taking the words of Jesus seriously

There seems to be a lot of talk about “millennials leaving the church” these days. And while I have my own theories on why many of my peers want nothing to do with organized religion, the fact remains that I am not who “left the church.”

I stayed. Here’s why.

When I was ten years old, I was baptized. I grew up ultra-involved in church. I knew all the songs, memorized scripture, and went to church three times a week, along with attending all the youth group events I could. I thought I knew Jesus when I was young. He was the one who saved me from my sins. He protected me from a wrathful God. He came to Earth so I could get into heaven. He wants me to dress modestly and journal every night after I read my Bible dutifully. I guess you could say I was a sure-fire faithful millennial—I wouldn’t “fall away.” I was “rooted in the Word.” But was I?

I continued my church habit, but not because I was taught black-and-white theology or conditioned get up early on Sundays or because my church had a superior youth program or because I chose a Christian-affiliated university. Maybe all those things helped in some way. But I still attend church because I met Jesus when I started college. My freshman seminar posed complex social problems: why is there a huge disparity between the moderately rich and somewhat poor? Do all races really have equal opportunities? Does trying to help ever actually hurt? My freshman Bible teacher started the semester by politely informing us that Jesus didn’t come to Earth to die for our sins. The man lived 32 years on this Earth, don’t you think he has a little more to offer us than just his blood?

Related: Five Reasons Christian Parents “Lose” Their Children – by Yaholo Hoyt

I learned about Jesus from the words of C.S. Lewis, Steven Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Donald Miller, and Jen Hatmaker, just to name a few. I floated around to different churches, always committed to going, but looking for one that embraced the new worldview I was developing. I memorized verses like Micah 6:8 and Isaiah 58. I started reading Red Letter Christians and Sojourners. I started getting angry about social injustice in the U.S. and the world over. I became a pacifist. I became a feminist. I became a little bit of a hippie. I started a blog. I started trying to shop second-hand whenever I could. I got involved with homeless people and immigrants. I started caring about recycling. Sometimes I went to a traditional Sunday morning service. Sometimes I went to the new church that met in a bar on Sunday nights and had a hip(ster) worship band. Sometimes I met with my homeless advocacy group and talked about how to take action in the community while sharing communion bread and a glass of wine. I got into Catholic mass. I stopped claiming a Christian denomination. I stopped claiming a political party. I started claiming Jesus. He had begun to change my heart.

The church had begun to frustrate me. There were times I wanted to run out of traditional services screaming, “Don’t you people get it?!” While I had become concerned with Jesus’s attitude toward the poor and marginalized, I was still hearing the same old stuff that I had grown up with. Truths that are comfortable, easy, not much of a challenge. But I stayed for the relationships with people I had grown up with and who had watched me grow.

Then I started dating a Hindu interested in exploring Christianity. Oh brother, I braced myself for the torrent of criticism and whispering and questions about why I couldn’t just date a good ole born-and-bred church boy that I wouldn’t even dignify with an answer. But when I brought him to worship service at my southern, conservative church, I was never so happy to be proven wrong, nor had crow ever tasted so good. They welcomed him, connected with him, and showed geniune interest in his life and our relationship. I was hoping to prove that true Christians welcome everyone to a person who had been judged, condemned, and even beat up for looking like a “terrorist” by people who claimed to have the same faith I have. I’m a little ashamed when I think about how sure I was the church would let me down on that. I am more grateful for the love and inclusion that a handful of people showed toward “the other” than anything else the church has ever done for me. And that gesture solidified my commitment to never leaving her.

The church is flawed. Humans are flawed. The church can wreck and destroy. But it can also rebuild and reconcile. I didn’t leave the church because I know that for every horror story about a church that condemned and excluded, there are two stories elsewhere of a church offering hope and acceptance. I still cringe when I hear church rants about “the liberal agenda” or that “post-modernist thinking” is to blame for all our problems. But I’ve never run screaming from a church service. Maybe I will one day. Just to shake things up. But I will always come back to her because I know the church is full of good, good people just doing what they know to do. Sometimes we need a little redirection and sometimes we need a good kick in the seat of our pants. I know I often do. But if people who disagree with the church throw in the towel, how will the church grow?

So if you’re a fellow 90s kid reading this, hang in there. Be the change you wish to see in the church. They don’t know because no one has ever told them.

And if you’re an adult, a leader, a parent reading this, start challenging the young people in your church. Start challenging yourself. Get out of your comfort zone and ask questions with no black-and-white answers. Listen to those who disagree with you. Knock on the door of the wild-eyed revolutionary from Galilee who was called a drunkard, glutton, and friend of sinners. He will open the door to you. May the church open her doors to Him.

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