THE GENERATION GAP:
Why Young People Leave the Church and What to Do About It (Christmas IC)
Richard Mario Procida, Esq.
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
18Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. 20Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. [Colossians 3:12-21]
Church attendance has been declining since the 1970s.[i] Today a mere twenty percent of Americans attend church regularly. It’s even worse in Europe.[ii] 2.7 million Americans leave the Church every year.[iii] At first only the Mainline churches were declining, but now even Evangelical churches are seeing young people leave the church at about age 15, as soon as they have a choice, many times never to come back.[iv]
My experience is typical. During my teen years I felt uncomfortable and judged at church. At the same time I suspected those in church were hypocritical or phony. When my mother forced me to go the summer camp, I felt alone. There was nothing to do except be mischievous, and most of the kids were. By junior high I began cutting Sunday school.
In Sunday school I didn’t feel respected or even liked. I was an intelligent young man, but I constantly felt talked down to in class. I had questions and comments which the teacher and fellow students didn’t appreciate.
I didn’t relate to the kids at church. I felt my home life didn’t conform to their standards. I couldn’t be myself around them.
Then I started to find myself disagreeing with the sermons. I liked rock music but was told to be worried about backwards lyrics and rockstars who sold their souls to the Devil. At the same time I craved peace and happiness. I wasn’t finding it in church.
Then the concerns about sexual sin came. I found myself in church essentially being confronted about masturbation. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I wasn’t having premarital sex. The discussions about sexual sin translated to me as about masturbation.
Eventually I thought I would try to stop masturbating as a spiritual practice. It didn’t work. So I gave up. Abstinence caused me pain and dissatisfaction without any spiritual benefit. I didn’t feel closer to God. More important things like getting my education and preparing for my future took precedence.
In retrospect, it makes sense that I didn’t get along with these conservative kids at my church. I grew up on the “Southside”. I lived in a working class Latino neighborhood. My friends were my neighbors and classmates, not the kids at my church.
In my late twenties I attempted to go back to church. I had had a number of spiritual experiences. As an older student in college, I became interested in feminism after having one of the most significant spiritual experiences of my life during a gender studies class. I decided to pursue a minor in The Study of Women and Men in Society, the University of Southern California’s Gender studies program.
I became a feminist anti-pornography advocate. At that time the issue of pornography was a hot topic in church. I remember one event at a Calvary Chapel where they were discussing abortion as the top Christian priority. I got up and suggested that pornography be first, because it deals with the causes of unwanted pregnancies, and because we can build bridges to the feminist community and make them allies rather than enemies. The response I got that day made me decide that I never wanted to go to church ever again.
Of course this would not be my fate. My mother belonged to this type of church, and so did my brothers and other family members. One day I read a newspaper article about a church performing civil unions for homosexuals. I decided to try this church. A liberal church might be different, I thought. I attended this church for a time before going to law school.
After law school, I began attending spiritual classes. I attended services at a spiritual center across town. Then I decided I wanted a community closer to home. I felt a need at this point in my spiritual journey to settle on a path. I felt like I was dabbling in different spiritual paths, going down one then investigating another, and not getting to the deeper levels of spiritual practice and understanding. I thought that if I focused on one path I might find deeper meaning.
I was also becoming more politically active. I felt a calling to get involved, and I felt my faith was a part of that calling.
I chose Christianity, because it is the faith of my youth. Also, my father had been discussing theology with me. He has a Master’s of Divinity and served as pastor briefly when I was small child. He stills studies theology. At some point I became interested in the progressive Christian perspective, something my father didn’t anticipate.
Then I read another newspaper article about the Episcopal Church ordaining lesbian Bishops. I had read some of Bishop Spong’s books and liked other progressive Episcopal writers, too. Additionally, I had attended an Episcopal church when I was in college. So I decided to try the local Episcopal church that I had attended as a very young child before we went to the Baptist church down the street and then to the Baptist church up on the hill.
I got involved quickly. I even helped them write their mission statement. But I felt more and more uncomfortable. I had different points of view and I wanted to talk about them. Some people enjoyed my participation in the Bible study and in church, but others didn’t like me. I would sometimes get angry looks. I describe them as bug-eyed looks. Often an older member would glare at me, teeth clenched with one eye seeming to bulge out at me. These people seemed rigid and didn’t want to discuss religion, spirituality, or politics. This is horrendous, because church is the place to talk about life’s big questions. Many were hostile toward different interpretations of scripture.
Eventually, I got sick of reciting the Nicene Creed. I first tried to change it to make it more acceptable, but every week I said something different and realized that I would have to rewrite the whole creed. I came to see the creed as Roman Imperial religion and could no longer recite it in good faith. When the new rector came on board, I decided I had completed my work there. I still attend their evening Bible study lead by the new rector. I feel some freedom to express myself there, and there are very few Bible studies where I feel welcome. I know that some attendees don’t like me.
