In 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS]* found an 85% increase in people who self identify as atheists in less than 20 years. Virtually every main line church is reporting declines of 2-15% in membership over the same time. 15% of the US population now self identifies as “none.” The body of Christ is bleeding.
Adam Lee, who writes a blog called the Daylight Atheist, says “I’d love to say that [atheist’s] dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves…But the truth is that the church’s wounds are largely self-inflicted."
The Barna Group has studied the Millennials to determine why they are leaving the church.** 59% of young adults raised in the church disconnect from church life for an extended period of time after age 15. The six main reasons were:
1) they feel they were getting an unsatisfying, shallow, inauthentic version of Christianity
2) they feel the church was overprotective
3) they perceive judgmental attitudes around sex and sexuality
4) they perceive “unfriendliness” to members grappling with doubt
5) they perceive “exclusivity” in Christian churches
6) the tense relationship between Christianity and science
Equally enlightening is a series of interviews of young adults who have maintained a connection to faith communities.*** They expressed that what they wanted was a community that encourages social justice, a place of creative and critical thinking, and a space free of judgment. And that churches should “ focus their engagement on actions that serve the common good or speak up for the oppressed rather than opposing a controversial issue because of theological objections.”
Some Christians wonder if the church should change to meet the needs and desires of society before becoming irrelevant. That is a myopic, perilous and unnecessary train of thought.
As I look back at the issues raised by those who left and those who remained, I am struck by how perceptive they are about a church that has lost its way. We are being called back to our roots by this generation, to do and to be what is required of us. They “get it”. Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly with God. Everything else is incidental. They want us to focus on the main things and keep the main things the main things. They have taken the core values to heart and call us on it when we have become hypocritical about them. They are asking us to put blood on the word. They are asking us to lead as a servant leads – with patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty and commitment.
Why Church? Because what we are called to do (see above) is HARD WORK! It is HARD to be just when we are confronted with choices every day between doing what is right and what is expedient/profitable/in our own self-interest. It is HARD to show mercy to everyone – especially the ones who hurt us or the ones we don’t think “deserve” it. It is HARD to walk humbly with God when we crave some certainty in our lives and when friends, co-workers or the culture dismisses our values. It is HARD to practice patience, kindness, humility and so on -- ALL the time.
The church is the assembly of believers that nourishes and sustains me while I endeavor do the work of God in the world. It equips me, it centers me, it gives me strength in the proclaiming of the Gospel. It picks me up when I fall. It administers the sacraments to restore my soul. If it didn’t/doesn’t do that then I’d have to agree that there doesn’t seem to be much point to it.
The Millennial part of the body of Christ is calling on the other parts to stop self-inflicting wounds and get back to doing what is required.
May the Lord so bless us.
* http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/about-aris/ - if you want to learn about the survey
** See You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.