Why Are Millennials (and others) Leaving the Church? Thoughts on a Rachel Held Evans Post
Demographic studies tell us that Millennials (our current group of young adults) are leaving the church in droves. Those of us serving in leadership at smaller mainline churches already know this to be true. In fact, for many of our churches it's not the Millennials who are missing, it's the GenXers who seem most absent (at least this is true in my congregation).
So, depending on who you listen to or read, the reasons given vary, but the fact is -- fewer young adults are attending church than in previous generations (I should not here that when we look at trends it's quite likely that the 1950s was an anomaly). Whether in church or not, many still seek to be spiritually-oriented and even see themselves aligned with specific religious categories -- but as for the church as a body -- not so much.
It's not a new conversation, but a posting today at the CNN Belief blog Rachel Held Evans sought to answer the question: Why Millennials are Leaving the Church. She has a clip of the longer article on her blog -- http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/millennials-church-cnn, where you will find a rather lengthy set of comments (including a few of my own). This posting is being shared fairly widely on Facebook, garnering a lot of comment and not a little angst.
In my initial response to Rachel's article, I noted that the reasons given for why Millennials are leaving the church largely have to do with the evangelical church -- where the most young adults happen to be hanging out! The reasons given for leaving the church have to do with sex (especially anti-gay attitudes), the anti-intellectualism that accompanies the faith/science debate (can you be a Christian and believe in evolution? -- by the way, I say yes in my latest book Worshiping with Charles Darwin). Then there's the politics issue. On this one should note that while the nation as a whole still seems to trend moderate to conservative, most Millennials are trending the other direction. Millennials are also telling survey takers that they're not all that attracted to edgier worship -- read contemporary -- and are even attracted to more high church options (Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal). They apparently see this as more authentic (though growing up Episcopalian I'm not sure this is true).
In my response I noted that you'll find much of what Millennials seem to like in Mainline Protestant churches -- sort of like mine -- but they don't seem to be stopping by. In Rachel's response, she noted something that I've known for some time: These days, when people leave conservative leaning churches they don't try out the more moderate/liberal versions. They just leave and have no interest in trying out the other options. Whether they'll come back later is unknown.
One of the the critiques of moderate/liberal churches is that while we may not welcome LGBT folks, believe in evolution, and pursue social justice, we're not nearly as good at connecting these commitments to our faith commitments. In other words, we don't seem all that different from other non-profits. So, they seem to wonder why they should bother.
For churches like mine, going "high church" isn't likely in the cards -- we're not a high church tradition. At the same time, we're not going total contemporary, which I sense is like chasing squirrels. Now, I should note that we do have young adults at Central Woodward Christian Church. Most were raised in the church. We have attracted a few others who weren't raised in the church -- but they have connections to long term members. I'd love more. And as for whether they have a say in the life of the church, we have made a concerted effort to bring young adults into leadership. Not just committee members but leaders. One of our most active 20 somethings was elected as Vice President of the Congregation and as an Elder (he's a youngish Elder, but he's still charged with spiritual leadership). Is everyone totally comfortable with younger leaders? Maybe not -- but as pastor of the church I am committed to making sure that the opportunities are there for those ready to answer the call.
So, what is the take away? I think it is this -- we need to connect what we're doing with Jesus. There has to be some theology not just sociology in the conversation!
Here's another thought. While many are leaving. Maybe we should also ask: Why are many staying?
In the end, I would simply like to invite Millennials who are disenchanted by narrow theology and politics, but who aren't enthralled by techno-worship -- to come gather with churches like mine. Join us in building a new future. Yeah, a majority have gray hair. I have gray hair. But we're not dead yet. And many of our older people welcome the presence and leadership of younger generations. So, come along and join us!!