I now attend a church where I feel comfortable expressing myself. I’m sure some people don’t like my blog. Most of those people don’t attend the discussion groups I attend, and they don’t really say anything to me. I want people to know that I’m responsive to constructive criticism. There is conflict no matter what church you go to. Healthy conflict is honest and encouraging without being toxic.
Even my father and my brother have difficulty fitting in at their churches. My father has a graduate level theological education and knowledge of the Bible, and he doesn’t feel free to express his views fully at his church. My father tends toward conservative theology, but he still has to restrain himself when he’s in church. It’s such a waste. The members of his church are missing out on his wisdom.
My younger brother recently made a real effort to return to church. I remember he even got baptized at the Southern Baptist church not far from where we lived. I don’t think he felt he got the experience he was looking for. I think he felt that it didn’t make a difference in his life. It didn’t work.
Then one day the pastor challenged anyone in the church who believed in evolution. My brother is into science. He watches all the astronomy and astrophysics shows. He’s familiar with the science behind evolution and carbon dating. I don’t’ know if it was the issue of evolution, or if it was just the idea of demanding adherence on matters of science that turned by brother off to that church. As far as I know he never went back.
These personal experiences while unique to me and my family are not all that dissimilar from the experiences of others. Studies have found that even Born-again Christians do not agree with all that Evangelical churches teach. For example, one study found that only a little more than fifty percent of Born-again Christians believe it is impossible for someone to earn their way into heaven. Only sixty-two percent strongly believe that Jesus lived a sinless life. The same study defined “biblical worldview” and found that only 20% of born-again Christians and a miniscule one-half of one percent of adults aged 18 to 23 held a “biblical worldview.”[v]
Another study found that among self-described Christians, only 43% believe that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. Even among those who say that they will get into heaven only because they accepted Jesus as their savior, only 48% believe the Bible is entirely accurate. Among Born-again Christians only 65% believe this. Additionally, 53% of Christians believe that Satan is a symbol and not a living entity.[vi]
The reasons given for leaving the church are similar, too. One study found that young people left the church because they felt the church “demonized” everything outside the church. They resented the church being concerned about videogames and movies while ignoring real-world issues. They find the church’s teachings on sexuality outdated and say that the church fails to deal effectively with doubt.
Young people have doubt, and that the church is unreceptive to their questions. Young people feel the church is not a safe place to express doubts, the church’s response to doubt is trivial, and Christianity doesn’t make sense sometimes. A third of them said they could not ask life’s most pressing questions at church. Almost a quarter have significant intellectual doubts.
These young adults feel marginalized. Most disturbing is that one out of six said their faith doesn’t help them with depression or emotional problems. The Church is not serving young people well.[vii]
At the same time young people with church experience found church uninspiring. Thirty-one percent were bored with church. Twenty-four percent question the church’s relevancy to their life, career and interests. Twenty percent said God seems to be missing from church.
Many also complain about the Church’s antagonism toward science. Thirty-five percent said Christians are over confident that they know all the answers. One third of young people with a Christian church background said that churches are out of step with science. A quarter felt that Christianity is “anti-science.” Many were turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.
Sexuality is also an issue. Young Christians are just as sexually active as non-Christians. Seventeen percent said they felt judged by the church. For Catholics, 40% found the church’s teaching on sexuality and birth control out of date. Given the Church’s prohibitions on sexuality, it’s no wonder younger and single people leave while older and married people stay.
The universality of Christianity is also at issue. Nearly a third felt that churches fear other beliefs and faiths. A quarter felt that they had to choose between their friends or their faith. One-fifth described the church as a country club, only for insiders.
Young people leave the church because they don’t believe the doctrines anymore, don’t feel free to be themselves, and aren’t experiencing God in church. The insistence on correct doctrine discourages difference and forces those who disagree out. When we focus on beliefs and creeds, we create a mechanism by which to cull our flocks rather than to grow them. People self select out when they conclude that they can’t or won’t accept the ever increasing plethora of doctrines and views on issues ranging from evolution and abortion to the denigration of people of other faiths and the supremacy of Christianity that the church demands they believe.
Beliefs and creeds are overrated. Insistence upon “correct doctrine” discourages questioning and discussion. This is a travesty, because church is the place where people should address important spiritual questions. We can’t do that in any realistic and honest way when we insist upon enforcing correct belief and doctrines, especially when those doctrines don’t make sense.
We need to be open to other people’s opinions and accept that people will come to different answers in their walk with the Lord. A “cookie-cutter” approach to religion, spirituality, and life’s big questions won’t work. We can’t have pat answers to anticipated questions, because people come to their own individual and unique conclusions. There are many reasons for this. A real and honest relationship recognizes and allows for disagreement.
In Colossians we find a more tolerant and welcoming description of how we should be. We are to bear one another, forgive one another, love one another, be at peace with one another, teach and instruct one another, recognize our collective wisdom, and sing gladly. Nothing here says to make sure everyone believes the same thing. It says nothing about making sure everyone understands correct doctrine. There was no “correct doctrine” when Paul wrote. Instead, Paul envisions a bottom up experience.
