Sam Landstra—Staff Writer
Gerrit Van Dyk spent his summer under a self-imposed house arrest. He only left his home for groceries, to see his girlfriend, and to hike. He did not go out to eat, did not work, and did not attend church in person. (His family did stream it every Sunday though, with near-perfect attendance.)
It got old fast. With seven siblings and two parents sharing the house, it was bound to. But the Van Dyk family did it anyway to protect their two youngest who suffer from respiratory health issues. They also did it for the members of their community they did not know personally, but who could also be at risk.
“Just out of the principle of loving your neighbor.” Van Dyk said. “I truly believe that’s one of the most important things we can do as human beings.”
But when Van Dyk returned for his junior year at Dordt University, the attitudes he encountered towards COVID-19 left him stunned.
On a trip to Walmart for apartment furnishings, Van Dyk walked multiple aisles into the store before spotting a person wearing a mask—even though they were required.
These were people Van Dyk had seen at church services, people from a town that prided itself on its Christian values; and they were shirking public health guidelines.
“That baffles me.” Van Dyk said. “The fact that you can claim to be a Christian and them almost go out of your way to protect your yourself, put yourself first and make sure you’re ahead of your neighbors.”
Van Dyk is not alone.
Across America, young people are feeling alienated by their churches. They are witnessing a lifestyle they view as incompatible with the sermon and are questioning their faith because of it. For some, their cognitive dissonance forces them to abandon the religion altogether. Although COVID-19 has forced many of these issues to the surface, it’s a trend that extends far beyond the pandemic.
“It didn’t happen overnight.” Scott Culpepper said. “It’s very poignant for people [of college] age who are beginning to serve in the church. It’s such a contradiction to the ideals that you’ve been taught.”
Culpepper teaches history at Dordt University. He also pastored in two different churches for seven years in Louisiana. From the South to the Midwest, he has seen the full scope of the younger generation’s disillusionment with the church—and even experienced it himself.
Before Dordt, Culpepper taught at Louisiana College, a Baptist institution in the Bible Belt. There, he worked under a leader he described as “a raging study in incompetence” and “a known, pathological liar”. While at a Christian college, Culpepper found himself constantly needing to defend his morals against attacks.
When he left Louisiana College for Dordt University, Culpepper conducted his job search in secret. The leader was known to head off the job applications of people trying to find a way out.
“That was hurtful.” Culpepper said, “It’s something I can’t forget. I could forgive it, but never would trust myself completely to those cultures again.”
It doesn’t take long to find other climates similar to those Culpepper experienced that hold together conflicting messages of Christianity, especially in relation to COVID-19.
Take for example Liberty University, one of the biggest Christian colleges in the nation, where its president Jerry Falwell resigned this fall after a sex scandal. Before his resignation, Falwell also came under criticism during the early months of the pandemic for partially reopening the Liberty campus for in-person learning. He believed it their “responsibility as a Christian university” to keep their doors open.
Just recently, Sean Feucht of the CCM group Bethel Music held a “Let Us Worship” concert on the steps of the Washington Mall with 15,000 invitees. The event has roots in a right-wing evangelicalism that—according to his website—on decried on the “unlawful censorship and discrimination” of COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings across the nation.
“That’s a problem too.” Culpepper said. “Just the stark contradiction between the message of love, the message of grace the church is proclaiming, and then these political movements which seem to sort of hijack Christian imagery.”
These matters of national proportion also trickle into local communities.
Josie De Jong remembers the concern she felt upon seeing a social media post showing over a hundred Dordt students sitting together on the campus lawn for a semester-kickoff worship event.
“In a way that sort of built this seed of frustration with Christians that I had always had but amplified over COVID.” De Jong said.
De Jong, a senior at Dordt University, does not go to church anymore. She has not since her parents divorced when she was younger. She no longer sees the need to.
Her absence from the pews makes De Jong feel estranged from her hometown of Orange City, Iowa, where almost every street corner houses a church. It sometimes seems easier to find a person there who attends church twice on Sunday than not at all. The same goes for Sioux Center too, where Dordt resides.
“I don’t feel connected. I never have.” De Jong said. “I don’t like being cynical about it either. I know that there are good parts to Sioux Center and Orange City. It’s just that some people experience those good parts more often than other people do.”
De Jong is just one member in the growing population of young people leaving the church.
According to LifeWay Research, 70 percent of Protestants stop going to church for at least a year between ages 18 and 22. Of this group, 26 percent said their decision came as a result of judgmental or hypocritical church members, and another 15 percent claimed it was due to members acting unfriendly or unwelcoming.
“It’s a constant uphill battle” Van Dyk said on his relationship with the church over the pandemic. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy for me to feel like I’m being heard.”
Van Dyk watched the father of a close and Christian friend cast the only dissenting vote against a mask mandate for his hometown. He saw on social media other believers posting scripture to defend disobeying public health guidelines. It forced him to grapple with his faith and identity.
“It threw me off. As someone I thought I trusted, as someone who believed in some of the same values as I did.” Van Dyk said. “I felt like I was betrayed.”
This isn’t the only time large scale disillusionment with the church and other established societal structures has occurred either.
In the 1920s—following the prosperity of the Gilded Age—economic disparity fueled the Great Depression, the Spanish flu spread across the world, and tens of millions died in World War I. These catastrophic events formed a generation of grief-stricken individuals with no higher entity to cling to.
Almost one hundred years later exactly, history has mimicked itself. COVID-19 has taken the pandemic helm from the Spanish flu, and social unrest in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement has signified a discontent with the current status quo.
“We are already sort of used to living in this state of anxiety.” De Jong said. “A lot of us are just exhausted by that.”
Culpepper worries about people like De Jong and Van Dyk losing a sense of the importance of their engagement with culture. Their voices still matter, he believes, even when others try to silence it.
“We’ve got to meet strident rhetoric and irresponsible use of information with gentleness, with the fruit of the spirit.” Culpepper said. “Still care. Still be engaged.”