Turned Off, Fed Up, Dropped Out: Can the United Church of Christ Become a Home for Disaffected Evangelical Millennials and Other Church Dropouts?

Chris XenakisRev. 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.

 

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14 thoughts on “Turned Off, Fed Up, Dropped Out: Can the United Church of Christ Become a Home for Disaffected Evangelical Millennials and Other Church Dropouts?

  1. Thank you, Nik, for your comments! Dave, it’s good to hear from you again!

    I think we are mixing apples and oranges here. What the Apostle Paul is arguing against in Romans, Chapter 1, is sexual promiscuity (e.g., visiting temple prostitutes, “sleeping around,” and engaging in “one-night-stands”), in contrast to entering into and maintaining committed monogamous relationships, whether gay or straight. Study the cultural context behind the Romans 1 passage! All people, of course, not just heterosexuals and not just gay people, are capable of engaging in sexual promiscuity.

    But beyond that, why is Romans 1:18-32, the most important passage in the Bible? Why is it more important than, say, John 8:1-11, in which Jesus forgives and restores a woman who was about to be stoned to death, and then condemns her male accusers with the statement, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone”?

    What about the recognition that, as Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?” What about the recognition that, as a Navy Chaplain colleague of mine once put it, every time we point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at us?

    I am so tired of hearing Christians and even UCC people and colleagues in ministry talk about sexual sin (and, in truth, gossip about people who they believed have committed sexual sins) as though this is the unpardonable sin from which there is no possible restoration. It is as though they are buying into the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of “cardinal sins” that entail damnation of the soul, and “venial sins” that are relatively slight sins. So we ignore the fact that Paul also talks in that Romans 1 passage about greed, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, boasting, arrogance, disobedience to parents, lacking love, and lacking mercy as acts that are just as sinful as sexual sins.

    Sexual promiscuity is not a “cardinal sin”! (Nor, by the way is gay marriage). Gossip, and lacking love, and lacking mercy are not “venial sins”.

    Nik and David, as the Thanksgiving season quickly melds into the season of Advent, I’m thankful for both of you, and for your continuing engagement in the life of the United Church of Christ. Keep reading the Vital Signs and Statistics Blog! Many more good articles are on the way in 2019!

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  2. Hi,

    I’m honestly and sincerely trying to understand how the gay community fits into Scripture? Romans 1 clearly speaks against it. A pastor willing to marry a gay or lesbian couple despite what Scripture literally teaches is of great concern more so for the pastor than the couple itself in my opinion. I’m all for befriending and sharing Christ with anyone regardless of sexual orientation. I just can’t see how any Church expects to be blessed when they twist Scripture in their favor to appease people more than God who states that He is clearly against homosexuality.

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    • It is simple. Progressive Christians believe and use the portions of the bible that support their personal beliefs. Examples would be love one another, help the less fortunate. But simply ignore or say that God has changed his mind about things that don’t match the way they would like things to be. That is what they mean by “God is still speaking”. That is why progressives believe that all religions have equal paths to God, no need for personal salvation through Christ, gay sex accepted as normal. Even at Easter you will never hear the reason Christ died and rose. You will hear about “new beginnings”, butterflies, etc,

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  3. I live in western Mass and have found that UCC congregations are struggling to stay open. Membership has declined dramatically. Evangelical church membership on the other hand, is exploding to the point that churches are adding services to accommodate the growth.

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      • Hi, David,

        Thanks for your brief comment.

        I read the “11 Reasons Why Progressive Christianity Will Soon Die Out” article that you cited. It was really, really interesting; thanks for recommending it.

        Nevertheless, I disagree with the universal characterization that the article’s author, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, makes of all progressives. (It reminds me of the statement attributed to Arnold Toynbee to the effect that most people have not rejected Christianity, but rather, they have rejected a poor caricature of Christianity.)

        In the article, Father Dwight Longenecker correctly admits that he “paints with broad strokes;” in fact, most of the things he says do not apply to the UCC congregations that I have served over the past twenty-eight years. One of the great truths about the United Church of Christ is that we are not so much a liberal church as we are a diverse church. Sure, we have liberal Christians in the UCC. And we have conservative Christians as well, and these good folks worship side-by-side every Sunday. (So for example, in response to just one of Longenecker’s points, I do not believe that the Scriptures were influenced by paganism, and I suspect that most of my congregants, in four UCC churches over the past three decades don’t believe that.)

        As I said to Christine, the researchers who discovered that Evangelical churches are losing members just like progressive churches are, are Evangelicals.

        I guess it makes sense: People do not only go to church to find correct teaching and good theology. A more important reason people go to church is to find unconditional love and acceptance–and those things are hard to find in the United States when churches are homophobic, racist, sexist, and wed to partisan politics.

        However, David, I am emphatically not saying that progressive churches and UCC churches are perfect. Far too many themselves fail to exhibit unconditional love and acceptance to the folks who come in the door.

