Which One of These 8 Reasons Is Really Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church?

Hipster Jesus?
Is American Christianity trying too hard to be "cool"? (Flickr/Brett Jordan [edited])

Many young people are leaving Evangelical churches. Statistics vary, but there is general consensus that large numbers of post-high school age Evangelical youth shed the faith of their fathers and mothers upon beginning their college years.

The reasons given are multiple. They include such things as over-identification of older Evangelicals as angry Right-wingers who disdain homosexuals and are skeptical of global warming; a subculture that is unwelcoming to the young and secular; Christianity's claim of exclusivity as to truth and salvation; and the general superficiality of the preaching and teaching.

Summing up much of this line of thinking, Carol Howard Merritt writes, "There are three major reasons that a younger generation is leaving Evangelicalism: pernicious sexism, religious intolerance, and conservative politics"

Yet this analysis, so neat and damning (and, for critics of Evangelicalism, rewardingly severe), seems woefully incomplete.

First, the idea that younger Evangelicals are jettisoning their youthful faith could well be overstated. University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright, author of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You've Been Told, challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the young and Evangelical Protestantism:

Evangelicalism increased among all age groups from 1972 through the early 1990s, and it has decreased in all groups since then. The differences exist in rates of change, namely it's dropped among young people faster than older people. It's worth noting, however that the biggest drop of faith in young people happened in the 1990s, and that current levels are about the same as the early 1970s. 

Still, this doesn't alleviate the fact that a noticeable number of younger Evangelicals are departing from the pews in which they were raised. Let's also agree that the verbal and political excesses of some Evangelical conservative leaders have been off-putting and that personal friendships with gay men and lesbians make younger believers alert to real and perceived insults by believers of homosexuals.

But is the (supposed) ecclesiastical exodus of collegiate and post-collegiate Evangelicals really as simple as disgust with the excesses of political conservatism, discomfort with Christianity's claim of exclusivity regarding the path to salvation, a desire to "live green," and simply get along in an adverse society?

I propose several other reasons why some young people are leaving their Evangelical heritage. They are these:

1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.

Desperate contemporaneity has become the coin of the age as Evangelicals make gasping efforts to draw in the disaffected. We preach on methods of achieving various kinds of success (with one or two Bible verses thrown in) instead of the books and themes of Scripture. We have become what Michael Patton calls "the entertainment driven church." After awhile, manic superficiality in the name of "relevance" induces cynicism, and rightfully so. As described by Alan Jamieson, "the institutional church" has become "irrelevant or unhelpful ... for so many reflective and intelligent believers today" (quoted in Julia Duin, Quitting Church, p. 175).

"We've taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as 'cool' to our kids," writes Marc Yoder. "It's not cool. It's not modern. What we're packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we're called to evangelize."

This plunge into irrelevance through "relevance at any cost" is the fruit of a tepid theology and only further weakens the orthodox spine. This theological weakness is augmented by something we find decidedly uncomfortable raising: the sin of Eden, also known as pride. As an anonymous contributor to "Juicy Ecumenism" has written caustically:

A lot of people come up to me at conferences, to which, as a very successful hipster-progressive post-evangelical blogger, I have been invited to speak, asking me how they, too, can make a name for themselves as a voice for the disaffected semi-faithful ... The trick of post-evangelical blogging is to take the issue du jour, be it gay marriage, birth control, gun control, abortion, or assisted suicide, and re-interpret it as a fundamental and authentic challenge to the assumptions of the suburban evangelicalism which for you represents the sum total of Christian belief and experience. 

As King's College President Gregory Alan Thornbury writes, "If we cannot reconcile our theology with the sturdy basis for biblical Christianity that framed evangelicalism and once made it great, we will find ourselves and our children cut loose from our tradition" (Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, p. 208). This result must be unacceptable to those born of the Spirit.

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