By AMANDA GREENE
This week’s Viewpoints question had many of our writers really buzzing.
Why do you think the church is losing young adults?
A 2007 Lifeway Research poll found that about 70 percent of youth leave the church of their childhood after high school. About 35 percent of church dropouts said they resumed church attendance by age 30.
Some political analysts are pointing to a ‘God gap; with young people feeling alienated by politicians who incorporate their belief systems into ideas about policy.
Here is what WilmingtonFAVS’ writers had to say.
I blame arrogance and the incursion of religion into politics for driving young people away from churches. Religion should be – first and foremost – about strengthening their fellowship’s link with the Divine. In the past, churches were seen as places where those in need of guidance could gather for support in their spiritual walk. There they were encouraged and uplifted. The churches’ role in the community facilitated this; by encouraging the fellowship’s reaching out to the community, it encouraged charity and love. By being helped and uplifted during spiritual crisis, members learned the value of being part of a supportive community of like-minded believers.
But today, Christian churches seem to have turned away from providing spiritual support to becoming moral scolds. They’ve become huge, both in scope and in arrogance. Megachurches transmit three services a Sunday on theater screens. Preachers like Pat Robertson who have reached celebrity preacher status use their popularity to raise money from people often hard-pressed to send in the donations they’re asked to give. The popularity of these preachers has led too many of them to get into politics and seek to influence political races.
Young people at uncertain places in their lives may no longer see churches as a refuge or a place they can go for supportive environment of spiritual growth. Part of Jesus’ appeal to his followers – and to so many young people – was that he was a bit of a rebel. By loving the sick and needy and rebuking the Pharisees, he bucked the system of his day. Today, so many churches don’t buck the system but are part of it. That’s bound to make anyone cynical, especially young people.
I have a daughter, age 23, who like me, was raised as a liberal Christian. It has been very revealing to watch her religious evolution. As she grew older, we watched her belief system mature from one base on naiveté into critical thinking on her own. She began to observe the hypocrisy in the organized church and the requirement to accept blind faith instead of scientific and verifiable facts on which to base life’s decisions. She, like me, became more and more appalled at American Christianity’s silence when it came to social issues and our country’s addiction to perpetual war. And, not to become partisan, the church’s alignment with the hate-filled theology of neo-conservatism sealed the deal for my daughter and me. I believe in Christ’s philosophy, but I’m finding modern-day Christianity difficult to swallow.
As usual, a Buddhist perspective on this question will be something different. Dharmanet.org indicates that about 1400 locales in the US have some sort of activity that self-identifies as Buddhist. Very few of these, however, are institutions, churches, or temples that are places of worship. Many are retreat centers or groups meeting in homes. Considering the variety of teaching schools, lineages, and practices, it is difficult to reach any reasonable conclusions about growth or loss of practitioners. The general sense, however, is that Buddhism is growing rapidly.
Adherents.com—a growing collection of over 3,870 adherent statistics and religious geography citations—does provide some information about the growth of Buddhism. Of the top five largest religious groups in the US (self-identified through the American Religious Identity Survey), Buddhism has grown the most in the indicated time period.
On a local note, I can report a general increase in interest in Buddhism and a lowering of the average age of those engaged in exploring the Buddhist path to awakening. A local social media site for all things Buddhist, Wilmington Dharma, reports 40.2 percent of all those reached by the site are in the 18-34 year old demographic. Surprisingly, about 60 percent of that age group are males. The number of local practice groups has nearly tripled in the last five years.
Is this local growth all “Buddhist” in the sense of traditional religion? No. Buddhism is reinventing itself in the west, and Wilmington is no different in that regard. Much of the local growth is from people interested in mindfulness and meditation as tools for living. Traditional Buddhist practices rely heavily on such techniques, but the techniques are not the be-all, end-all to awakening.
I think young people, like many other thinkers today, are searching for something authentic. This spiritual search may take them away from creeds, rituals, dogma and even established denominations. They want a fresh look at what it means to follow Good, or God, in this world, and they want to discover it for themselves.
I like to think of church as a living idea, not limited to a building, service or doctrine. I’ve been taught that it’s the structure of Truth and Love; that it rouses us from material beliefs to spiritual ideas and gives us proof that it’s useful in our individual lives, our communities and our world. Church heals, and more. It gives purpose, meaning and unconditional love for us to express. So it’s up to us. That’s a challenge!
Pastor Clay Ritter
Why is the church losing young adults? There are a multitude of reasons, but one I would submit is this: Resistance to change on the part of church leaders.
The message should not change (truth is truth), but how we deliver the message can and must change. Young people are searching for truth. They want to make a difference in their world. Case in point: Candidate Barack Obama’s success in uniting the college vote – these kids wanted to make a difference!. But they see the churches of their parents as stale and not relevant.
As leaders, we must be willing to assess what is not working, and be willing to change it so we can reach the next generation. These kids WILL run the world after we are dead and gone, so we had better make sure that they have a foundation of truth, character and courage to carry into their high calling.
I read recently that Howard Hendricks was called in to assess a church that was declining in attendance, and this was his recommendation: “Put a fence around the church and charge admission to people that want to see how church was done in the 1950’s.”
All we need to do is look at Western Europe, where great churches that were the guiding moral compass in society are now being converted to restaurants and clubs.
