If you have been hanging around the internet in recent weeks, then you’ve probably noticed a lot of conversation about millennials leaving the church.
Bloggers like Rachel Held Evans and many, many others have weighed in on the subject articulating incredibly well many of the reasons why millennials seem to be leaving the church in droves. However, I’m not sure that after all of the back and forth we ever really discovered a way forward. In other words, while we may have established the problem, it doesn’t seem that we have found any concrete solutions.
This is probably due in large part to the fact that problems this complex can’t be easily solved with a silver bullet. But I’m not convinced that this excuses us from at least attempting to address this ecclesiastical epidemic.
With that in mind, I want to suggest an idea that is somewhat radical or at the very least unconventional. Nevertheless, if put into practice I think it could, at the very least, allow the experience of those who aren’t leaving permanently to be framed in a more productive way in the future. Likewise, I think it could offer all of us a healthy and Biblically sound way of dealing with the frustration, anger, burnout, and pain that so many of us, regardless of age, experience as members of the church.
I want to suggest that we make taking a sabbatical from church an accepted, if not encouraged, part of the Christian life for lay people.
I think it might be a good idea for all of us, from time to time or even just once in our lives, to take a break from going to church every Sunday morning.
This is an idea that I am just now beginning to tinker with and think through. So, this post is not a final, polished proposal, more of an idea that I’ve begun working out in my head. On the most basic level my thought process is this: If pastors take, and are encouraged to take, a sabbatical from church in order to rejuvenate, avoid burnout, and bring a renewed vision and energy to their church, then why shouldn’t lay people do the same? After all, as a “royal priesthood of believers” are we not all in ministry in some way?
Don’t we all get burned out with church at some point in our lives?
Why not face that burn out with healing rather than pretend it doesn’t exist?
Countless people already go through a period of leaving and returning to the church. Yes, there may be a lot of young adults leaving the church now, but that is nothing particularly new. For decades people have left the church after high school or during college only to come back later when they’re married and have kids.
But even that is part of a long tradition of people who have struggled with their faith or become jaded with the church and left. I know I’ve found myself in that position before. Like those who have come before us, we find ourselves at a place in life where we’re no longer convinced that we believe the same things we used to believe. In response, we decide that the place that fostered those beliefs isn’t a place we want to be a part of anymore because we look around and don’t seem to see anyone anymore who looks or thinks anything like us.
So we leave.
And some of us never come back.
And why would we if the church that should be there for us in this time of greatest need, instead kicks us to the curb for our lack of faith and “loyalty.”
What if instead of simply criticizing and condemning this phenonmena we found a way to embrace it, reframing it in a way that could help both the individual as well as the church experience growth through this time away.
I know that may sound counterproductive, but stepping away and taking a break is actually a very Biblical model. One which even Jesus himself followed.
The idea of a sabbatical comes from the ancient practice of observing the Sabbath. In Exodus, God commanded the people of Israel to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” As we all remember from Sunday School, God rested on the seventh day of creation, but the reason for the people of Israel to take a Sabbath was more immediate than that.
For 400 years the children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt. 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year for 400 years they had been making bricks for Pharaoh. The fifth commandment wasn’t simply about remembering the seventh day of creation. It was about the creation of an alternative kingdom to the one the Israelites had endured in Egypt. Pharaoh had given them quotas, forcing them to make bricks everyday. God was offering them rest and a life free from quotas.
This holy day of rest wasn’t merely a day to sit around and do nothing. It was an opportunity for the people to step back from the craziness of their daily lives, lives they lived every moment within their community of faith. This day of rest allowed them to step back from all of that, not as an end unto itself, but so that the people of God could rejuvenate, find peace, and rekindle their desire to follow God and be among God’s people.
In the gospels, we see Jesus following this model. Jesus was a man in great demand who spent almost every waking hour teaching, serving, and interacting with his community of faith. Sometimes he just needed a break. Which is why read about him going off to a quiet place to pray from time to time. He wasn’t abandoning his community permanently. He was stepping back for a period of time in order to rejuvenate and spend time with his heavenly Father.
To put it bluntly, I think if Jesus took a sabbatical, then so should we.
We do a really poor job today of taking time to rest. In the United States in particular, it’s looked down upon to take too much time off. We have it ingrained into our collective concsiouness that the most virtuous person is the hardest working, the one who never takes any time off.
