Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.
Young Evangelicals are leaving the church in droves—and their exodus has bracing implications for us in the United Church of Christ.
Not that anyone could have predicted their departure in 1972; that’s when sociologist of religion Dean M. Kelly published an influential study entitled, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Essentially, Kelly argued that, in the words of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Evangelical churches grow precisely because they do what liberal congregations and denominations [do not]—they make serious demands of believers in terms of doctrine and behavior” (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” Christian Post, April 26, 2011.
As it turned out, a lot of those serious demands were exclusive and harsh—and living up to them proved unsustainable. Today—forty-five years later—Barna Group President and pollster David Kinnaman, a self-professed Evangelical, tells us that many Evangelical congregants and former churchgoers, as well as the vast majority of “Unchristians” (who don’t ascribe, or no longer ascribe, to any organized religion) “are skeptical” if not “hostile and resentful toward present-day Christianity.” They “have little trust in the Christian faith, [or] esteem for the lifestyle” of churchgoers. They view Christianity as “weary and threadbare,” and are offended by conservative Christians’ “swagger”—how Evangelicals “go about things and the[ir] sense of self-importance” (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007), pp. 9, 13, 16, 22, 24).
Indeed, a 2005-2006 Barna Group study concluded that “the most common perceptions” of those outside the church toward Christians and Christianity are antihomosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. These were followed by: old-fashioned, sheltered and out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, boring, not accepting of other faiths, too focused on converting people, and confusing. “This is what a new generation thinks about Christianity” (Unchristian, p. 25).
Tellingly, many Evangelical Millennials and “Gen-Z’ers”—young adult churchgoers —“share the same negative perceptions as outsiders” (Unchristian, pp. 31-32); in a related poll of 18-29-year-olds with Evangelical backgrounds, young churchgoers “describe[d] their individual faith journeys” in words that were startlingly similar to those of Millennial outsiders. “Most of their stories include significant disengagement from church—[and/or] from Christianity altogether” (David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011), p. 9).
Young church dropouts find the church to be shallow; anti-science; repressive, judgmental, and rigid about sexuality; and hostile toward doubters and skeptics. They view the church as exclusive—Millennials “estee[m] open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance,” yet the church exhibits none of those qualities. “Young Christians believ[e] that churches are not safe and hospitable places to express doubts” (You Lost Me, pp. 11, 71, 92-93).
Thirty-eight percent of young Christians believe that “churches are not accepting of gays and lesbians;” indeed, “out of twenty attributes that [the Barna Group] assessed, both positive and negative,” as they relate to Evangelical Christianity, the perception of homophobia topped the list (You Lost Me, pp. 175-176, and Unchristian, p. 90).
According to 2014 Barna Group survey data, 43 percent of Americans are churchless today. In addition, 33 percent of Americans are “de-churched”—they “were once active in church but are no longer” (George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Tyndale Momentum, 2014), p. viii). Kinnaman believes that “the dropout phenomenon” of today’s Millennial generation is qualitatively different from, and more ominous than, past “young adult disengagement” from the church: given the widespread social acceptance of not attending church, as well as Millennials’ “access to all kinds of information and worldviews, many young adults no longer believe that the local church and Christianity provide the only or even [the] best avenues to spiritual growth” (You Lost Me, pp. 23, 70-71).
“Young Christians embrace less of a rules-oriented spirituality than older Christians,” Kinneman added. “Eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds are more likely than [older Christians] to believe that there are many different paths to God,” and “that most or all religions teach essentially the same spiritual truths” (You Lost Me, pp. 164, 176).
“There is not a single demographic for which church attendance is on the increase,” the Barna Group President concluded. “And because young adults have the highest levels of church avoidance, their children are less likely to attend churches,” and more likely to “avoid churches in adulthood” (Churchless, p. 9).
So what does this have to do with any of us, or with the United Church of Christ? If you suspect that I have something more in mind than schadenfreude—a misbegotten desire to gloat over the misfortunes of Evangelical churches—you’re right.
I believe that the Barna Group is onto something. Their polling captures the essential ambivalence of many Evangelicals, and particularly of Evangelical Millennials, toward “churchianity.” It helps explain the ubiquity of congregational decline.
To be sure, progressive churches, and denominations such as the United Church of Christ, have their own church dropout problem, but it is important to be aware of a broader reality—that this is not just a Mainline Protestant experience. The church dropout phenomenon cuts across all denominational strata—including Mainline, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical congregations. Even so—and this is the important point—I believe that the United Church of Christ is utterly unique; it has a special progressive niche that people are looking for. UCC churches don’t have to pretend to be Conservative, or imitate Evangelical congregations, or adopt exclusive worship styles and theologies in order to thrive!
Rather, I believe that to the extent that UCC congregations are willing to embrace a progressive theology, extend a sincere and uncompromised Open and Affirming welcome to Unchristians and Millennial dropouts, and come to terms with the change that is taking place in society as well as in their midst—through innovative outreach to their communities in ministry and service—they will be in a unique position to engage young people who are turned off and/or fed up with church, and/or have dropped out. But such outreach will have to occur on Unchristians’ and Millennial dropouts’ own terms and turf; it will not do to simply invite young people to attend a worship service or a traditional “young adults” program at the church. We ministers, as well as church leaders and congregants, must be willing to meet people where they are—in coffee shops and bars, while volunteering at the local food pantry or homeless shelter, and in the community.