Bottom line: truth will always be truth, and we should never seek to water down our core beliefs, which will only negate the power of our message. Style, delivery, communication mediums, music, these are things that are not core doctrinal values (if they are, then you have another problem altogether), and must be made relative to the culture we seek to reach.
The church is losing young adults because society is selling them a better story (a better life) than the church. Society knows what young people want. And the church, or churches, have refused to adapt. I’m not saying the church needs to invest in some sexy back-up dancers in worship or tell people Jesus looked just like Channing Tatum. But the church does need to sell young adults a better story. For too long the church has condemned young people for succumbing to the ways of the world. Instead, they should be loving young adults, despite their faults.
The church has condemned while society has accepted.
Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Shouldn’t the church be accepting the outcast, tattooed, gay, pierced, hurt and broken? The answer is, simply, yes. But this isn’t always the case. Young adults have grown up in a society where religious organizations have turned their backs to these people. And, in turn, young adults have turned their backs on the church.
If I didn’t not grow up in a family and church who, at their core, love God and people (no matter where they come from) I would probably be joining those young people who have turned their back on the church.
We can place the blame on the loss of young adults in the church on the church as a whole, but you ARE the church. If you want to see young adults coming to know Christ and get involved in the church, you have to love these young adults where they are.
Instead of condemning these young adults for what they’ve done, let’s open up our arms. Then we can share with the the incredible story that Christ offers them.
I have over 12 years experience working as a youth and young adult minister. I have seen this problem up close several times. First, this is not another conservative versus liberal argument. I once worked for a liberal-leaning pastor and church, and due to their resistance to change, the youth program died, and the young adults stopped attending. A vibrant theatre arts program that brought youth and adults from the church and from other churches together in Christian fellowship was also squashed. The theatre program -though highly successful and a great service project -proved to be too far out of the box of normal church ministry. It became obvious the people giving the most money to the church (the older population) had the loudest and most pervasive voice in the church going forward.
Youth need to have the freedom given to them in Christ to express their love and devotion to God in their own unique ways -they need to be accepted where they are at that moment. That can be through sports or technology and even from my experience -the arts.
If their individual ways of expressing their faith is not accepted in their church, they will leave and possibly never return to the faith. Their voices deserve to be heard. The church belongs to them just as much, even though they probably don’t give as much money.
In a word, information. The modern technological era has made available a huge variety of material online that exposes and demands the reassessment of differing viewpoints. In this environment, churches no longer have control over the information to which our youth are exposed. Through social networking, it is inevitable that the Internet generation reads, hears and sees alternative viewpoints which vastly contradict any singular dogma or rationale espoused at the pulpit. Since the earliest times, religious institutions have fought against the dissemination of information, fighting the translation and publication of texts, especially those that challenge often narrow and archaic viewpoints. Today, this is a battle they can no longer fight nor win. Young people can plainly see that those outside their own traditional faith are not an immoral enemy, but rather a collection of groups vastly similar to themselves. The argument could be made that the young still need social community, but again, they are increasingly finding this online. Blogs are the new pulpits, and social networking the new community for our next generation.
In 1969, my family relocated from Beaune to Chartres, France. I was 16. Both my parents found new jobs; my siblings and I went to new schools. Three months later, I had made new friends, got good grades and was my class mascot.
But deep inside, I was lonely. Something was missing in my life.
My parents didn’t give us a religious upbringing. One day after school, I took a chance and walked alone into the massive cathedral. I walked around the pews, then to the confessional. I knew I had to address the Catholic priest as “Father,” but I couldn’t make myself do it. I sat down in the tight wooden structure. It felt unfamiliar, almost scary.
I couldn’t see the priest’s face in the dark.
“Sir,” I said in a low voice, “I feel something’s missing in me. I don’t believe in God, but I really want to.”
In response, the priest told me to “make friends at school, get good grades and be happy.”
I left even more distraught than when I’d walked in.
God’s priest had let me down.
Looking back at that experience, I think the priest had good intentions, but also lacked appreciation for an adolescent’s drama. I was a “well-adjusted” teen. I did not need advice on how to “make new friends or good grades.”
But I did need guidance into spirituality to help me deal with a world of chaos and war. I needed to know: “How do I feel God’s presence in my life?”
In 2012 America, our society is even more frightening. Christians and “God’s representatives” must learn to address the reality and the poignancy of a young adult’s spiritual quest.
I am a mother of three. My kids are ages 20, 19, and 14. We were a military family who moved often, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch my kids respond to the different styles of worship and teaching in the many churches we’ve attended.
It’s quite simple. My kids need and desire a church where they can be themselves. Sing to music their generation listens to. Listen to preachers who make the message relevant to today. They need this in a church because our faith isn’t just about Sunday. Faith is 24/7. That’s why Sunday needs to resemble this generation’s “every day.”
The new church movement with rock bands and preachers in jeans and sneakers is really not very different from what Jesus did. The Pharisees were not pleased with his new “worship style” either. He healed people on the Sabbath and ate with sinners. Radical. We sing in the dark to the thump of a bass drum, a far cry from the churches of 50 years ago. But it is a place my kids want to be. It’s a church where they are growing their faith. Not mine.
Jesus told those questioning his methods that new wine cannot be poured into old wineskins. In the same way, the church must grow and evolve with each generation. We cannot force our style on them. The heart of the message does not change, but the format must.
My middle son has recently posted a video on Facebook that gives an answer to our Viewpoints question. Why don’t we ask a young person?