Why are so many young people in America leaving the Church?
A wide array of answers have been suggested lately. The Barna research group conducted eight national studies with teenagers, young adults, youth ministers and pastors in order to shed light on the issue. They found that young adults in the millennial generation find churches to be overprotective, shallow, antagonistic to science, inadequate in their teaching on sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly to those who doubt. Millennials themselves have expressed their own perspective, identifying the church’s hostility towards homosexuals to be the main reason that young adults leave the church (see the recent, overwhelming response to “An open letter to the church” blog post from Dannika Nash).
It is hard for those of us in the older generations to understand such harsh criticism. Sure, the church has its problems, but we have experienced it as a place of comfort and belonging, of worship and love. How can there be such a discrepancy between our experience and theirs and, more importantly, what does the younger generation need that the church is not giving them?
Several months ago,in a much-discussed CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans suggested that what millennials (herself included) need from the church is authentic worship, theological substance, an end to the culture wars, a truce between faith and science, a moratorium on divisive politics, and a challenge to live holy and sacrificial lives like Christ.
I want to suggest that all of these needs can be expressed in one foundational need: The younger generation needs a thinking church.
For most of the church’s history, the leaders of the church–pastors, priests, and other clergy–were the most educated people of their times. Even into the twentieth century, it was common for pastors to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and to have attended the most prestigious schools on earth. Today, we study the sermons and letters of preachers from the past to learn from the clarity of their thought and the beauty of their prose.
However, in the last century, key movements swept across the landscape of the church and changed it drastically. The holiness movement, the first and second Great Awakening, the growth of the charismatic church, the birth of evangelicalism, and the rise of fundamentalism all shifted the focus away from matters of the head to focus on the importance of the heart. With these movements, the church began to seek revival rather than research, to value the work of the Spirit rather than the work of the scholar, to emphasize the importance of conversion and morality over education and tradition. These were all welcome and important changes and they could have enacted a healthy balance in the church.
But as is common with the human practice of religion, we went too far. Churches that emphasized the Holy Spirit became suspicious of seminary and theological education. Churches that valued the Scriptures above all else began to exalt the Bible to a place of idolatry, worshipping the literal words of its pages rather than the living message it conveyed. Churches that centered their services on fear-inducing sermons of the hellfire and brimstone type started to lose the practices of reflective worship and repentant prayer, of intellectual inquiry and cultural engagement.
And so the scales tipped. Suddenly, churches were not encouraging Christians to be educated and articulate, to study science and literature and art along with Scripture, or to search for deep, thoughtful answers to the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, churches began to discourage difficult questions and academic interaction with the world. They felt challenged by—and consequently became hostile to—new ideas, new technology, and new ways of thinking, speaking, and ministering. The chasm I described in my earlier posts began to grow–that chasm between the intellectual pursuit of God exemplified by the pastors of the 19th and 20th century (also by Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17!) and the religious practice of the 21st century church characterized by fear of scholarship and distrust of the academy.
When the younger generation looks at the church of today, they realize that as the church, we might feel passionately, protest loudly, and correct indiscriminately, but we do not think deeply. And at the end of the day, our young people need A THINKING CHURCH.
A THINKING CHURCH would be able to converse with the fields of science and literature and business and education, to find truth in them and speak truth to them as well;
A THINKING CHURCH would interact with culture and the arts, infusing more creativity in its worship and more cultural relevance in its message medium;
A THINKING CHURCH would train its people in apologetics, the art of defending the faith with articulation and compassion;
A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to talk with people who are from different backgrounds—whether different religions or cultures—to learn from other beliefs while remaining firm in the tenets of their own faith;
A THINKING CHURCH would be eager to discuss answers to the difficult theological questions that many millennials ask, like:
- How does the message of the Bible fit with the principles of science?
- How can so many Christians read the Bible and come up with different interpretations?
- How can I love my neighbor (who may have different beliefs from me) while remaining strong in the ethical teachings of Scripture?
- How can a sovereign God of love allow so much evil in this world?;
A THINKING CHURCH would be prepared to offer compassion and support to those who doubt, who find themselves stuck at the uncomfortable intersection of faith and reason;
A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to change, ready to grow, and open to admitting when they were wrong.
What the millennials really need is for the church of history, with its intellectual prowess and curiosity about the world, to meet the churches of today, with their passion for Scripture and ethics and service and Spirit. They need to see the body of Christ, in action, engaging soul and heart and strength and mind in order to change the world with the love of God.
Are we, as the church of today, ready to become the thinking church that our young people so desperately need and, if so, how do we do it?