Why I left church in my teens

by
19 January 2018

A poll of parents has suggested that 14 is the average age when their children stopped going to church. Five people reflect on why they left as teenagers

Mike

MY MUM is Anglican, and my dad [Roman] Catholic. During childhood, I would go to mass every Sunday but also play in the town’s Church of England orchestra once per month — trombone, badly. Church just seemed to be one of those things you did on a Sunday, like cricket or going to Travis Perkins, and seemed no weirder than buying mysterious chunks of MDF, or having to share a cricket box with boys you didn’t know.

I remember reading an Usborne book on prehistory contradicting what we’d been told at the kids’ class during mass. I was told, some stories in the Bible aren’t meant to be taken literally. Asking “Which ones specifically?” made people uncomfortable, and didn’t give any answers. The tension between these competing streams of learning was unpleasant; so I ignored it. I kept reading history and science books and attending church, keeping the two sets of knowledge separate.

Later comes a collection of blurred memories, of a dozen Sundays in my early teens, none distinct but overlaid like acetates, of being in the congregations of both churches during the Lord’s prayer. I remember looking around, thinking; so everyone around me believes this? How would I know if I “believe”? I don’t think the things in this prayer are true: I suppose I don’t believe?

From that time, nearly all my time in the churches was spent probing this thought like a problem tooth. Sometimes, I would investigate with a sense of glee and of ridicule for everyone around me. Sometimes it was with guilt — I was reciting, too, and knew I was “lying”. Sometimes, it was conspiratorial: who else in this room was just mouthing these words? Whenever it was any of these things, it was also lonely.

A lot of sermons were about belief. About not knowing, how no one knows, and how this was then faith. That not knowing but believing was central to a large part of Christian life. For a while, I found these the most engaging parts of the services, and would refocus in the hope of hearing our local parish vicars say something thoughtful or passionate, or volunteer any authentic description of their struggle.

I soon found, however, that any questions of faith or belief would be answered by the end of each sermon with boilerplate calls to more faith — that praying to believe would lead to belief. They felt structured like a sitcom, where some mild peril would be introduced at the beginning of each one, only to be safely tucked away and the status quo restored in time for the next hymn.

I was, of course, reading throughout my teens, and finding all the usual fodder for a budding atheist: classic fare like the problem of evil. Quietly adding these to my mental commonplace book, I was amassing refutations to justify and bolster my lack of any sense of belief.

My family is not confrontational, and the idea of sitting down and telling my parents that I didn’t believe and didn’t care to believe simply never entered my head. Instead, I sang during the hymns — our congregation was small and needed the voices — and tried to make “Mh-mhm” noises when everyone else said “Amen,” so I wouldn’t be conspicuously silent, but wouldn’t be insulting everyone else by lying.

My solution was to wait until I went to university, where I never even looked for a church. It was a huge relief. Returning for the holidays, I would deliberately rise late to avoid going. I guess that my parents knew what was up, but they never pressed, and I never brought it up or asked them how they felt about it.

After university, I spent two years abroad living in a country with very different religious practices. With time and distance, I found that I didn’t like the shape of Christian belief from an aesthetic or moral perspective. I didn’t like the fall from grace or Original Sin; the idea of a final judgement, of hell, even in the non-infernal understandings of it; or of the idea of an omniscient father-figure. I try to understand the Christian understanding of “love” in his acts, and it feels like contortionism.

These days, I sometimes volunteer in a night shelter which is attached to a church. I visit my mum’s village church for concerts, and have grown in appreciation of the beauty of the building and the flitting sense of awe, that comes in a carol service. Like many people, my religiosity peaks in the winter months, and I love the weird sensations of repurposed pagan rituals.

In contrast, the younger-skewing Evangelical churches, with electric guitars and ministers in denim with head-mics and talk of “planting”, feel deeply unsavoury to me. Kindness and charity and the work of sustaining a tolerant community are the aspects of religion which I value most, but there’s no part of the Christian faith itself that calls or appeals to me.

A cosy fantasy for my later life is to live in a small village on a coast somewhere in England. When there, I shall want to involve myself in community life, and I am certain that the local church will be present doing good work in those spaces. I hope to work with them, but will be silent during the prayers.

 

 

Sophia

I WENT to boarding school from the age of six, and chapel was part of the weekly rhythm of term time. It was compulsory, always freezing, and communion services seemed interminable. We had to wear scratchy uniform blazers to go. I did find the church calendar reassuring, however, and sometimes even fun (I loved the Christingle service), and singing in the choir added an extra element of participation which I really enjoyed. At home, we went to church at Christmas and Easter. My family would describe themselves as “C of E” on forms, but things probably stopped there.

