Some smart people have been writing about why millennials are leaving the church. I'm not actually certain if I'm a Millennial or Gen X, but I can still tell you why I left my childhood church. After I graduated from high school, I left my Southern Baptist (fundamentalist evangelical) church for good. I went back a few times (to teach a fifth grade Sunday school class one summer, and then sporadically to make my mom happy). But one day I just decided: that's it. I'm done. I will never step foot in a church like that again, so help me God.
During my last two years of high school, five classmates were killed in three separate car accidents. It was a brutal lesson in how fragile and unpredictable life is. Those events were hard enough to deal with without the added fear that God might possibly have sent some of these kids to hell to be tortured for all eternity. Belief in God (or even Jesus) wasn't really enough in my church. Even the demons believe, and tremble. You had to prove that you were truly "saved." With an ever-evolving list of proof (no drinking, no sex, no "worldly" influences, strict church attendance, etc.). The more uncertain one's salvation became, the bigger of a jerk God started to look like. Why bother trying if you might still end up in hell? And even if you get into heaven, is it even a place you'd want to be? And shouldn't there be more of a point to your faith than escaping the fiery pits of hell? And if so, what was it?
Shame and manipulation were spoken fluently in my church. A ridiculously unacceptable number of statements began with "If you really loved God..." and "If you were really a Christian..." And some of those statements ended with activities as stupid as: you wouldn't watch MTV, listen to secular music, kiss someone of the opposite sex before your wedding day, smoke cigarettes, miss Wednesday night Bible study, forego Church camp this summer, and so on.
We spent weeks during the summer in intensive Bible studies devoted to things like, the rapture and how God was just about to destroy the earth and the sinners living on it. Probably in the year 1999 or 2000. We also had mini-church camps to obsess over things like "purity" and how hand holding was like a gateway drug to premarital sex. You'd think from our lessons that sex was like one of those carnivorous plants that lures you with its bright colors only to EAT YOU ALIVE (cue jaws music).
Perhaps worst of all, we believed things like gay people are going to hell. Women are second-class citizens who are not capable or allowed to serve God except in the kitchen or the nursery. Basically, we learned that God is a big, oppressive asshole. Who loved us a lot. But would probably send us to hell. But only because we deserved it, didn't follow The Rules, and/or weren't preordained, etc.
It wasn't until I went to an Episcopal church that I learned that "service" meant actually helping people, not just telling them they were going to hell. I learned that women were totally capable and kind of ah-mazing leaders. I learned that gay people were not only allowed, but welcomed in church (even if they didn't reject the so-ridiculously and offensively-called "lifestyle"). I learned that God wasn't actually as obsessed with my virginity as I had been led to believe (because, um, that is kind of/super creepy for any old man, whether he is hanging out at a pulpit or the pearly gates. I mean seriously. Gross. Kindly knock it off, religious people).
Long after I rejected the explicit messages of my church (God sends most everyone to hell, women are inferior, gay people are "bad," True Love Waits, etc.) I was finally able to recognize, and then reject, the implicit messages (that I was broken and just about everything about me makes the baby Jesus cry, that the embodiment of love was an old man who was a-okay with letting me or my friends rot in hell for eternity, that power is weapon which God reserved for a select few, that it is acceptable for anyone to tie my value as a person to my sexual history or my willingness to comply with someone else's demands, that threats of violence and suffering are an appropriate way to gain my compliance, and so on.) And unfortunately, those were the most destructive messages. They are like a cancer that you don't know you have; you only know that something is hurts, and whatever it is you want it gone. Leaving that church was a first step. But leaving behind all its destructive lessons was a much more complicated journey.