Raised in a Christian family, Justin van Oeveren, 26, was highly involved with church growing up. He attended church services and youth group weekly, was a youth leader and went on three mission trips during his teen years. But looking back, he says he can’t remember a single sermon or lesson.
“What I do remember are the relationships that I made—the people that cared about me and showed me by saying hi, coming to shake my hand and asking me how I was doing,” he says. “That’s what had the most impact on me.”
In his teen years, van Oeveren was mentored one-on-one by a youth leader who later became a close friend. They met once or twice a month for coffee, outside the walls of the church.
“He helped me through lots of questions,” he says. “When you’re a teenager, you’re going through a lot of changes and you’re wondering how to live.”
Van Oeveren was at Bible college when he first began to really question his faith.
“As a child, I was taught that there is an ultimate truth, we can know that truth objectively, and there are no questions as to what that truth is,” he says. “Going through college, I began to realize that that’s not the case. It’s very difficult to discern what truth is and where it is.”
But rather than abandon faith, “I learned how to be OK with not having all the answers and not necessarily knowing with certainty, and living in grace.”
Though he still attends church, van Oeveren has mixed feelings about church generally. About five years ago, he stopped attending altogether because the services felt too much like a performance: “The stage, the band, the PowerPoint, the 30-45 minute sermon—it didn’t connect with me at all. If I wanted to be entertained, I would go to a movie.”
After a two-year hiatus, he now attends a home church where he appreciates the opportunity to share a meal with other Christians and have discussions, rather than listen to sermons. “Those conversations are really important to me because they’re engaging,” he says. “I’m able to make what we talk about applicable to my life.”
In his view, this kind of engagement is key to helping young people stay connected to the church.