Once I got to university, there was a college chapel, but it wasn’t compulsory to go. There were more welcoming, more Evangelical churches, and there was a vibrant Christian Union group that used to go to these. I dipped in and out of this group, but found I had more friends outside the CU who weren’t so keen on church, and I found it difficult to be members of both groups; and so I stopped going. I didn’t know how to bridge the gap between the groups, which, at times, felt massive.

My husband and I started attending church as a family more consistently after our first son was born, firstly as a very contrived attempt to improve his chances of attending the local C of E primary school. Our relationship with the Church, however, has now developed far beyond this; for the first time I can honestly say I feel fellowship within our congregation.

Our Vicar makes a huge effort to get to know everyone, and very obviously cares about us, dropping in to see us if we have been ill or having a tough time. He was amazing when I suffered severe postnatal depression.

Our son is no longer likely to go to the school connected with the church, but we still go, pray together, and seek to look after each other. When churches really work, the congregation and leader make an effort to know you, to understand challenges and to provide support.

 

 

Jon

CHURCH was something that my grandparents attended regularly. It seemed a valuable place, like the WI or the golf course, to make friends. My mother went to church intermittently because of them, in a 1960s church built in the Brutalist style. I used to go with her, and it was a happy place, with old ladies being nice to me.

There were also a few children my age, and my sister came, too. I later became confirmed, and later served. It is strange, looking back on this period, because I never had a belief in what was being spoken about, but I was attracted to the theatricality of it all, and it was a place where I got attention. But, as I became a teenager, I found it extremely boring, and I used to get angry with my mother for dragging me out of bed to serve at the boring Brutalist base. I was doing it for my mother because it made her happy.

It was a relief when I finally had the courage to say that I didn’t want to do it any more, which, I think, coincided with a decline in her attending, too. I think that she understood why, but I’m sure she was sad about it, as it was a sign of growing up, as much as anything else.

As I have grown up, I enjoy religious iconography and architecture enormously, but I find the belief aspect completely alien to me, and incompatible with my thinking, and, ultimately, my life. I feel that, as I don’t believe in the central concepts of the Saviour and the afterlife, then I can’t really commit to much else in it.

I want to focus on what I can see, not what I can’t. I worry that, far too often, religion is an excuse not to think, particularly when Christians are still concerned with questions such as “Why hasn’t he intervened?” in response to a tragedy. I have found the Church to have a repressive and very negative force relating to LGBT rights, which has made it a very uninviting place for me.

 

Karyn

I GREW up going to a Baptist church in our village, where my parents were very involved. I was very vocal about it all: my friends knew that I disagreed with them on certain things. There was a nice little gang of about six of us, and from 13 we went to a youth house-group, in addition to Sunday services.

The church and my parents had quite traditional Christian views, and I think I was quite in tune with that. When I was 16 and doing my GCSEs, my parents gave me the option to stay at home and revise, and I found it quite nice, not going out on a Sunday morning. Before I knew it, I hadn’t been for ages, and I became completely disconnected.

I left the village school to go to sixth form in Cambridge, which meant meeting lots of new people, going to the pub, etc. It was totally different: outside my comfort zone; and I decided that it was quite good fun. It wasn’t an intellectual decision about my faith, and the whole time I would tell you that I did believe in God, and found myself defending Christianity. My parents were concerned, but I think nagging had the opposite effect to what they hoped.

After university, I got a job in Manchester, started pondering life, and decided to do the Alpha course. I had faith in my heart and in my head, but, looking back, the two weren’t really connected. I then moved to London and did Alpha again, but, just as things were starting to embed, my dad died, and I stopped going again. I was never angry with God: it just threw me for a loop.

Not that long afterwards, I met my future husband and got married, and, after about eight months, I said to him, half-scared, that I really wanted to go to church. Although he came from a Christian background, he didn’t go to church, but he agreed. Suddenly, it all clicked. It was like the belief in my head and faith in my heart linked up. He did Alpha and had an amazing experience.

Looking back on my teenage years, I think a pivotal moment was wanting to go with a friend to Rave in the Nave at the nearby cathedral when I was 15, and not being allowed, because our parents wanted us to go to our local church. It was when I started to feel it was restrictive, and that it was pre-ordained, what sort of person I should be. Being in a small village meant that I couldn’t go to a church without everyone knowing me.

