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Bruce, Do You See Young People Leaving Christianity in Rural Northwest Ohio?

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ObstacleChick asked:

Where you live in evangelical conservative land, are you seeing younger people leaving religion as polls seem to indicate in the US?

I live in rural northwest Ohio. While I have lived in Michigan, California, Arizona, and Texas over the years, rural Ohio is my home. I understand country thinking, chafe when city-slickers call us ignorant hillbillies, and generally appreciate the cultural values of country life. That said, as I have moved leftward politically and embraced atheism, I have increasingly found the God-Guns-Republican ethos of rural folks to be stifling and frustrating.

Older locals, with a few exceptions, view me as a curiosity — someone they can’t figure out. I have been told on more than a few occasions, “Bruce, how can you be so smart, yet so dumb?” Those who were congregants of mine or know my Evangelical background are shocked that someone of my education, experience, and faith could ever turn his back on Jesus and start worshiping Satan — “Satan” being a catchall for atheism, liberalism, progressivism, communism, socialism, and other -ism’s their pastors have deemed anti-God.

Over the years, I have been repeatedly eviscerated by local Evangelicals and conservative Catholics in letters to the editors of the Bryan Times and the Defiance Crescent-News. Some of these Jesus-lovers have turned to lies and distortions to “prove” that I am Satan incarnate or a communist infiltrator. One man said that I was lying about my ministerial past, and that he had reported me to the state of Ohio for illegally performing weddings (which he did not actually do).

One day, I received an email from this man’s nephew. He informed me that he considered his uncle a blooming idiot. This 20-something man told me that he didn’t attend church; that he was an atheist. Over the years, I have received numerous emails and social media comments from younger locals. With the exception of one woman — a local pastor’s daughter — these young people voiced their discontent over the right-wing/conservative nature of rural northwest Ohio. Many of them no longer attended church or still went to services on Sundays because they had to.

Based on these anecdotes, I have concluded that local young people are increasingly disaffected from the religious beliefs and politics of their parents and grandparents — especially those who had opportunities to move away,go to college, and experience the world outside of homogeneous rural northwest Ohio.. I see this same disaffection with most of my children. Regrettably, one of my sons has become a gun-toting, Trump-supporting, white supremacist — who is now flying a militia flag and the Christian flag from his front porch. Except for him, my children have liberal/progressive values. Not all of them are atheists, but none of them, except for our white supremacist son, attends Evangelical churches. I suspect all of them will vote for Biden on election day. Even Bethany — our daughter with Down syndrome — if she could vote, she’d vote for Biden. The other day a Trump ad came on TV. Bethany booed and said, FUCK TRUMP! She is certainly a product of her environment.

Generally, local churches are losing younger congregants, especially when they go off to college. Churches are dying on the vine, though local Christians would try to argue that this is untrue. “Look at Xperience Church in Defiance,” they would say. “Xperience is growing by leaps and bounds! See, Jesus is alive and well.” However, as someone who has studied Evangelical church growth since the 1970s, I know that just because a few new Evangelical clubs are growing doesn’t mean the rest of the clubs are okay. In fact, where do churches such as Xperience get most of their new members? Transfer growth — Christians moving from one church to another. (Please see The Fine Art of Church Hopping.) Xperience Church has pillaged other congregations to fuel their explosive growth, Interestingly, some of the churches that have suffered the greatest loss from Xperience stealing members are those who did the very same thing to mainline churches in the 1970s and 1980s. You see, it is immoral capitalism that drives Evangelical church growth. Xperience Church just so happens to be the newest hamburger joint in town. Everyone loves visiting a new restaurant — especially here in rural northwest Ohio where Applebee’s and Chipolte are considered upscale fine dining. (Please see Dear Evangelical, Just Because You Quote the Bible Doesn’t Make Your Comment True, “We Accept Anyone No Matter What,” Local Evangelical Says.)