Rather than dictate beliefs to the congregation, Paul tells us to teach and instruct one another. The word “admonish” really means to warn, instruct, or guide. We are to warn, instruct, and guide one another. This requires openness to and respect for what others have to say. We are to be meek, humble, and patient with one another. We are also to be compassionate and kind. Paul doesn’t say that everyone must think and believe the same thing, like a bunch of robots. We are to understand and know God in our own ways, and then share our insights with one another.
The reading then confronts us with an example. Paul asks family members to treat each other with respect.
Ancient culture was patriarchal. Paul tells the Colossians how to relate to one another within the dominant social structure of their time. Today we wouldn’t tell women to subject themselves to their husbands. We would interpret it so that it makes sense within our culture, a culture where women are respected as equals.
Notice that Paul doesn’t tell husbands to make their wives subject to them, nor does he tell fathers to demand that their children obey them. Yet how many times has a passage like this been used to demand things of others?
Instead, Paul tells husbands to treat their wives kindly and to be respectful toward their children. The instruction is not to enforce a patriarchal family structure, it to respect one another and treat each other kindly in whatever familial or social structure one finds oneself.
The good news is that young people are concerned about important issues. They have questions, and they want things to make sense. They want to be real, and they want to know truth.
Americans remain a spiritually focused people. Two-thirds of Americans view themselves as “deeply spiritual.” Eighty-two percent describe themselves as “spiritually mature.”
We also want make a difference in the world. Almost nine out of ten care deeply about social injustice and morality. Most Americans feel they are fulfilling their calling in life while half also say they are searching for meaning and purpose. These facts tell us that there is room for a spiritual community in people’s lives.[viii]
The problem we face is that many of our most committed members, the ones who have remained, tend to hold orthodox views.[ix] The liberal church has yet to capture the imaginations of young people and lay liberals.
Some argue that church has lost its relevance. If we continue doing the same thing, we will continue to see the same results.[x] Others warn us not to “water down the message.”[xi] The liberal church offers a weak theology that does not demand much of their members.[xii] The question is how are we to reenergize those “lay liberals” who tend to leave the church while retaining our more traditional minded members.
Lay liberals are Universalists. They believe that other religious also have a valid claim to truth. They say that all the world’s religions teach the same things. God is reflected in all the world’s religions. They firmly reject the idea that God sends people to Hell. Instead, they believe in honesty and other moral virtues, and they encourage tolerance and civility in a pluralistic society.
Lay liberals also present certain challenges. They have a strong aversion to aggressive evangelism, perhaps because they recognize the validity of other faiths. They seldom discuss religious matters with others, even with their family and closest friends. This puts the church in a precarious position. Without new blood, a church slowly dies.
We have not fashioned a message that compels people to spread the message and get involved. We need a strong alternative theology that embraces difference. It should be a theology of hope and action. It needs to be something that people want to share with others. A real community provides meaning and purpose. Church must make a difference in people’s lives, in our communities, in our nation, and in the world. Such an approach will take courage and ingenuity. It’s is my hope that my writing contributes to this cause.
[i] Benton Johnson, et al., Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline, (1993) http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9303/articles/johnson.html
[iii] Dr. Richard J. Krejcir, Statistics and Reasons for Church Decline,( http://www.intothyword.org/articles_view.asp?articleid=36557)
[iv] Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church (9/28/11)( http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church ); Rebecca Barnes & Lindy Lowry, 7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America (http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.htmlhttp://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html)
[v] Barna Survey Examines Changes in worldview Among Christians over the Past 13 Years (March 6, 2009) (http://www.barna.org/transformation-articles/252-barna-survey-examines-changes-in-worldview-among-christians-over-the-past-13-years)
[vi] Barna Study of Religious Change Since 1991 Shows Significant Changes by Faith Group (Aug 4, 2011)( http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/514-barna-study-of-religious-change-since-1991-shows-significant-changes-by-faith-group)
[vii] Josh Rhoten, Church is no longer a priority for younger families, which has turned many local congregations into a sea of gray hair with few young faces (Nov 13, 2011)(http://www.wyomingnews.com/articles/2011/11/13/news/01top%2011-13-11.txt)
[viii] American Spirituality Gives Way to Simplicity and the Desire to Make a Difference, (The Barna Group, Oct 27, 2008)( http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/19-american-spirituality-gives-way-to-simplicity-and-the-desire-to-make-a-difference
[ix] Benton Johnson, et al., Mainline Churches: The Real reason for Decline (March 1993) (http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9303/articles/johnson.html).
[x] Rebecca Barnes and Lindy Lowry, 7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America (http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.htmlhttp://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html)
[xi] Dr. Richard J. Krejcir, Statistics and Reasons for Church Decline (2007) (http://www.intothyword.org/articles_view.asp?articleid=36557)
[xii] Dean M. Kelly, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (1972).