Or, Why There’s Nobody Under 30 in Your Church and What to Do About It.
This article originally appeared on Virtue Online as part of a larger project on church polity for the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Featured photo is by the incredible Trey Ratliff of Stick In Customs.
Much has been made of the Millennial generation (today’s twenty-somethings) with regard to its religious affiliation…or lack thereof. Depending on which study you consider, as many as 82% of people under 30 don’t attend church regularly. One famous statistic claims that 75% of young people today lose their faith in college. Certainly, if you visit a mainline church you won’t see many young adults in the pews. And the megachurches appear to have gutted Christianity in their frantic effort to make it appeal to young people.
But others dispute these apparent trends. A recent article on The Atlantic’s website suggests that whatever might be “wrong” with young people, it’s just because they’re young—they’ll grow out of it. And after all, whatever New Life and Saddleback are selling, they seem to be moving a lot of product.
Thanks to the sheer size of the Millennial generation, the Anglican Church in North America’s efforts to bring about a revival of Anglican Christianity in the United States would seem to hinge on getting this question right. Why are young people staying away from church, especially “traditional” church? And are they likely to come back as they get older?
To answer these questions, we need to go beyond isolated statistics. There are real traits common in Millennials that aren’t going away. The best studies don’t compare today’s 25 year-olds with today’s 65 year-olds; they compare them with yesterday’s 25 year-olds. And while some things definitely change as kids grow up, things happened in the 20th century that have had a lasting impact on American culture and society. To be able to bring the Gospel to today’s young adults, the Church needs to understand what those things are.
As a Millennial myself, and as a communications consultant who works with organizations (including churches) to grow strong support communities, I think it’s crucial for the Church to consider what forces have shaped the Millennial generation—and especially how its experience with church might have affected its perception of religion.
The Millennial’s Story
Ross Douthat’s 2012 book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics documented how the decline of the mainline churches in America coincided with their conformity to political trends. But it’s equally true that the decline of the American church’s influence on Millennials has coincided with its conformity to inhumane social trends. I don’t mean abortion or marriage revisionism; I mean how we order our lives as individuals and communities.
The story of the Millennial generation begins with the suburb and, as a result, the suburban church. We were the first generation with a majority raised in the suburbs–54%, not counting another 32% urban (a lot of whom still lived in a suburban-type environment technically within a city). In stark contrast with (say) our grandparents, we did not live in small, close-knit communities where social and institutional ties were strong. We lived in a world where industrialization, urbanization, and suburbanization had shaped our environments and isolated us. As a result, while we are fascinated by the word community, it’s rare for us to have experienced relationships that have much institutional, economic, or psychological value.
Growing up, we didn’t know our neighbors. We had to drive to see our friends. We had no common life with anybody; our family life was privatized in our suburban castle, and that’s if we were lucky enough to have an intact family. We had no sense of belonging anywhere, because we moved four times and every suburb looked the same anyway.
And church? Church was a building. The suburban church, based on the megachurch business model, was an attempt to adapt to the modern materialist lifestyle. If Protestantism individualized Christian theology, megachurchism officially accepted the individualization of Christian community. In so doing, it conceded as lost the idea that the faith could play a central role in our social structures, and changed church into a one-way, me-centered strip mall commodity to which people could drive once a week to consume a product. There was no liturgy, no Work of the People, because there was no People—not to us. Just Jesus and me. Spiritually, we were alone.
But that was okay, because in this environment, we were told that we were special. Really special. We could be anybody, do anything. We were told not to give up on our dreams, but to find what made us happy and pursue it. The heroes in the stories we grew up with were like Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, who learned that if you reject your parents and sell your soul to the devil in order to get what you want, you’ll live happily ever after. And we were given the internet to empower us to wander alone, freeing us from reliance on tradition, authority, or expert knowledge.
In short, we grew up in an environment where the crucial socioeconomic relationships that had given past generations meaning (family, church, town) were largely irrelevant to us, and where we were constantly told that we didn’t need them anyway. As Columbia sociologist Robert Nisbet had predicted in 1952 in his classic The Quest for Community, to suppose that any such relationships could maintain vitality in the absence of clear, significant functions was “like supposing that the comradely ties of mutual aid which grow up incidentally in a military unit will long outlast a condition in which war is plainly and irrevocably banished.”
In this context, perhaps you’ll understand the following trends within the Millennial generation. As the first of us have progressed through our 20s into our early 30s, today’s academic studies (in contrast to those 10 years ago) have grown increasingly similar in their conclusions about us:
- We aim for the stars at all costs: We are career oriented; 89% of us say a college education is crucial for success in life, and we are willing to postpone or give up things like marriage or community that might slow us down in our quest to inflict our genius on the world. We internalized the idea that we were supposed to save the world, but with no concrete community to belong to and lots of Disney movies in our systems, we tend to think that that is something you go to New York to do.
- We’re individualist networkers, not neighbors: As Marc Dunkelman has demonstrated in National Affairs, the most important relationships to us are inner- and outer-ring relationships; the people closest to us like family, and the acquaintances with whom we share perhaps nothing more than an employer or a favorite sports team. The middle-ring relationships, the ones like neighbors and barbers and fellow citizens that were once at the center of American community life, are almost completely unknown to us.
