Exile is a reality that far too many people face in our world today. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report from June 2018, there are approximately 40 million displaced persons, the highest level ever recorded. It is a humanitarian crisis that our country has been far too slow and small in our response.
Because this is a physical reality for millions of people, I am a bit hesitant to use that word to describe the spiritual landscape that I am observing in the American church. I see a generation of religious refugees. People who once had a home in traditional religious institutions but now find themselves not fitting into or aligning with what we call “American Christianity.”
The cause for this displacement comes from both the religious institutions and those choosing to leave them. Traditional Christian denominations are large organizations with rigid structures and doctrine that is difficult to adapt to our rapidly evolving society, therefore becoming less relevant. Evangelical churches can be flexible in their organization, but adhere to a fundamental understanding of scripture that has been criticized for becoming too political and unaccepting.
Generationally, people are becoming less and less likely to commit to a rigid identification of any sort. The idea of “fitting in” or “checking a box” is not as appealing to Millennials and especially Generation Z (those born between 1996-2010). Working on a college campus every day, I meet students who no longer identify by traditional identity markers like gender, political ideology or religion. When it comes to religion, twice as many Gen Zers identify as “atheist or none” as did Millennials.
There are numerous books, articles, and podcasts all prescribing ways that religions institutions should respond to this trend, most notably, Church Refugees, from sociologist Josh Packard. In Church Refugees, Packard describes this generation as “dones” rather than “nones.” These are people who have not lost their faith in God, but have lost their faith in the church.
That is exactly what I hearing form my students. They describe American Christianity as inauthentic, oppressive, judgmental and hypocritical. These critiques of the church have existed for 20 years now, leaving many to leave the institution. However, that does not necessarily mean that they are leaving God.
The enduring narratives of love and acceptance, forgiveness and grace found in the Christian scriptures are still appealing to those that have left the church. They still desire connection with the divine and even a relationship with God as expressed in Jesus.
The Jesus stories are compelling and attractive and will often stand in stark contrast to the “Christianity” that is expressed in our culture and politics. People are longing to be a part of something that looks more like Jesus and less like the American Church.
How do we untangle the two? How do we create the community described in second chapter of Acts? One that is generous and communal. One that empowers diverse leadership. A dynamic community on the move. A movement. That is what Generation Z, and Millennials, and even some Gen Xers and Boomers are looking for.
Might I prescribe one more suggestion to those attempting to attract these religious refugees? Follow Jesus. Jesus offers an example of what it looks like to pursue community and create a movement of love that has endured for millennia. The Jesus story transcends religious institutions and is not owned by any one organization. You do not need to check a box to love like Jesus.
Finally, a suggestion for those who are done. You need community. Being a refugee is traumatic. Fostering the radical faith exampled by Jesus is difficult. Loving your enemy and forgiving your neighbor is nearly impossible. Living these stories is not for the faint of heart. One must join a community to be part of a movement. The good news is that you are not alone, and there are many others looking for a spiritual home.
Lisa Ho is the assistant director of international & off-campus programs at Ohio Wesleyan University and a member of Terra Nova Community Church.