I feel mixed about this period of my life. Having been away from the Church, I can talk to young people at my church, because I’ve had some of the experiences they are dealing with. A couple of the girls talk to me about things they worry they might be judged about. On the other hand, I made some decisions that weren’t helpful to anyone.

It can be really intimidating to come back to church, and I’d advise people to be welcoming but not suffocating. I think people do worry about being judged, and shouldn’t be quizzed about why they left, or what they did in the mean time. The other thing is that lots of youth provision finishes in the mid-teens, and those aged 15-21 can either get bunched in with adults, or children, when they aren’t either. Churches need to look at what is good about the outside world and learn from it. Teenagers don’t segregate down ages in those ways. I’m not sure adults do, either.

 

Rebeka

AS A child, I was immersed in a Christian community. My parents worked for a Christian organisation in the Middle East. Church took the form of family small-groups meeting in houses. Summers were spent at Christian conferences. I even went on my own overseas trips as a pre-teen. Although generally I enjoyed it, I felt on the periphery.

I moved to the UK when I was eight. We joined a church and I went to the kids social club into my pre-teens. I went to a secondary school different to the one my two friends at church went to. Our church also split around this time. I felt disappointed by Christians. As the youngest of a large family, I felt that church was my siblings’ ‘thing’. I wanted to break away from being “the sister of”. I felt more accepted in the community of friends I had at school, than in church. By the age of 14, I didn’t consider myself a Christian, and I stopped going to the youth group. I went to church when I had to  I didn’t want to hurt my parents. I believed the Bible, I just didn’t want to be part of the Church or be Christian like the ones I knew.

I didn’t view my rejection of the Church as a rejection of God.

I returned to the Church, or Christian community, in my early 20s. I had spent time away from home and I accepted the Church as the bride of Christ, no matter how ugly it might get. I was baptised in the same church I left at the age of 14.

Now in my mid-30s, I feel part of a church community, perhaps for the first time. I’ve started working with the children and youth. I want the church community to be theirs, and not something they are on the side-lines of. Perhaps that’s what I had felt growing-up: the Church and even God wasn’t for me; it was for the others and I was just an onlooker. I think it’s easy for the Church to continue doing the same thing it did before, because it’s worked in the past, but it might isolate the next generation, who don’t feel this is something they are part of.

 

Zoe

MY MUM and dad split up, and my mum moved away when I was three, and, in the process, found a lovely church and a new church family for us here in York. Over the next ten years, my mum had a lot of processing and healing to do. I remember — and this was quite frightening as a child — my mum receiving the Holy Spirit and falling to the ground; I also remember her crying a lot. At the time, a lack of understanding made it quite alarming.

But growing up with my friend Vicky in church was lovely. I have very fond memories of church camp. Everybody was so lovely. It was a great support for my mum, who was a single parent to me and my brother. The church itself was lively. I remember lots of dancing with ribbons up and down the aisles. My mum had been told by someone, “When you get to York, find David Watson,” and that’s what she did. I enjoyed being part of a big family.

I think I decided to leave when I was 12 because it just wasn’t a cool thing to do at the time. As a youngster, I was very shy and self-conscious, and probably didn’t want to be labelled as a Christian, or give my friends a reason to make fun of me. My older brother had stopped going; so maybe this swayed my decision further.

I have returned to many churches since, but never stayed and joined. I go with my parents to Life Church in Bradford every couple of months. I don’t know whether, if the church had done anything differently, I would have stayed. It’s almost impossible to say now. I obviously felt free to leave; so that has to be a good thing, I guess.

I certainly do pray; not often, but, when I do, I find it very comforting. I consider my daughter, who is now almost five, to be a blessing from God. It seemed at one time I was never going to have a child.

At times, I have found that committing to a church just didn’t “fit” with my life — with my friends and my husband and their beliefs. I guess there is an element of fearing being judged, and those questions I am not equipped to answer, like “If there is a God in this world, how does he let all these terrible things happen?”

I believe in God; I have a relationship with God; but I do not attend a church, and God is not at the centre of my life. In my experience, God is always “there”. I may go some time without speaking to him, but I just feel immediately accepted again when I do make contact. I feel no judgement from him, just that he’s always there, waiting, happy to hear from me, and expecting nothing in return.

Maybe one day I will find a church that fits, as I would like my daughter to have that sense of belonging and a church family which I experienced as a child.

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