This mentality carries over into the church and becomes particularly problematic when it is wedded to what I call “checklist Christianity.” For so many of us in the faith, the best Christians are the ones with perfect church attendance, who never miss an event, and are there whenever the church doors are open. If you miss more than a few weeks in a row you start getting phone calls and texts and Facebook messages. Even if you’re able to avoid those things, you still have to face the sarcastic comments about your absence once you do finally go back to church. You know what I’m talking about – “Hi, do I know you?” Or, worse, the passive aggressive, guilt trip – “Oh man, you should have been here last Sunday. It was the greatest service ever!”
What if we turned all of this on its head?
What if taking a sabbatical, or a break, from regular church attendance was a normal part of church life, much like Jesus stepping away from the crowds to rest and pray?
I’m not talking about arbitrary absence where we just sleep in and sit on the couch all day watching football. I’m thinking about something more intentional, something more formative and more productive both for the people taking the break as well as for the church.
Perhaps this lay sabbatical could be arranged with the pastor at their local church. Working together the lay person and their pastor could establish a set time to be away. Perhaps a month, maybe 6 months, maybe even a year depending on the particular person’s needs and goals. During the sabbatical the person wouldn’t simply do nothing. Certainly there would be time set aside to be still and rest, but in general the time spent away from church would be filled serving others in places like a soup kitchen, after school tutoring, short term missions, or some other outreach opportunity.
Likewise, the person would be intentional about making time for participating in alternative forms of Christian community such as a home bible study or sharing a regular meal with fellow believers. Perhaps the pastor sheparding the lay person could even help them identify these opportunities. Then at the end of the sabbatical the lay person would in some way report back to the church all that God had taught and done through them during that time. In that way, the time spent away from the church by the individual would actually end up serving the church body as well by showing them new ways to be the church in the world outside the four walls of the sanctuary.
Certainly there would be a risk that people wouldn’t come back or would just sit at home and do nothing. But I think the “risk” (if we can call it that) would be minimal because this sort of practice would be for people intentional about their faith, who genuinely want to grow even as they struggle. Besides, if we really do believe that this community of faith called the church is something worth being a part of, then we have to take that seriously and believe with confidence that those people would want return after their sabbatical.
The Amish take such a risk with their tradition of rumspringa (something VERY different than what I am proposing), only to see the vast majority of their people return to the fold. I think we could have the same expectation of return as the Amish do.
Of course, there are those who leave because they are hurt by their local church wherein it might be inappropriate or impossible to set up something through the pastor, particularly if he or she is the reason that person is leaving. In that case, I think that this could still be done, but in a more informal way or through a different avenue. Perhaps that person could find a spiritual mentor or group of fellow believers who could serve as their source of accountability during their time away, providing them with the same sort of shepherding and direction that the pastor would in the aforementioned scenario. Although, this person would most likely end up returning to a different church, if they returned at all, I think that their time away, their story about leaving, and their testimony about what God taught and did through them during that time could all serve to edify their new community of faith.
So, why bother with this issue at all?
For starters, I think allowing for a lay sabbatical would liberate us from the quotas of checklist Christianity. Many of us have become enslaved to a checklist we feel we need to complete every week in order to maintain our Christian membership card. Allowing for a sabbatical would help us to refocus and remember that the Christian life is something primarily lived out beyond the four walls of our sanctuaries.
Likewise, I think a lay sabbatical would allow us to affirm and embrace the reality that all of us struggle while also offering a practical way forward that honors both the person struggling as well as the church (which isn’t always the bad guy). In doing so, I think a sabbatical would give us both a much needed break from each other.
Finally, I think this time away would provide much needed growth both for the person taking the sabbatical as well the church to which they return. It is often in our times of struggle that we grow the most, particularly when that time of struggle is also spent searching.
I want to stress that this is a not a permanent break from the church or an alternative way of living the Christian life. The Israelites went back to life among their community of faith. Jesus rejoined his followers. One cannot be Christian by permanently separating from the Body because to be Christian to be part of a community. What I’m proposing is that as a church we seek a way to address the very real pain, struggles, and frustrations that all of us endure in a way that allows those moments in our lives to be an intentional time of growth and renewal, both for us as well as the Body to which we belong.
I am well aware that this proposition is not a silver bullet. It’s probably not the solution for everybody. And there are many leaving the church for whom this would be totally irrelevant because their not interested in returning.
I get that.
But I think if the pain of those among us is something we really do want to take seriously, then giving them the space they need to heal could be an effective and meaningful practice for addressing an already existing phenomena in a way that is healthy, productive, and faithful to the witness of Scripture.
What do you think?
Grace and peace,
FROM THE VAULT: As I’m always welcoming new people to the blog I sometimes like to revisit an old post or two that sparked a good conversation, but may have been missed by those who weren’t around when it was originally posted. This post originally appeared early last year and was part of a short series. Here is Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.