Editor’s Note: While the U.S. news media tip-toes around the issue of American religiosity and its use to justify social injustices, many idealistic young Americans are voting with their feet, abandoning established churches in droves.

This phenomenon has been measured by religious-oriented polling groups and has perplexed ministers of nearly all denominations, but the exodus suggests that many young people are simply tired of the old dogma and the enduring hypocrisies, as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

Polling is now a highly sophisticated industry, and religious organizations are being fed some irrefutable numbers about what is happening among their constituents.

In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate has increased fivefold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be “disengaged” before they are 30.

In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and has now reached 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches.
 
Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers.

Once baptized, always a reportable Christian!

Simply put, denominations are no longer a reliable source of membership information.

The mega-church movement also has flattened, with people leaving as fast as they are recruited. The only real growth among Christians appears to be in the home church movement in which small groups of independent believers gather in a house to worship.

While the polling numbers are in, the debate about the reasons is only just beginning. When a pollster asks if a person has left the Christian Faith and a church, the answer is answered “yes” or “no.” 

However, when the pollster asks “why?,” the answers become mushy and the numbers lose their significance. Why are people leaving churches so fast?

I am not a pollster, but rather an observer of the religious scene. My impressions are anecdotal and in no way scientific. I receive personal responses to my columns, and I carry on conversations with a steady flow of people by e-mail or over breakfast, lunch or coffee.

I believe we church people and clergy need to look at ourselves for at least some of the reasons for the decline in membership. I offer three observations:

--Churches are no longer intellectually challenging. More and more of our young people are college-educated and in the future even more must and will accept the challenge of post-high school education. They are thinking people who are expanding the limits of their curiosity and knowledge.

These young people often conclude that they know more than the person in the pulpit and are not willing to accept the church’s rigid catechism, an educational method that teaches the religious questions and the correct answers. As an educational tool, catechism is outdated and provides no challenge to students eager to question and discuss.

Ministers must re-establish themselves among the leaders of the intellectual community.

--Churches are no longer leaders in moral and ethical discussions. Young people have grown weary of churches that cannot get past issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

Our new crop of church drop-outs is still very interested in alternatives to a selfish, hedonistic society. Justice is high on their agenda, and they are looking for opportunities for public service. Our young people want to be involved in solving environmental problems and in peacemaking.

By contrast, pizza parties and rock concerts – techniques that have been used to make churches appear more relevant to the young – are not high on the agenda of young people concerned about society’s deep-seated problems.

In other words, too many churches are concerned about same-sex marriage when the preacher should be talking about the unacceptability of war.

--Churches are no longer visionary. They have remained focused on saving souls for the next life and offering rituals tied to perpetuating theologies that no longer seem relevant to many young people. Churches are no longer significant players in shaping the life of our communities.

If ministers and churches will not lay out what the kingdom of God on earth might actually look like, young people will continue to look elsewhere for other models.

In that sense, I am less concerned about the young adults who are leaving the churches than the churches they are leaving behind.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.             

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