I’ve had a few conversations over the past few months that have made me seriously think about the role of the church in the lives of people my age. I am 27 and the leader of a church that is part of a shrinking denomination. Now granted, pretty much every denomination is declining, but the Episcopal Church is small to begin with. It’s hit us pretty hard.
I feel like I’m in a unique position to talk about this compared to many of my peers. For starters, I’m a Millennial, I generally have a favorable outlook of the institutional church, and I have decided to devote my life to the work of the church. But when I look out at the pews on Sunday mornings there just aren't that many people who represent my generation. This is a particular problem in more liturgical churches, like my own, which have trouble telling newcomers why we do what we do. They can end up getting lost very quickly, and we never hear from them again.
But the lack of churchgoing is not just an issue with young adults. Americans in general have either decreased the amount of times they attend church in a month, or they have dropped the practice all together. But the issue may be even broader than simply which denomination you are a part of. Being “religious” is quickly becoming unpopular.
Over the past decade the Pew Research Center, and others like it, have been tracking a peculiar trend in the religious life of Americans. More and more people are answering the question, “Which religion do you affiliate with?” By stating “Nothing in particular” or “None.” And they have been given the title “Religious Nones.”
This segment of the American population has been steadily trending upwards while Christian denominations, and religions in general, have been declining. One study that came out this past March states that these people who claim no religion now equal both Evangelicals and Catholics, sitting at around 23% of the American population.
That is quite a significant number, especially if you look back to 1990 when those claiming “no religion” were well under 10% of the population. For years now, researchers have been trying to figure out why this is. Even with the decline of institutional religions, amazingly, 80% of Americans still say that they believe in God. And when looking particularly at the category of “Religious Nones” it gets even more interesting. Many of these people grew up in a religious household, and then left sometime in adulthood. You likely know a handful of people who fit into this category, if you yourself don’t already fit the bill.
For some, they left organized religion because of a distrust of religious institutions, many left because they were questioning the religious teachings they heard growing up, but compared to atheists and agnostics, the stats have shown that very few of these “Religious Nones” left because they had lost their faith in God. Many, in fact, still believe in God (72% of this group still believes in a higher power of some kind), but they have left behind their denominations and religious practices. They have said goodbye to their childhood churches and temples, and shed off the baggage that comes with being “religious.”
And there is a lot of perceived baggage, if not actual baggage they are shedding off. The church time and again can seem out of touch, hypocritical, warm and fuzzy with no substance, or just plain boring. Maybe the most concise answer is that the church just doesn’t capture people’s hearts and imaginations like it used to.
In the conversations I’ve had recently with those who’ve left the church there has been a common theme: they have felt letdown by the church, underappreciated, or the church just seems irrelevant to them.
One couple told me they haven’t been to church is ages because they weren’t getting anything out of it. They didn’t feel like they were being fed spiritually or cared for by the community at all. Another person I talked to not long ago left because church just wasn’t doing it for them anymore. For another it had all to do with scheduling. Sunday morning was their only day off, and they really needed a day to do nothing. Ironically, their Sabbath was keeping them from church. For another it was their kid’s sports obligations which always fall on Sunday mornings. I talked to a hospital chaplain the other day who said that he prefers to be out in nature rather than going to church. And he's a representative of the church! Others have left because the music wan't good, the sermon was too long and boring, the people weren’t friendly, the church just felt sterile and fake, and the list goes on and on.
And these examples aren’t just from young adults. I’ve talked to people both young and old who have dropped church and haven’t looked back. But for many of the “Nones” that I’ve talked to some things still hold true.
Many of them are still asking the deep questions of life: "Why am I here? Is there a purpose to my life?" Many of them care about their community. They love to volunteer and give back to those in need locally. And lastly, many of them have thoughtful questions about God and Jesus, and if God has a plan for their life. The catch is that they aren’t going to the church anymore to get those questions answered.
Instead they are having these conversations with their friends at the bar, in coffee shops, or during a break at work. I saw this happen a number of times with the nurses I worked with at a hospital a few years ago. I've had some of the most honest and holy conversations around a nurse's station or in a coffee shop than I have ever had in a Sunday School class. On top of that, “Nones” aren’t volunteering through a church group that partners with a local nonprofit. They just show up at the nonprofit instead. So, it’s not that “Nones” aren’t asking these questions and serving in meaningful ways, it’s just that they aren’t going to the church to get those needs met.
We can’t blame the “Nones” for not being inspired with the good news of Jesus Christ. I think we need to look in the mirror and have a reality check. People aren’t coming to church because they will get points in the community or with their neighbors. I talked to a lady who was running for a local office, and she told me she was Methodist. I asked her which church she attended, and she said, “Well, I’ve gone to ‘such and such’ for a while, and then I’ve been over to this other one, but it’s not like I’m that religious or anything. I mean, I’ll go for Christmas and Easter.” Note: She did win her election. It’s not the 1950's anymore, you don’t have to be a church member to win in the south nowadays.
We live in a different world now, and the rules of the game are different. We cannot continue to do the same old thing and expect for our churches to grow or even to be sustainable the way things are going. We have to take a hard look in the mirror and have a come to Jesus moment…as the church ironically! Our message (the gospel) doesn’t change, but how we communicate to people has always been malleable throughout the ages. The “Nones” are out there and they aren’t going away. As the stats have shown, they continue to increase year after year. They will continue to ask the deep questions about life and God, and they will continue to look for opportunities to serve.
Where will the church be as they navigate those profound questions? Will they see us serving next to them in the local food pantry? We’ve got to meet them where they are. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We talk more about possible solutions in the next post.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Has this been your experience? Has it not? What made you leave church, or what made you stay? I know it is always dangerous generalizing a large group, but hopefully these stats help my argument. A lot of churches (many nondenominational churches) have been successful in reaching out to young adults and especially to "Nones." We'll talk about them in the next post as well.
Photo by: Steve Halama on Unsplash