What's keeping young adults out of church?
Maybe it’s time to let generations X and Y have their say.
It was one of those conversations: Late in a family holiday visit, the topic of religion comes up. This time it was my 20-something brother, talking about why his friends reject organized religion. “None of us believes in what’s in the Bible,” he said, going on to list the various annoying things churches do—notably telling people what to do—along with the cardinal sin of religious people: hypocrisy. “It’s just a bunch of manmade rules,” he said, an opinion I think is hardly uncommon among his peers.
I admit I didn’t handle it very well. I got defensive. I told him the term “organized religion” was redundant, since religion, by definition, is organized. I told him he didn’t really understand the Bible. Of course churches are human institutions, I said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have something important to offer.
My less-than-successful defense of religion came to mind soon after, when a friend forwarded me the now well-known YouTube video, “Why I hate religion but love Jesus,” that has more than 18 million views. The spoken-word poem by preacher Jefferson Bethke hardly lacks faith, but its four minutes aren’t encouraging for anyone who wants to see someone under 30 in the pews.
Jesus “came to abolish religion,” says Bethke, asking “why has it started so many wars,” and why it “builds huge churches but fails to feed the poor.” Bethke sees religion as “behavior modification, like a long list of chores,” and asks: “If Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in?”
Religion’s defenders rose up with videos and blogs of their own. Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries noted that “lots of New Age devotees today want spirituality without religion, and lots of evangelicals want Jesus without religion. Both end up with abstractions.”
“So maybe we want to get rid of the Christian fellowship completely and be freelance followers of Christ?” asked Father Dwight Longenecker on the website of the journal First Things. “This is impossible, because to follow Jesus, you have to know Jesus, and the best way to know Jesus is through the church.” Like my response to my brother, I don’t think either is likely to change Bethke’s mind.
I was more intrigued by the response of Catholic moral theologian Lisa Fullam. “These are the young folks who not only don’t darken the doors of churches, but don’t see any reason for doing so,” she wrote on the blog of Commonweal magazine. “As they see it, the Christian churches’ concerns simply don’t mesh with their concerns.” Fullam is on to something: Only 18 percent of all millennials attend church, with even lower numbers among Catholics.
Why so low? I think any fair look at our efforts among young adults will find them wanting. With rare exception, few of us church people have made the attempt to listen to what our younger siblings, children and grandchildren, and their friends value. Programs geared to young adults seem more focused on presenting this or that church teaching than actually asking millennials what they’re looking for.
We may acknowledge some of their criticisms, but we are quicker to point out that they don’t understand. “Kids these days!” we exclaim in so many ways, throwing up our hands—while millennials walk out the door. “Will we continue to preach to the (aging) choir?” Fullam asked.
Answering that question may mean the difference between a vibrant religious community 20 or 30 years from now and a truly post-religious society like that of Western Europe. Every sociological measure is showing that the youngest members of the church aren’t staying, and it would be foolish to hope that they will return when they get married or have kids.
We can either keep repeating the same lines or we can zip it for a while and listen to what they are really saying. Maybe if we are quiet long enough, they might ask us why we stay. If they do, we better have a good answer.
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, page 8).