        Blessings,
        Chris Xenakis

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      • In my experience, UCC is only diverse because older Christian members have not left due to long family history with the church. UCC CLERGY is not diverse. That would mean a significant percentage of clergy would be evangelical. LOL. Perhaps you could explain why conservative Christians would continue to attend a church that teaches the basics of their beliefs are wrong. Such as forgiveness of sin and Salvation and eternal life is only provided by the personal acceptance of Christ. Our constantly hear much of the bible ignored or reinterpreted to meet the progressive’s beliefs.

        The Evangelical churches I have attended are not homophobic, racist, sexist, and wed to partisan politics.
        It is not homophobic to believe in sex is to be only between one man and one woman that are married, as clearly taught in the bible.
        You can love the sinner and not the sin. Of course there are not a lot of adulterers having parades celebrating their adultery. By the way, there ARE evangelical gay people.
        The Southern Baptist Church I have started attending has more black people attending than the progressive UCC church which I am a member of, located across the street. And far more young people.

        Last week when a fire destroyed the homes of about 20 community members, it was the SBC church that was loving the less fortunate with delivery of food, household items, a car given to a family that lost theirs, and over 50 clean-up volunteers. And then they went across the street to clean the UCC church cemetery and church grounds that had wind damage. With a few exceptions, the UCC members that say they are all about loving the less fortunate did nothing.

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      • I am posting this comment on behalf of Rev. Chris Xenakis due to a technical glitch. I am looking into it.

        Hi, again, David.

        I guess my reaction to, “Hate the sin but love the sinner,” is that to many people these days it sounds condescending–even if you don’t mean it that way; it sounds a lot like “Hate both the sin and the sinner.”

        As you know, that expression is not found anywhere in the Scriptures; Jesus never said it; on the contrary, Jesus ate and drank with sinners—he participated in some of the very things that the Jewish leaders of that time considered to be sinful.

        And as I suggested to you in my last reply, most people go to church looking for unconditional love and acceptance. If they don’t find it in church, they are not likely to stick around. They will leave. Which is what is happening in a lot of churches.

        (By the way, restricting marriage to a sacred relationship between a man and a woman is perhaps the very essence of homophobia.)

        What you say about conservative and Evangelical churches growing was true once—and there was a best-selling book written by Dean Kelly and published in 1972 entitled “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” Your argument hews pretty closely to the argument of that book. It may have been true in 1972, but conservative and Evangelical churches are no longer growing.

        If your church or the Evangelical churches in your town are growing, that’s terrific—and in fact, it sounds like you should consider joining that SBC church–it sounds wonderful from the way you describe it!!!! But sadly, such churches are in the minority; they are the exception nationwide.

        I urge you to read David Kinnamon’s “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Baker, 2016). The author is Evangelical; his research is solid; and the population and churches he is writing about are Evangelical.

        Blessings to you, David!

        Chris Xenakis

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    • Hi, Christine. It’s really wonderful that Evangelical church membership is exploding in your area. But that’s not happening everywhere–and the Barna research shows that Evangelical churches are losing Millennials (and some Baby-Boomers) who are turned off by many churches’ homophobia, racism, politicization, and rigid theologies. This is happening throughout the country. I should add that the Barna polling team itself is Evangelical; David Kinnnaman is a born-again Christian; he has no liberal anti-Evangelical axe to grind.

      Of course, you are right–many UCC congregations are also struggling to stay open, and unfortunately, far too many UCC congregations are also struggling with racism, homophobia, sexism, and rigid, scolding, theologies that chase people away.

      Thanks for commenting Christine.

      Chris Xenakis

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  4. The area in which I live use to have quite a few UCC churches. In the last 5 years, most have switched back to the Reformed Church denomination. Liberal politics took over the UCC and churches started dropping out of the UCC denomination.

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  5. During the period the UCC lost 50% of its members, the EVANGELICAL Free Church of America membership increased over 700% and the Southern Baptist membership increased over 50%.
    Young (and old) evangelicals are leaving the UCC and going to churches that are truly evangelical.

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  6. Summery: UCC leadership “bible” is of radical left politics they believe attracts their members and potential members they wish to attract. The historical bible is used when a verse can be found they think supports their politics, but is ignored or reinterpreted (“God is still speaking”), when in conflicts with their political agenda.

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    • Thank you for your comment, David. I learn a great deal from you and from everyone who takes the time and effort to submit a comment. I will admit, this blog post contains some pretty sharp criticisms of the church and the Christian experience. But the utterly remarkable thing is that I am not the one issuing these criticisms—they are coming from Evangelical young people themselves, who are disappointed with the church and their understanding of the faith! We’ve come a long way from Dean M. Kelly’s insight of the early 1970s! Incidentally, are you familiar with the Barna Group? David Kinnaman, George Barna, and the other researchers who examined the data I cite are not given to “radical left politics;” they would describe themselves as deeply-committed, theologically-conservative “Bible-believing Christians.”

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