People leaving the institutional church in the U.S. is something that weighs heavily on most pastors’ minds. Statistics show millennials are leaving the church in droves, in a way that no other generation has before. But these church-dropouts aren’t necessarily abandoning God—just the church. Which begs the question: Where do these people go and how do they feed themselves spiritually?
NPR recently sat down with two men who grew up Christian and served in ministry, but eventually left the church. No longer darkening the door of an institutional church, Toby Morrell and Mike McHargue now employ podcasting to get their ideas out to their mostly-Christian audiences.
Morrell’s show is called Bad Christian, and McHargue’s The Liturgists. Some of the language used and topics discussed in their shows are not what you would typically hear in church. And that is precisely the point: to discuss things most churches would be uncomfortable discussing with an open-minded attitude. Things like the LGBTQ community, sex and evolution.
McHargue says he took to podcasting after he realized he wanted to explore the “middle space between faith and skepticism.” And he wasn’t alone. Joining him to create The Liturgists was Michael Gungor of the Christian band Gungor, and a handful of high-profile contributors like Rob Bell, Shauna Niequist, Rachel Held Evans, Amena Brown, Pete Holmes and All Sons & Daughters. The purpose of The Liturgists is to create “safe spaces and conversations that explore reality from the perspectives of art, faith and science” for the “spiritually homeless and frustrated.”
Herein lies the “spiritually homeless and frustrated” group’s hang up with the church (in Morrell’s words):
That’s one of the biggest critiques we have of the church—is that you can’t critique it. That pastors would be hidden when they have moral failures… The church does a really poor job of respecting people’s minds. They want to just give you everything in a pretty little package, and that is what your Christianity is. I think what we’re doing is opening up a door where people go, “No, I own my faith. I’m wrestling with God.”
Morrell says he grew up in a “very conservative” church and always felt on the “outside.” “The only time I felt like I was represented was actually within the Scripture. Some terrible people were heroes in the Bible. You saw some really terrible things about people’s lives and personalities within the Bible, but when I was growing up in church, everybody hid that. You don’t do this, this, this and that makes you a Christian.” In contrast to this example from his church, Morrell’s goal with the podcast he hosts with two friends is to “be as brutally honest as we can.”
“I think everywhere people gather together around a table, God can be present,” McHargue says. That’s a pretty big table, considering The Liturgists gets over a million downloads a month. This nebulous community is what McHargue refers to as the “church in exile.” Exiled because they don’t feel it’s permissible to express doubt or skepticism—or more importantly, honestly seek the truth—inside the institutional church.
While it can be hard to hear from people who have left the church, there’s a reminder here for us church leaders: People have questions. They want to explore faith and not be condemned for their skepticism. The researchers at the Fuller Youth Institute have been preaching this idea for a while now: We shouldn’t stifle questions or turn away when kids ask things we don’t know how to answer.
Apparently, as these popular podcasts suggest, this maxim of youth ministry also applies to the broader church.