them, unless they distract somebody in church. “But what if I see a stranger in the back of the church who’s never been here before- should I not be welcoming to that person and open to that. To be like, ‘Here you go- here’s some bread.’?”

You know they see us- they see people spending plenty of time planning ethnic celebrations and festivals of the Church while the poor, red-lined neighborhood next to them boasts of a more than 50% high school drop out rate. And ultimately, people are listening to the words of Jesus, who says to care for the disenfranchised and the poor, and they see things where Jesus actually does those things and then they look at our Church and they’re like “Who are you following?”

One of my friends said this recently and it was brilliant, he said, “Ultimately young people leave the Church because they have too much integrity to stay.” And to me, this is becoming a huge issue that we need to address. We’re not actually dealing with people in the communities. We think so much about building buildings and getting more people to these things and have these events and a make money, fundraisers, etc. of course there’s always that pressure on people to give more money so that the priest has a salary so we can keep the doors open, etc.

But again at the end of the day, if this isn’t making any real difference in the lives of real people beyond this simple personal piety- and don’t get me wrong, we need the personal piety- we need that. We need prayer and fasting and alms giving. but again, these things are.. this is me trying to figure this out… these are ascetic practices- of a species of training. And the question is “training for what? What are we training for?” And the reality is that it’s training to love our neighbor. That’s ultimately what it comes down to: to love God, to love neighbor. And when we’re not doing that as a church, all that we do on Sundays is a medieval play. So of course people are tired of going, and of course people don’t think it matters, because they’re not actually seeing anything real instantiating the Kingdom. When people are being gripped tightly, or having money dragged out of their pockets to pay for the debt that is accruing over building a temple when people have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt themselves-we put more burdens on people as a community by wanting to go further into debt to build a new rec center and it baffles me. It honestly doesn’t surprise me that people leave. Who cares? What have we done? What have we done for anybody? How have we made the world better?

You know who makes the world better? The martyrs. And that’s why they get themselves killed. It’s against the institutions and the kingdoms of this world. And man, we’re playing right into it, with our self perpetuation… I don’t now. Rant over.

And this goes far beyond things like Black Lives Matter. It goes far beyond political platforms. Far beyond that. It’s the line that runs through each human heart: Am I going to live for myself or others? And it’s what we need to ask ourselves as an institution.

Pop Culture Coffee Hour, Episode 133: The Chosen

So that rant really caught me and I thought about how we Mormons are dealing with the same things. It has been really good for me to listen to this podcast over the past 3 or 4 years- it sometimes gives me the sermons/talks I wish I heard at church and I often find myself connecting more with the Christian community as a whole.

Do you look outside the LDS/Mormon world for spiritual uplift? Do these words above feel familiar to your experiences?

TopHat

TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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10 Responses

  1. Wendy Winget says:

    Very interesting article. My husband and I spent eighteen months in Ireland and noticed how the churches were empty of people. Beautiful buildings standing empty. It was sad to see, but as we adjusted to the Irish way of life, we began to see where the hearts of the people lay. Amongst the few larger grocery stores, small non-profit shops were scattered throughout town serving the community. There were multiple second hand clothing shops, with all monies dedicated to helping the Blind or Down syndrome or whatever cause they had committed to. Book stores and Bakeries with all monies to help children with Autism, and the list went on. I loved to shop at these friendly businesses and chat with the owners. it was then we discovered this was where they found joy. In serving the afflicted, the poor, the down-trodden. This was how they gave back. This was how they served God. The local aged priest would never give up though. He was always walking the streets and knocking on the doors encouraging his congregation to return.

  2. Allison says:

    I think the sentence regarding young people leaving because they have too much integrity to stay applies to more than just the younger generation. Integrity doesn’t seem to be a focus at church, not really, despite what some might argue. When integrity is mentioned in a church context, it seems to mean something like “stick to your values as long as they keep you sticking to the church. If you’re losing your ‘stick’, change your values.” Or some such iteration. Yet those who I have observed in their (often times very painful) dance away from the church often demonstrate integrity more clearly than what I hear from the pulpit or view in many orthodox members.

  3. Allemande Left says:

    Yes I look beyond the LDS World for spiritual uplift. There is so much available in many formats. I particularly like the CAC and have taken classes there and found many books.
    I listen to lots of podcasts from both LDS and other Christian or secular personalities. A few years ago when our Sacrament Mtg was at 1 PM, I attended some local area church’s morning services to see what they were like. I found the local UU congregation with a robust community and at least 30 groups available to participate in, open to anyone. I have been attending a weekly meditation group and a weekly book club there (now via zoom). Seek and ye shall find.
    I agree with the premise in the quoted podcast and the 2 comments above.

  4. Rachel says:

    This resonates with me. I started to feel like the church wasn’t doing anything that actually benefits humanity.

  5. Elisa says:

    Yes, totally resonates. I think there is a lot of concern for ministering and outreach at a local level but not at the top – the top is wholly concerned with institutional survival. So I have a good local experience but I honestly can’t even stand GC or anything else coming from SLC. Ranting about LGBT folks destroying the world and in the meantime hanging on to 100B dollars donated by people who thought their money was going to good causes actually makes me sick to my stomach.

    I read this a few months ago and it also struck me as very true:
    “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”

    Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

  6. Em says:

    This is really food for thought. I had not considered it in that light but it rings true.

  7. Sabrina says:

    As a millennial, these words totally ring true. Perpetuation of an institution is entirely unmotivating–we want a cause, and Jesus told us what that cause is. Jesus spent very little time talking about “the covenant path” (which was only baptism) and lots of time talking about systemic injustice, helping underprivileged groups, and changing our hearts. Why doesn’t our church talk about what Jesus talked about? Why doesn’t our church care about what Jesus cared about?

    And yes, I do look outside Mormonism for spiritual uplift. I go to my Mormon services to check the box. I get very little from it. I go elsewhere for actual learning and being pointed to Christ. One of my favorite resources is The Bible Project. Tim Mackie opens the Bible for me in a way that rings true and moves me toward true Christianity–“To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction,” etc. (James 1:27). He addresses the Black Lives Matter movement in a way I wish I saw coming from my own church. Heck, Ben & Jerry’s addressed BLM in a way I wish I saw from the church. Why is an ice cream company speaking truer words (more forthright about the actual problem and more specific about the actions that need to be taken) than the prophet of God?

  8. Happy Hubby says:

    A bit late in reading this, but it is good and it reminded me of a quote I heard:

    “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”
    ― Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

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