There has been a lot of talk lately — both in the public sphere and most definitely here at the Sojo offices—about young people leaving the church.
I would argue that--while some of my fellow millenials are jumping ship on Christiainity--many are not so much leaving the big-C “Church,” (see my post on the definition of the word), as they are leaving established churches. The surveys show a migration from a particular denomination to “no religion.” To me, that doesn’t say atheist/agnostic; it just says that this generation of Christians doesn’t want to be labeled.
If you look at the numbers, millenials are quitting the church, not quitting Jesus. Unaffiliated does not necessarily mean unChristian.
My generation doesn’t want the “Southern Baptist,” “Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” “Roman Catholic” affiliations thrust upon us. Not only do we disagree with some of the tenants of said denominations, but each title carries all sorts of baggage left at our feet.
We’ve seen post after post listing possible catalysts to twenty-somethings turning away from the religion of our fathers in droves. Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum blames college. The reasons listed here on God’s Politics, in books and by church leaders themselves each probably factor in to some degree.
But I do want to dismiss some of them. I believe many religious leaders are too quick to write us off as one or more of the following:
- Lazy — We don’t want to get up bright and early on Sunday mornings, before the first mimosa has been poured at our favorite brunch locale.
This excuse likens us to hormonal teenagers whose parents have to flicker their morning lights and drag them out of bed. Forget that we’ve long since grown up and have jobs—in this economy, often many of them at once. Delaying marriage and children does not mean delaying maturity—it means that our economic reality is much different than previous generations.
Conclusion: We’re not lazy.
- Selfish — This is the “cafeteria Christian” mentality. We want everything our way, and if we can’t have it, we will pack our bags and leave.
Realistically, we’ve just been thrown too much. There are so many things to learn, so many perspectives to understand. People of my generation often don’t quite get how to reconcile certain ingrained societal beliefs with church teaching. We might be Catholic but fall into the overwhelming majority who use birth control. We might be Southern Baptist but enjoy the glass of wine with dinner. My generation rages against hypocrisy and does not want to fall victim to it.
Conclusion: We’re sometimes selfish, but so are you. We’re mostly just confused.
- Isolated — iPhones are glued to our faces and we spend much of our evenings either watching trash TV like The Bachelor or on Facebook—or both! We don’t need anyone or anything and certainly not the church.
While the part about our iPhones and Facebook (and OK, The Bachelor) are all true, it doesn’t lessen our generation’s real desire for community—we’re just really good at multitasking. The reality of social networking is that it’s made it easier to do in-person networking. When I moved to D.C., I immediately looked on Facebook to see which of my friends I could meet up with here. We crave community, but it might not look like sitting in silence in a cold sanctuary. It probably looks like going out for beer to watch the game with friends and catching up on each other’s’ lives—meeting with other believers where they are and creating our own kind of support system.
Conclusion: While we should probably power down more often, we do seek relationships. We just have other ways of finding them than through a traditional church model.
- Irreverent – We can’t be bothered to change out of jeans on the weekends and we don’t go anywhere in the morning without our Venti caffeinated beverage of choice.
I’ve got nothing. This is true.
Conclusion: We’re tired of being judged for not participating in traditions we don’t understand that have little, if any, biblical basis.
- Cynical — Or skeptical, as in, lacking faith. Some things can’t be explained and we are really bad at leaving it at that.
We have been taught since kindergarten to question authority—that most things in life can be answered by a quick Google search. It’s frustrating for our generation to hear, “I don’t know” and be OK with it. That said, I also believe that in our present and ever-tumultuous daily lives, we do long for something other-worldly. It might be why so many claim (annoyingly) “spiritual-but-not-religious.” It's not necessarily the theology they're rejecting, but the establishment that adds on unnecessary requirements to belief.
Conclusion: We are skeptical, but mostly of manmade constructs. A denomination that claims to have everything right does not appeal to us. Absolute truth exists, but not in the mind of man.
In the end, everyone is looking for the reason for mass exodus and the magical potion to bring those sinners back. But maybe it doesn’t need solving.
What if my generation is creating something that doesn’t look like present-day church? What if it looks more like the biblical model—personal time with God, breaking bread with others, community and relationships? What if it looks like living missionally where we are, attending church occasionally as a recharge station, whether church is at Starbucks or sanctuary? Here is where the house church movement is gaining traction.
It’s a scary prospect for established churches, but I believe it’s an exciting possibility for the kingdom of God.
Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Follow Sandi on Twitter @Sandi.