Why People Are Looking for Spirituality Outside the Church

We, the church, need to reclaim our purpose and identity.

It’s no secret that many young people are struggling with the label “Christian.” Our generation—I’m a millennial—is witnessing the rise of a group sociologists now call the “Nones”—people who proudly boast no religious affiliation. And young people are leaving Christianity and joining this group in droves. In the past decade alone, this group has grown 40%.

Forty percent.

Of course, if you are a millennial, you don’t need me to tell you these statistics. You and I both know these people. Personally. For us, these aren’t just numbers. They are people.

I’ve heard many reasons offered for this exodus. Some take issue with the church’s political leanings. Others have adopted a more progressive view of the world in which church just no longer fits. And many others just want to leave the institution that caused them pain and disappointment.

But I think the biggest reason is that when we break out of our Christian bubbles and our faith collides with the real world, it ends up being too small.

And this breakdown begins at our perception of God. As A.W. Tozer once wrote, “The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us.”

Sadly, we’ve reduced God to someone or something that we can manipulate and master. In pursuit of comfort, we want a God who fits nicely within our little religious boxes. Like the Pharisees, we’re terrified of a God who is greater than our clichés.

To recover the wonder and mystery of our faith, we need to open our eyes to a more expansive vision of who God is, who he says we are and what that means for our world. It’s not that God is incompatible with the complexities of the modern age. Not at all. It’s simply that our view of God is too small for our big world.

If our low view of God has become our undoing, recovering a high view of him may well be our saving grace. When we rediscover who God is and what he has done for us, we discover who we really are as his people. We find that we are not just sinners in the hands of an angry god, but saints in the hands of a loving God—a God who is working to express his goodness to the world through us, his people.

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Does my use of the word saints surprise you? I realize we often reserve that title for the halo-wearing elite—perhaps a notable church father like Paul or maybe someone with the extensive résumé of Mother Teresa—but the writers of the New Testament use the word “saints” to describe the people of God 20 times more than they use the word “Christian.” And they are not referring to something or someone we will become one day in the future. The word saint is specifically used to describe a redeemed people who welcome the goodness of God’s redemptive power here and now.

The purpose and identity found in the word saint brilliantly captures the life we were created to know. A life that deconstructs the barriers between the sacred and secular, infusing the mundane with eternal significance. But ever since the Enlightenment, Christendom has forfeited so much to the “secular” world: art, science, industry, etc. We need to reclaim these spaces as sacred—and that doesn’t mean we just slap a “Christian” adjective on them.

My prayer is that moms, mechanics, CFOs, teachers, etc. begin to see their work as holy and significant—as an extension of their “church” life. There are so many people who feel like their lives don’t have meaning because they’re not in “full-time or part-time church/ministry” and that’s just tragic. In fact, I think those terms (full-time and part-time ministry) should never be used. We’re all ministers of God’s grace, love and truth. That’s why the church’s leadership is supposed to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4). We need to revisit what this biblical mandate looks like in our modern world. When we do, we will offer a fresh, holistic look at faith for a post-Christian world that’s looking for spirituality outside of the church.

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When you look at the early church, these saints were turning the world upside down. They didn’t just pack seats on a Sunday morning. Their impact extended into the fringes of society. The gospel they preached subverted the cultural norms of the day. It dignified and empowered women. It lifted up the marginalized. In a world far more divided than ours, it brought different races together. It extended hope to the downtrodden. It freed the oppressed. It announced a new way of living—one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their gender, age, race, social status or ethnicity—to a broken and hurting world.

If we want a faith worth living in 2020, we don’t need to reinvent Christianity. We need to rediscover it. We need to go back to the beginning, remember what this thing is all about, and embrace our identity as saints—God’s holy people who are empowered by his Spirit to bring righteousness, joy and peace into plain sight.

In a world where people are walking away from faith, this is a vision worth running toward.