Why Are the World’s Young Adults Leaving the Church?
Someone recently asked my opinion about why so many of the millennial generation are leaving the church, and what can be done about it. After doing some reflection, prayer and meditating, and based on some personal observations, there are quite a few reasons why this is so. To begin with, the fact of the matter is that young Christians often feel forced to choose between their logic and their faith, between evolution and Creation, and between compassion and piety, as if they are mutually exclusive of each other. Meaning, churches who are losing members do so due to politics and religion being merged into one faith while missing any semblance of the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ. This attitude dates all the way back to the time of Christ, when the high priests and the Hebrew religious establishment of that time were expecting the Jewish Messiah to arrive as a conqueror who would set up his Kingdom in Jerusalem – in opposition to the Roman Empire – and rule the entire world (That day is coming, but not until all the scriptures have been fulfilled).
A second and equally noteworthy reason that churches are losing America’s young professionals is that young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be either too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned to the point of being and thinking backwards, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to liberal, progressive, environmentalist and LGBT people, among others. Most of all, I have met modern Christians who refuse to congregate and worship with anyone other than their own race. Rev. Dr. King said it best back in the 1960’s when he stated, “The most segregated place in America is at church on Sunday morning”. To a large extent, this has not changed much over the last 50 years or so. Does organized religion think that young adults don’t see this for the hypocrisy that it is?
A third reason that some well-established churches are driving millennials and young adults away is the time-honored tradition of abstinence from alcoholic beverages. There are at least a few well-known Christian denominations – which I will decline to name – who “teach” that abstinence from alcohol is essential to salvation in Christ. But they have forgotten all about the twin facts concerning this subject; the first is that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water into wine, and the second is that there were at least two glasses of wine – and possibly more – that were served at the Last Supper on the night before he was crucified. America’s young adults look at this and see it for the spiritual sophistry that it truly is.
While we’re at it, let’s not forget those who are in favor of decriminalizing drugs that are currently illegal. It’s not just marijuana for medical purposes alone. Legalize, regulate and tax all illegal drugs, and watch the existing black market for these substances evaporate almost immediately. Portugal, the Netherlands, and Uruguay down in South America are three well-documented examples of what happens after drugs are decriminalized. Legalization – like the repeal of Prohibition in the US in the early 1930’s – has cut drug consumption by more than half.
And then there is one of my pet peeves, that Old Testament-based “teaching” about giving a tenth of your income each and every week, otherwise known as tithing. It is based on a single verse of Scripture from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 14, verse 22, which says, “Be sure and set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year”. But modern churches take this much further than that. Their pastors, deacons and other elders will use a well-known verse from the book of Malachi, the very last book of the Old Testament. It reads as follows: “’Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me’. But you ask, ‘But how do we rob you?’. ‘In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me’” (Malachi chapter three, verses 8-9, NIV). The Bible tells us that the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Law, and yet modern-day preachers and evangelists use these verses to convince their congregations to keep giving more money and other donations as if the above verses were directed at the faithful. In reality, these passages were severe admonishments from God, not towards members of the Church, but rather directed at the leadership. But many prominent preachers and evangelists twist the two separate passages of Scripture towards their congregations and away from themselves. Such individuals who teach this false doctrine will be dealt with most severely when their time for judgment comes.
The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules. The world’s young adults long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt. We are taught to abstain from sex before marriage and not to commit adultery, yet all the while those who teach this commit the same sins in secret, as if God doesn’t know what they are doing. These are the same people who condemn same-sex marriage while committing their own immoral sexual behavior. What a bunch of hypocrites!
Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders is that the key to drawing people in their twenties and thirties back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving. But here’s the thing: Christians of all ages have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re turned off by anything that smacks of consumerism. What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want to be challenged to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, and becoming peacemakers. People aren’t leaving the church because they don’t find the cool factor there; they’re leaving the church because they don’t find Jesus there. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus Christ the Son of God. But I would encourage church leaders eager to win back young adults to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community. The immorality of fighting wars, of extreme inequality, of the drug wars, and caring for the fatherless, widows and orphans would be a good place to start.