We all know how it feels, or know someone who knows how it feels to graduate high school, go off to college, and then a few weeks go by and you realize that you missed a few weekends of church, but you’re not really sorry about it. Even if you feel like you should.
According to a LifeWay study in 2007, two-thirds of young adults aged 18-22 who attend church for at least a year in high school will stop attending regularly for at least a year.
This statistic didn’t shock me, and while the study focused entirely on Protestant religions, this pattern is present in probably every culture. Religion, in some terms, has become more lax on how much it defines us. As a result of that, a lot of times you see people converting to different religions, leaving the church altogether, or even “shopping around” for the right church and religion. To some, this would be appalling. But to others, myself included, this is normal. As a proud Catholic, my family was the one that went to church every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, followed rules of eucharist, reconciliation, and Lent down to the letter. I did this right alongside them.
Until I graduated high school and started college. There are many reasons young adults may choose to take a break, make a change, or even leave their church that sometimes they have attended their whole lives. Sometimes they are met with backlash and hostility from their families for making such a choice. Having been through this, and still going through it, it can be tough to deal with all the questions, feelings (good or bad), and doubts you have about not going to church as much as you used to.
Being from a religious family can put a lot of pressure on you to have the same beliefs, practice them the same way, and have complete and total faith that it is the correct way. For those that do, great! I truly admire you. But as we grow into adults, sometimes we realize that we don’t believe those same things, we have those questions, and blind faith may not answer them for us. That doesn’t mean we don’t believe, that doesn’t mean we don’t have faith or that we doubt our god. It’s simply that we want to decide for ourselves what we believe, and how we practice those beliefs.
One day we may return to our churches, or we may join a new one. We may join an entirely new religion, or never return at all. All of these things are possible, and none of them are wrong. But on our journey to figure out where we want to end up in our religion here are some things to remember.
Religion does not mean spiritual.
Spirituality is being concerned with the state of the human soul. Religion is the beliefs in higher powers to direct faith and worship. At its base, we as humans follow religion and gods because we have questions about our souls: how do we take care of them? What happens to them after we die? What causes us to harm them? All of these questions are essentially answered through religious beliefs and practices; we learn from our higher powers how to conduct ourselves to save our souls, and please our gods. Yet, one reason that young adults turn from the church when they venture out on their own is because of the pressure to always keep faith, and keep it a certain way. We also receive that pressure from our gods: to live as they would want us to. This causes a lot of questions about why we have to do it this way when other people do it differently and their souls are in just as good of shape.
The important thing is not necessarily caring for our souls in a particular way promoted by a specific church, but promoting our own spirituality to care for our souls the way that truly fulfills us. This may absolutely be by our parent religions, new ones, or none at all. However, it is more important to embark on a journey to build a spiritual understanding of ourselves and our world, instead of agonizing over turning away from church, and trying to run back.
Church is not the only place to build a relationship with God.
I use God because I am Catholic, and that is my denotion of my higher power. In this context, it may, by all means, refer to any higher power.
The crazy thing is, and it has taken me a long time to accept this in my heart, since I have stopped going to church over the past few years, I feel more at peace, and closer to God than I ever have. Something I encountered in my childhood, is that going to church was always something I had to do, it was never a choice. I had to go and sit for an hour and say prayers and sing songs, and while I knew how weighty an experience it was, I always felt a sense of burden and agitation that I had to be there.
When I went to college, not having to go to church every weekend just felt like a breath of fresh air. I, of course, immediately felt bad about it, but then I started seeing positive changes in myself because of it.
I learned how to talk to God, not pray to him.
Sometimes people crave structure in their faith, and talking to God might be seen as too familiar. I disagree wholeheartedly. My God is my Father, my protector, but also my friend. I talk to my friends with confidence and with a close familiarity because that is what allows them to understand me and my burdens. When I talk to God, I give those burdens to him, the same way I would a friend, and for that, I feel closer to Him.
I learned to thank God more than I ask of him.
Years ago I read a chain email (remember those??) that told a story of a person who died, went to heaven, and told what heaven was like. Instead of the fluffy clouds and pearly gates, it was like a series of rooms and offices. In one room there were hundreds of angels running around with stacks of paper piled to the ceiling. This was the prayer request room. Next door, there was a single angel sitting at a small desk with one stack of cards. This was the room for prayers of thanks. This image hit me hard and stuck with me, and now I find myself thanking God multiple times a day, even if I haven’t requested anything. When it’s a gorgeous day, I thank him. When it’s cloudy and rainy, I thank him. When I have a particularly good mood, even for a few moments, I thank him. When I’m having a particularly bad day, I thank him, because I know that is when he is carrying me.
I learned to not ask God to fix it, but to fix me.
When things just crumble around me, as sometimes they do for everyone, and I feel the need to request help from my God. I try to never ask him to fix it. I never ask him to give me a good grade on a test, or to give me a new job or promotion.
Instead, I ask God to fix me so that I may be worthy of those things. I ask him to give me the strength and peace of mind to remember what I have studied and get that good grade. I ask him to give me the peace and confidence to present myself in the best light for that new job. Because of this, I have seen more of God’s work in my life than I ever did before. Because of this relationship with God, I feel at peace even when the worst possible things could happen in my life.
I learned that God wasn’t just within church walls, but everywhere.
When I go to church, I want to feel at peace, I want to feel surrounded and filled with love and positivity. I think people that are strong, dedicated churchgoers probably feel this way when they are there.
I didn’t, and I’m pretty sure there are others that don’t. In my belief system, God created the universe, and all that is in it is filled with his presence. That is a complete universe for every single person to have a different spot or place to feel God’s presence. I feel God the most when I am outside, surrounded by his creations, whether this is on a lake fishing, in the woods, in a park, whatever. That is where God is for me.
My favorite and most relaxing place to be and experience God and talk to him, and thank him is actually, however, in my car (hilarious, I know). I feel closest to him when it is a beautiful day, I have my windows down, my radio off, just driving.
All this to say, if you are one of the people finding yourself turning from your religion, don’t panic. Don’t feel like your relationship with your god is less, and don’t let others make you feel that way. Your relationship with your god is exactly what you want it to be, and what you make it. Falling from the beaten path isn’t wrong, it’s how we grow.
So if you’re having questions or doubts, distressed for veering away from your religion, or happy to be rid of it, don’t just assume that you are going against what’s right. Find ways and begin a journey that brings you closer to your higher power, and closer to your own sould. Because in the grand scheme of things, learning what is fulfilling to you and your soul is how you find your true religion.