- We’re skeptical of authority and tradition: While some dispute the finding that a staggering 80% of us score high on the narcissism index; it’s undisputed that concepts like authority and tradition don’t sit well with us. After all, if I’m so special, I must have greater insight into the human condition than all the people before me combined. And since I have access to all the world’s information through the internet, I must know as much as you. I’m going to listen to my heart—don’t label me!
- We’re lonely and rudderless: 60% of us have changed careers at least once, as we continue to search for meaning in life. And 79% of us are unmarried, as we continue to blindly blunder around hoping to randomly run into the perfect spouse who is good enough for us. Community is to us what independence might have been to a third-generation African slave in the 19th century—something we long for, but can’t seem to find. The experience of moving to a new city and spending a year or more trying to surround ourselves with even a handful of meaningful relationships is one with which most of us are familiar.
- We’re disillusioned: Based on a survey that’s been consistently administered for decades, we think the most important thing in life is being happy (in contrast to prior generations at the same age, who tended to value things like honesty, hard work, etc.). Yet as the pursue-your-dreams fantasies we were fed come crashing around our ears when we hit adulthood, we have little idea how to accomplish that. We’ve discovered that overweight ballerinas and talentless artists don’t make much money, and our romantic chances are the pure luck of meeting the perfect person at the right moment. Many of us have become cynics, we snicker at the idealism of our ancestors, and you’ve no doubt seen the unprecedented numbers of us that have given up and moved back in with our parents.
- We rely heavily on the internet, but we try to use it to make real life possible, not replace it. Social media wasn’t an attempt by young whippersnappers to radically reshape human relationships and become screen zombies. It was an attempt by a profoundly lonely generation to use the resources at its disposal to re-humanize the lives of its members, allowing them to connect with people again. A Harvard study revealed that the friends we have on Facebook tend to pretty closely mirror the ones we have in real life, and our interactions on it do the same. While social networks show our flaws and sometimes exacerbate them, most social network activity is either local or extends local-type interactions to our out-of-state friendships.
- We believe in God but we’re not sure who She is: Only 18% of us attend church every week, and only 25% of us fully affiliate with a religion (e.g. “I believe what my church teaches”). Only 55% of self-described Millennial evangelicals go to church regularly. 3 of 4 young Catholics say they would follow their own conscience over the teachings of the Pope (Martin Luther for the win, I suppose).
Are They Coming Back?
Perhaps you begin to see the magnitude of the challenge. The Church is the repository of the cumulative knowledge of Christianity—not just scholarly knowledge, but the beauty and vibrancy and depth of generations of lives surrendered to Christ. The institution offers something that only an institution can: as David Brooks put it, “an idea space that existed before we were born, and will last after we are gone—something that improves and progresses, because it is the repository of hard-won wisdom.” Done right, the Church offers more than salvation from destruction in the distant future—it offers human life as it was meant to be lived, including the mysterious marriage of individual and group in liturgy; as Alexander Schmemman put it, “the action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals—a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
In other words, the church offers precisely what Millennials yearn for most deeply, but in forms and through avenues they have been conditioned to distrust most deeply.
For this generation, the old-school parish smacks of stuffiness (“sooo inauthentic”), authoritarianism (“why can’t I pray in my own words?”), and exclusivity (“who’s to say yours is the only way?”). Yet somehow, sooner or later most of us ditch the suburban churches we grew up with—those of us who wander furthest start to sneer at what we see as pathetic attempts to appeal to us, and those who stay closer just don’t go every week (why do we need to?). We remain largely unchanged by lengthy, one-way sermons that go against our instincts for interaction and engagement (and which provide an inadequate counter for the 24/7 influence of our digital and non-digital secular environments). And the large majority of us remains, in the long run, uncommitted to pseudo-Christian rock concerts that are merely a cheap knockoff of the secular show we attended Saturday night.
As some of the facts about us suggest, there is a market among us for something really different—something that gives our lives meaning, and makes us a part of a real community; something that doesn’t bother to try to compete with the other things vying for our attention, and instead claims supreme importance over all of them. A sizable minority of us are joining Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches that appear to promise this.
But, in answer to our original question, most Millennials won’t come back to church as they get older—not as long as “church” is recognizable as the optional Jesus and Me Show they saw growing up. The megachurch concedes too much ground to materialism, making it just one competitor among many for our attention. And going back to the old agrarian parish community isn’t an option, since people don’t live physically next to their churches any more.
Yet the Church, as Chesterton once pointed out, has historically had a habit of bouncing back powerfully just when it’s been written off. It may be possible to re-imbue the relationships of Christian community (individual and institutional) with concrete significance for the 21st century and beyond; recognizing the realities of the post-industrial age but finding creative ways to apply Christian social ideals to them.
Show me a church that can offer—in a post-industrial, post-Christian era—something like the significance the parish had in my great-grandparents’ lives, and I’ll show you a church ready to be packed with Millennials…for the long haul.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.