A new survey shows in stark relief that what some are calling the Great Decline of religion in America continues: Since 2012, the U.S. has about 7.5 million more Americans who are no longer active in religion.
Last week, the 2014 General Social Survey was released. The GSS is the gold standard for sociological surveys. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this multimillion-dollar study gives us the most accurate data on American society — including religion.
(An important point to remember as you see the data: Each percentage point increase represents a growth of 2.5 million adults. So a 3-point rise in secularity, for example, means that about 7.5 million people left religion since 2012.)
Rachel Held Evans has grown into a powerful voice in American Christianity, first as the author of Evolving in Monkey Town and later with the New York Times best-seller A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Those who follow her writings often note that her thinking has become increasingly progressive, especially on hot-button theological issues such as gender and sexuality. That shift culminated in her leaving evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church.
Next month, Evans will release Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, a book that oscillates between stinging critiques of American Christianity and prescriptions for how she believes believers can more faithfully participate in church life. In an interview with Religion News Service, she talked about the key to revitalizing the church and defended her exit from evangelicalism. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You saythat the way to stop the exodus of millennials from churches isn’t cosmetic changes like better music, sleeker logos, and more relevant programming. Why are these methods ineffective?
A: These aren’t inherently bad strategies, and some churches would be wise to employ them. But many church leaders make the mistake of thinking millennials are shallow consumers who are leaving church because they aren’t being entertained. I think our reasons for leaving church are more complicated, more related to social changes and deep questions of faith than worship style or image.
If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity.
SARA WAS DESPERATE. She was fleeing an abusive husband, living with her mother in a mold-infested house, and she needed to rent an apartment. A recent college graduate, Sara had a job at a hospital that paid well and provided benefits. Apartment rent was within her means. But the background check came back to the landlord: “Do not rent.”
Sara (not her real name) was $22,000 in arrears on her student loans. The more she tried to pay the debt, the higher the interest rate climbed. Only after she filed for bankruptcy did she learn that none of her student loans were eligible for even the basic bankruptcy protection afforded other debts. At any time, the lender could garnish her wages—even to the point of making it difficult to pay basic living expenses, such as rent and utilities.
Sara is one of the new 21st century debtors, in financial bondage because they borrowed money for education. In 2014, the education debt in the United States totaled $1.2 trillion. More than 7 million borrowers are in default.
Why are education loans so difficult to manage? Credit card debtors often can transfer high-interest debt to another lender for a better deal. Car loan borrowers can walk away from the loan and allow the car to be repossessed. Homeowners can refinance their mortgage or, if all else fails, default and save their money for a rent deposit while the lender goes through the foreclosure process. As a last resort, these types of borrowers can declare bankruptcy and have their debts forgiven or reduced in a manageable payment plan. Bankruptcy courts will not allow debtors to be made homeless just because they can’t pay their creditors.
But if the borrower of an education loan is late with a payment or goes into default, according to Andrew Martin of The New York Times, the lender can levy penalties up to 25 percent of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate.
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The zeitgeist is clear. Much like Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement, the tragic string of murders of blacks in 2014 catalyzed another movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This movement picks up where the civil rights movement left off, addressing systemic racial injustice in the legal and penal system, educational system, and economic system. In some ways, the battles we fight are more challenging than the ones our grandparents fought. Undeniably, we face off in a more complex world and against forms of systemic racism that are so subtle that they are almost invisible. Nevertheless, due to a unique combination of gifts and experiences, I’m hopeful that my generation of black millennials is ready to lead us on to a more equitable society. Here’s why.
1. We are propelled by the prophetic legacy of the past.
With a technological savvy that gives us unprecedented access to the true history of our people, and as perhaps the last generation to breathe the same air as the civil rights generation, we draw upon the legacies of the past as we move forward. When I sense that my capacity to forgive is waning, I recall my recent conversations with several survivors of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and I’m reminded of the inner healing that forgiveness promises. When I am tempted to pander to the powers that be, I call my radical granddad and ask him to tell me again about the many Black Panthers meetings that took place at the church he pastored in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s. When I feel that I’m losing my courage, I read Ida B. Wells’ autobiography and am reminded that we are not alone. We are connected — part of a chain of black activists, each generation inspiring the next. Our heroes guide us every day.
