The Common Good

Millennials to the Church: Wake Up or We're Outta Here

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It’s time for the church to wake up! 

According to a Laura Sessions Stepp at CNN.com, evangelical churches are finally acknowledging a trend that statisticians have been tracking for years: young evangelicals are leaving the church in droves.

In the new report, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith, Barna Group President David Kinnaman notes a 43 percent drop in Christian church attendance between the teen and early adult years.

Perhaps most intriguing is that research indicates younger people are not only departing from their elders on “social issues,” such as same-sex marriage and abortion, but on wealth distribution and care for the environment, as well.

According to a report in The Christian Science Monitor, three out of four millennials say that wealthy corporations and financiers have too much power and that taxes should be raised on the very wealthy. Two out of three say financial institutions should be regulated more closely.

While the issue of jobs and higher wages remain as important to millennials as they do to older voters, the widening “black hole” of church attendance in the 18-29 age demographic indicates a larger trend — young people are thirsting for social justice, and simply not finding those principles in the pews.

Most vexing of all is that this trend isn’t surprising. But it should be.

As we approach the Christmas holiday and celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation, it’s worthwhile remembering the personality of God as met in the person of Jesus Christ.  In Jesus, God hit the streets, bringing with him a radical message of social justice that challenged us to love and empower the “least of these.”

Jesus was both of the poor and for the poor. Yet in this time, we have Christian leaders and leaders who promote their Christianity loudly proclaiming the Gospel according to Ayn Rand and prosperity theology. But Jesus offers harsh words for those who proclaim their faith while maintaining a flippant attitude towards the needy:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour the widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
(Luke 20:46-47)

And as we await the birth of our proclaimed Savior, how can we forget the simple, straightforward advice His harbinger, John the Baptist, offered to the masses?

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
(Luke 3:11)

So too does the Bible enjoin us to respect God’s Creation, which we’re told is “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God not only designs human beings with the goal of their stewarding Creation (Gen. 1:26), but calls them to this vocation from the very moment of they are created (Gen. 1:28). This theme continues throughout scripture, with the prophetic voice of Isaiah clarifying the frightening consequences of ignoring our responsibility to this planet:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heaves languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
(Isaiah 24:4-6)

Talk about a missed opportunity. 

By falling out of step — and out of touch — with the heart of Christian teachings, more and more evangelical congregations are losing their young members and feeling left behind.

The evangelical church faces a credibility gap. How can the church be rooted in a tradition, in a person, in a God of radical social justice and yet leave their young folks yearning for exactly that?

The failure is not, as some would have you believe, of a secular society that encourages our youth to turn their backs on Christ and the church. Rather it is a failure of the church to acknowledge the full scope of Christian values and engage its young congregants on a range of serious issues that not only made headlines throughout 2011, but also lie at the heart of Christian faith.

In this Advent season, may the churches remember and actively engage the God we met and continue to meet in the living Christ child. 

This Christmas, let us celebrate the One who “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52), who reminds us that to the poor belong the keys to the Kingdom of God (Luke 6:20), and who turned the defeat of death into the ultimate triumph of the cross.

In Jesus, the hungry are fed, the meek inherit the earth, and the poor hold the keys to the Kingdom of God.

Given the character of God we know in Jesus Christ, and the call to action pervasive throughout his earthly ministry, there is no reason that a perceived lack of social concern should be inspiring millennials to leave the church. 

Christmas is a time of remembrance.

May the churches remember God’s call in Christ to live a life of radical justice, and in so doing reengage a young generation that has every reason to call the church’s bluff.

 

Matthew Santoro is a communications and new media professional in Washington, D.C. He was a Capstone Scholar of Religion at Oberlin College, graduating in 2007. Matthew completed his Master's degree in Political Science at American University in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @Rantoro.

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