Looks, then, are deceiving. Yes, some local Evangelical churches are growing. However, the question remains, WHY are these churches growing? Where are there new members coming from? Since virtually everyone in rural northwest Ohio is a Christian, this growth can’t be driven by conversions. What’s driving this growth is people deciding they prefer Wendy’s over McDonald’s. The good news is the fact that many young people have decided they don’t like any of the offerings from local hamburger joints, choosing instead to cook at home, become vegans, or seek out rational, progressive restaurants. When you have had a Five Guys or Red Robin hamburger or eaten at a gastropub in Fort Wayne or Toledo, it’s hard to return to cheap, unsatisfying hamburgers sold on every corner in rural Ohio.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    My sons are more conservative than their dad and me. But they aren’t interested in attending church, and have no interest in a theocracy.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    I find this interesting. I wonder whether the young people who don’t go to church, or are forced to attend, but don’t voice their beliefs (or lack thereof) are “communing,” if you will, with like-minded peers in other places via the Internet. I suspect that the Web might actually help a young atheist or “none” to stay sane in God-and-guns country.

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    Most parents would be surprised, or even horrified to know what ‘unsuitable’ things their teens share routinely on their phones whilst on the school bus or during lunchbreak. Even x-tian teens. It’s normal and since your peers are so important to you, you go along with it. Once, if you had doubts, you needed the busfare into town and a library ticket and the ability to know where to look for advice. Now we all have the world in our back pockets. I know churches which are trying to run youth groups based on the model of past decades. I went to a church club because, back in the dark ages, we didn’t have central heating, so I was forced to stay in the one heated living room with my parents every evening…which no teen wants to do. The only coffee bar open back then was the WImpy Bar, but we couldn’t afford that too often…times have changed…but the churches I know are welded to the idea of what they think teens want from a church club, like lots of boring bible study, homophobia and indoctrination. (My first assertion about what teens share on their phones comes from my best friend, a counsellor with a national telephone helpline for troubled teens….it’s one of the biggest volume of calls. Though now of course, fears and anxieties about Covid bring her many worried teens too.)

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    Bruce, thank you for your insight. I am sorry to hear that one of your sons has become a white supremacist. It’s white male backlash to other groups (like people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, etc) saying, dude, we matter too, listen to us and interpreting that as “straight white guys are evil incarnate”. Ugh. But Bethany has a great point!

    My kids and their cousins are Gen Z, and the older cousins stopped going to church when they were old enough to make their own decisions. My kids are atheists. My husband has 1st cousins that are older Gen Z and younger millennials, and the majority of them are nonreligious or identify as atheists. That’s in stark contrast to several Gen X cousins that are still Catholic and raising their kids Catholic.

    I was just curious what was going on in more religious areas. Like others have said, with such easy access to information, kids can get answers to their questions and find online communities and forums that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. Once you see how many people live full lives without religion, it’s easier to make that leap.

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    I’ve been living in the rural part of metro-Detroit for my entire life. On Facebook I can keep up with some of my childhood acquaintances and schoolmates. We’re all middle aged now, and I’m astonished how religious and Republican most of them are. It’s like they’re living on an island of insanity and they gleefully fulfil their role. As for ObstacleChick’s question, I’d point out that even ONE measly example (such as Bruce) of someone who doesn’t fit the local yokel culture can be a real boon to young people who might see the world differently.

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    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    Bruce. Could you please elaborate on the term “Cultural Values of Country Life”? Can you make a list of such values for us and tell us what it is about living in the country (rural area) that creates those values. Do housewives wash dishes in the kitchen sink, look out the window over the sink, notice the cattle humping in the field across the road, and have a personal epiphany that creates one of these “Cultural Values of Country Life.” This is a serious question. How does living in the country create an anti-abortion zealot, whereas living in a city would have no such effect on the same person?

    I must admit that I have a certain skepticism about “unique values” and “country life.” My parents grew up on rural farms in Tennessee, and their primitive country ways and abundant ignorance about the world caused me constant feelings of shame when I was growing up in a Nashville suburb. My parents had moved to the city right before I was born. Thanks!!!

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Hello, Bruce. Interesting timing for this post : the L.A. Times for today has on it’s front page, the fact that Ohio is cooling toward Trump. That’s too bad that one of your sons is going through a faze with the White Supremacist thing. It may be more of a statement for ‘shock value’. I heard that Cleveland and Akron are scary cities, and that could be one reason why he feels that way, maybe. I hope Ohio goes blue, for the people’s sake. A Kennedy Democrat, not a Clinton one. Ditto for California, lol.

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