Lost in the American Church (Again)

When last I posted about the topic of why young people leave the church, I concluded:

But as long as we as Christians are more concerned with the politics of morality and shouting down scientific evidence than we are about feeding the hungry, helping the unemployed or reaching out to the homeless, young people will continue to reject the church. As long as we’re more interested in forwarding emails about Rick Perry than having honest conversations about the issues with which our youth are struggling, we provide them no choice but to find their own way in a world that has plenty of alternatives to offer them.

In the comments, Shawn Smucker pointed me to a link from Barna, which does all the churchy research you could ever want, providing six poll-deduced reasons why the American church is struggling to keep its youth.

Here’s a summary:

1. Church seems overprotective

One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).
2. Their experience of Christianity is shallow
One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).
3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science
The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

4. Their churches’ attitudes toward sexuality are often simplistic and judgmental

One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity

Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

6. The church is unfriendly to doubters

Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%).

Look at some of the words used in the quotes and the summaries, and notice how they generally fall into two groups:

  • Overprotective, demonizing, antagonistic, judgmental, unfriendly, country club.
  • Out of step, anti-science, simplistic, out of date, afraid.

What an indictment!

I said in my earlier post that it’s easy to find fault with the church and issue a prescription that happens to coincide exactly with one’s own beliefs. Conservatives will say the church needs to focus more on heaven-and-hell, literal Bible teaching. Liberals will say the church needs to be more open and accepting.

This is why data such as these are so important. I can say – and I did – that the church is focusing too much on conservative politics and anti-evolutionism and too little on teaching its members how to live out a vibrant, active faith based on the words and actions of Christ, but perhaps that’s just because I’m a squishy liberal who would rather be buddies with my fellow intellectual elites rather than read the plain words of the Bible.

But what do the kids who are actually leaving the church say?

Well, they say they get a Christianity more focused on opposing than doing. A church more interested in itself than others.

If God has given us evidence for how his creation works, and he has further placed a love for studying that evidence in a young boy or girl, how dare we get in the way of that? How dare we make young people feel they must choose between their friends and their faith? How dare we stifle conversation, relegate hard questions to the shadows and foster a culture of hidden sin and shame?

More than one-third of young Christians say they feel they are unable to ask their “most pressing life questions in church.” How did we get this so backward? More importantly, how can we rectify this?

The good news is I think we are, slowly, partly because the young people who choose to stay are pushing to overturn the traditional structures of what can and cannot be discussed, believed or asked inside the walls of American sanctuaries. It is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge that faith has room for science, for doubt, for mistakes, for discussions with others who perhaps believe differently than we do.

No congregation or denomination has a monopoly on truth. We need robust, honest conversations about hard questions, and increasingly I think we’re getting them. It just takes time.

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One comment on “Lost in the American Church (Again)

  1. Obviously, youth are very important and telling because they represent a time of life when there’s “asking” a higher concentration of the “questions” faith typically deals with. I’m not reacting against this report because of its youth focus, it just got me curious on a larger scale.

    I wonder what a more inclusive report would show. Obviously, the ideas here aren’t represented in youth alone, and the liquidity of self-proclaimed church association isn’t limited to youth, even if the concentration of action is higher. I wonder if people leaving the church in their 30s through 50s, some of whom have kept their personal faiths for decades, would have the same things to say.

    Then, of course, I also wonder what youth in the church say the major benefits of the church are. They’re bound to be different than the pat “This is why the church exists” answers (which may be useful as far as they go) or the ideas of older people. It would obviously give a great starting point.

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