A lot has been written about the decline of the mainline church over the years. Numerous theories have been passed around. Nearly every pew-sitting faithful Christian in America has her or his own opinion. As a minister I have heard a lot of these complaints from the masses; the request is simple. They want the church to be the center of social and political life as it seemed to be in the 1950s and 1960s. They want the pews packed with people, the nursery overflowing with babies, and the church to have the same level of particularity that it did years ago. The church today finds itself having to share time and attention with the rest of the world. Because of this (and numerous other factors), the church for the most part has seen the number of people attending the hallowed halls of a church house begin to decrease.
In an effort to find a culprit for the shrinking size and popularity of church, a scapegoat has been named and they are "young people today” — a catchall term for people under the age of 35 (or thereabouts) who have seemingly left the church en masse.
They are vilified as the sole reason and cause for the church to not be busting at the seams with people. If only those "young people" could just stop being so selfish on Sunday mornings and just come to worship God at 11 a.m. like people have been doing for years, the world might be a better place.
Second, money was never a part of my thought process when choosing my career. If money wasn’t the motivator for choosing my job, how could I be in danger of “serving two masters?”
It’s been said that one of the greatest tricks devil ever played was convincing most of the world he doesn’t exist. His greatest encore might be wrapping up vice in the midst of a big ball of virtue and letting the whole thing rot from the inside out.
I might not struggle with being a slave to money in the sense that I obsess about how much I make. But, in looking back over the past 10 years of my life, I’ve found myself serving the master of mammon precisely in the ways that I DIDN’T think about money.
Except, that’s not true. Racism is alive and well.
Here at Sojourners I’m privileged to be a part of enlightening conversations about diversity, racism, sexism, and a whole host of other injustices. This makes it all the more frustrating when I try and continue those conversations outside the Sojourners community, and I’m met with resistance. Most of my friends are extremely uncomfortable discussing race. And not just because it’s a taboo subject; this is D.C., after all, and politics are always fair game in friendly discussion. Instead, I’ve found that my friends are so unsettled by the subject that they either try and change it, or they tell me it’s not about race, it’s about income inequality. Those arguments, which I follow up with “where do you think the income inequality came from?,” are still met with resistance, and arguments that if we could just bring people out of poverty, the racial disparities would vanish.
The ongoing decline of American Christianity is well documented. A quick Google search of “mainline decline” provides statistics, commentary, and variously tried and discarded solutions related to the struggles of liberal protestantism in the United States. More recently, these trends are showing up in conservative Christian circles as well. The attention of the media, religious scholars, and cultural warriors has been captured by the rise of the “nones,” the “spiritual but not religious,” humanists, and evangelistic atheists.
It is clear who’s ascending and who’s falling. Organized religion is doomed. You, dying church, are in trouble.
I have seen your sickness up close. The congregation where I was baptized — once full on Sunday mornings — now barely hangs on. The church where I preached in college has long since closed its doors. My pastor friends spend their days worrying about shrinking worship attendance and a lack of financial resources for carrying out their ministry. Denominations pause from fighting and splitting just long enough to make budget cuts and lay off staff.
What can be done? What should be done? Is this a new reality that we simply must accept?
As the Pew Research Center recently found, today’s young people are “less likely than older generations to be affiliated with any religion.” The question is whether this trend is a good thing or a bad thing.
If you are a person of faith, you may worry about the souls of these “millennials,” the generation born after 1980. If you are a critic of organized religion, you may rejoice.
Last week as I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I came across a post from Dr. Timothy Keller, one of the founding members of The Gospel Coalition, who has been known for his very intellectual and reasonable perspective on a variety of issues that his other conservative colleagues have not been so balanced on. However, one of his recent comments surprised me, seeming to further a false narrative about millennial evangelicals that we are a generation of spineless, selfish, and scared hipsters:
I immediately was taken aback when I came across this post. As a millennial who has been actively involved in the conversation surrounding what faith, life, and church will look like for my generation, it is abundantly clear that the image that Keller paints has little to no grounding in reality. In fact, I would argue that one of the biggest desires of millennials is that we would be involved in deeply intimate communities that allow us to express ourselves openly, ask the questions to arise in our minds without fear of judgment, and give us a tribe of people that will walk with us through the ups and downs of life. In fact, this desire for intimate community is a direct response to the lack of community we have grown up with, especially in the evangelical world with our sterile megachurches that make true community nearly impossible.