Why did millennials stop attending church and what can do we about it?

Church attendance is at an all-time low

A few weeks ago a relatively startling, but definitely not unpredictable, report from Gallup came out that said, for the first time ever, church attendance has dropped below fifty percent of the population. It was down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999. In fact that 70 percent figure was about the plateau since 1937, when the data first came out.

What the report argues is that church membership decline correlates with a decline in church affiliation, or “nones,” who are people who don’t select a religious affiliation when polled.

And it comes at new surprise, and it shouldn’t, that these figures all correlate to demographics. Millennials lead both in lack of religious affiliation and also in no longer attending churches.

So the facts as we see them are simply: church attendance is at an all-time low and millennials lead the way in the decline. The big question is why is this happening.

Are we just libertarians with leaders who model anti-religious values?

Ross Douthat is one of the columnists for the New York Times that I almost always disagree with, but one who showcases enough thoughtfulness that I can engage him in a critical reading. Douthat argues as follows:

One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The tension between this worldview and the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion can be bridged only with difficulty — especially because the American emphasis on authenticity makes it hard for people to simply live with certain hypocrisies and self-contradictions, or embrace a church that judges their self-affirming choices on any level, however distant or abstract.

Then, too, the manifest failure of many churches to live up to their own commandments, the pulse of scandal in religious life, makes their claim to offer a higher, harder wisdom seem self-discrediting.

A second obstacle is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.

Douthat suggests that one obstacle that impedes church attendance is the fact that Americans value liberty, and so Christian morality, or any moral code, infringes upon that libertarian ethic. I disagree with him here because I do not think that rugged independence and self-direction is endemic among millennials, who lead the decline, but rather the generation that raised them, the baby boomers. Yet they still attend church in a higher percentage. But it seems to me like a common good project is something that millennials are more in favor of. They are interested in social justice and social change, care less about institutions, and more about issues, more about creativity than partisanship. To me, it seems like they are ripe for an authentic Christianity that hasn’t been institutionalized to death.

I do agree with Douthat that the church’s hypocrisy makes any claim it has on a moral life completely illegitimate, and if we know anything it’s that millennials are particularly susceptible to moral hypocrisy. In fact a Pew study from years ago said that hypocrisy (and judgmentalism—the two go hand-in-hand) was a leading factor in the increase of nones. We can see millennials and their willingness to “cancel” hypocrites as an expression of the importance of authenticity to them (and their boomer counterparts’ commitment to free speech and liberty as a foil to millennials—obviously I’m painting with a broad stroke here). But it should be noted that they are sympathetic when people offer authentic apologies (enter Bean Dad) or when the “cancellation” seems ludicrous, as it did last week with film critic Lindsay Ellis.

Douthat goes on to say that scientism, even if not abject materialism, dominates the elite class of influencers, who is confusingly named “the meritocracy,” but nevertheless suggests that if our culture’s leaders embraced faith more it would influence the ones they lead to do so too. If Douthat’s argument proves to be true, then perhaps Joe Biden’s manifest Catholicism (which Douthat has acknowledged!), will bring about a change in these trends.

Millennials want spirituality, they want a moral fabric

However, I do not think that the people leaving churches are strict materialists, by any stretch. In fact, millennials still look to Instagram influencers as “moral authorities,” according to Leigh Stein, who writes satire about the wellness industry. Furthermore, tarot and astrology are very popular among millennials. I do not see here a resistance to metaphysics and spirituality, but a resistance to the forms and containers of it. I ultimately do not think acceptance of metaphysics and the supernatural among our society’s moral leaders would amount to many changes in church attendance, especially among millennials, but rather, that millennials couldn’t care less what the supposed meritocrats are doing, since they’ve lost faith in the institutions they represent. These people aren’t moral leaders, but rather valuable to millennials for what they offer us: data, empirical research, and products we like to consume. But we aren’t taking life or wellness advice from them because they give us model more of what we already do, work too much. (And I type this as I write this blog post, trying to get out a few more sentences before I kiss my children good night and rush off to another Zoom meeting.)

But I think the new forms of spirituality and the new interest in social justice showcases something to us about what might draw millennials back to churches. I think they are looking for authentic community, and not just friend groups, but community that helps them express something bigger than they are. And I think they are also interested in the tangible outcomes of that community, whether it is personal well-being or societal-change. What seems to be true, as well, is what drew previous generations to churches more readily—marriage and child-rearing—are not major priorities for millennials. And Christians should not necessarily lament that because marriage and child-rearing are not fundamental Christian values (even if they are fundamentalist ones), as much as that is simply that American market has turned them into Christian values. We simply need to adapt to how millennials want to live now and discern how to, as we say in Circle of Hope, bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility.

This is something to be lamented, not celebrated, but it is an opportunity

I have heard some Christians heralding this as an opportunity to reinvent the church, and I agree with them that it is. But to be sure, it is a sad circumstance. I do not think it is a good thing that church attenders are a minority, because it is difficult for us to become radicals like the actual persecuted Christians around the world whose churches are growing. Because Christianity in the United States has become such a fabric of the country, we do not even need the church any longer. In fact, we’ve been discarded more than we are “oppressed.” And the opportunity to reinvent ourselves is not easy because it requires a lot of shedding of the baggage that we’ve both voluntarily elected to hold, or has been thrown onto us. But nevertheless, it is something that all of us, as Christians, need to address. To be sure, it is a failure of Christians, collectively, that we have endured this loss. We share in complicity, but if we are interested in a national change, it’s not good enough to make sure we’ve done in our local communities (which is a suspect assertion).

The institutional trust in “Christianity” and in the “church” is shattered. This has do to with stale mainline variations of it, the abuse of Catholics, the hypocrisy of Evangelicals, and the reprehensible actions of Christian Nationalists. There is so much that Christians have done to make both Christianity boring, irrelevant, and sometimes dangerous, I’m not sure we could expect anything less. And there are not simple solutions. We aren’t victims of our culture: we have failed to adapt to our culture.

And so I think we do have an opportunity here to create a community that can adapt to our cultural context, not holding on to our old forms of faith, but ready to adapt to new things. Discerning what is the “content” and the “container” of our faith is essential for this, and also discerning what outcomes people want from Christian discipleship—or better yet, what Jesus promises. The project at hand is to have a serious conversation about the failure of Christianity in the United States, especially in the last several decades.

People want a metaphysical experience, because they are not materialist adherents. In fact, they reject any sort of doctrinaire control. They want authenticity, they want real community, they want lasting change for how our society is broken, hope beyond their circumstances, and materially for their lives to be better. These are the things that the church can offer, and if our churches do not offer them, your attenders may need to leave.

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