That is the scary thing. The same long-term trend holds from 1966 onward, namely a steady decline in the number of Americans who self-identify as Christian. The mainstream Protestant denominations bore the brunt of the decline until just recently, while the number of Catholic and Evangelical Christians held relatively steady. This led Evangelicals to wrongly think that “our” brand of Christianity was immune. Declining attendance was a problem for the “liberal” churches. But what we are seeing now, in my interpretation of the data, is the leading edge of the same trend starting to affect Evangelical churches. Just like the 1960s-2000s, the decline is driven by generational change, but Millennials are “deconverting” at much faster rates than either the Baby Boomers or Gen. Xers. Why? What has gone wrong? What part have we played in that?
One indicator of alienation … is that 70 percent of the Secular group agreed with the statement, “Looking around the world, religions bring more conflict than peace."
If someone thinks that demonizing Muslims somehow inoculates Christians from this charge, think again. I guarantee that when this present scourge of jihadist terrorism eventually burns itself out, every strain of religious “fundamentalism” will be looked down upon. Orthodoxy itself will fall into disrepute, lumped into the same category of “fanaticism.” The Evangelical frog jumped right into this pot. Will he realize that the temperature is rising?
Well, a great deal of religious education is actually delivered to children. But you knew that. Haha. Sorry for being a smarty-pants, because I understand exactly what you mean. Religious education of secondary students (ages 12-18) needs a great deal of rethinking, in my opinion. Much of the problem is that churches devalue this ministry. They leave leadership of children’s and youth groups to the most inexperienced staff, or else they rely on lay volunteers who may or may not have any idea of how or what to teach. What boggles the mind is that this is most often the age when the “course of life” is set. Once a young person of 22 or so has reached a settled opinion about religion, which usually has occurred by that age, it is exceedingly difficult to change his or her mind.
One major problem has already been noted by Christy and Phil and Roger. The church environment is geared toward providing “right” answers, rather than encouraging young people’s questions and helping them work through their doubts and difficulties. One of my teaching mentors used to say, “It’s better to be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.” In the typical church youth group, however, the leader relies far too much on direct instruction (i.e., preaching), not discussion. (Church leadership could learn a few lessons from the teaching profession, but of course the Culture War has labeled professional educators as part of the problem, not the solution, so there you go.) Worse, the group dynamics in most churches don’t encourage discussion. Kids don’t express their doubts or differing opinions because they feel pressure to conform. They just keep silent until they turn 18, then quietly check out. Actually, the same dynamic takes place in adult groups, so if there is a solution, it needs to be applied across the board.
Returning to the blog post, the #1 reason for young people leaving the faith is that “Churches seem overprotective.” As the article pointed out, “much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said ‘Christians demonize everything outside of the church’ (23% indicated this ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ describes their experience).”
This reminds me of the late, great Dallas Willard’s phrase: “The Gospel of sin management.” In my experience, this is what too many Evangelical youth groups have become. The agenda is all about sin – how to recognize it, how to avoid it, how to stay pure – and “right” beliefs about controversial matters. If this and punching a ticket to heaven is all that we have to offer the next generation, no wonder they are walking away with disappointment in their eyes.
When did we become the Pharisees? That is my question …