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Millennials: Why aren’t they going to church?

A man sits in the pews of Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, June 25, 2013 (Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Time once was, in the not too distant past, that you would be shunned for appearing in public on Sunday morning in anything less than your best “go to meeting” clothes and seen anyplace other than your neighborhood church at the end of a tree lined street.  But in less than a generation, churches, synagogues, and mosques have seen a twenty percent decline in attendance.  

Growing up I may not have been happy about going to church, but I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up.  It just wasn’t an option on Sunday morning.   But now nearly 30% of Americans say they seldom or never attend worship services.  That percentage is over 35% for those young adults born after 1980.

Todd Pickett, dean of Spiritual Development and professor of spiritual formation at Biola University, says “Millennials have more life disruptions than people of other stages of life. They are moving around a lot, they are changing relational networks. The highly mobile nature of the Millennial makes it hard for them to settle down into churches, it makes it hard to settle into patterns of life anyway.”  But there are other aspects of a Millennial’s life that have not been negatively affected.  Why church?  

It may start with the church itself.  According to a report from George Barna between 1997 and 2005 fewer churches were offering Sunday school programs for the youngest and oldest children. Churches are becoming less likely to offer programming for junior high (dropping from 93% to 86%) and high school students (moving from 86% to 80%).  The percentages may seem small but of the 285,000 churches in the U.S., approximately 20,000 are no longer offering Sunday school for Millennials when they were attending church just a few years ago.

But are there other sociological reasons?  Dr. Robert Putnam, Harvard professor and one of the foremost authors on changes in American culture, writes in his book Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis that “our nation’s churches, synagogues and mosques give children a sense of meaning, belonging, purpose, and hope that allows them to steer clear of trouble, from drugs to delinquency, and toward a bright and better future, warmer family relationships and significantly higher odds of attending college.”  In his book Bowling Alone he examines some of the reasons behind the decline in church attendance and religious education.

Putnam points to the growing popularity of TV as a major “ringleader” behind declining rates of civic engagement, including religious attendance.  “Television and the pop culture encouraged lethargy, passivity, and materialist values, which are both in tension with a vibrant religious life.”  His book was written in 2001.  I’m not sure about the current effect of television but can anyone say iPhone?

Putnam also points to the parents of Millennials in the wake of the 1960’s sexual revolution causing a tension between a parent’s own experiences with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and traditional religious life.  “It has left many young adults viewing religion as an intolerant force they want nothing to do with.  They have come to view religion as judgmental, hypocritical, and too political.”

I certainly do not pretend to have the solution to the most recent decline in church attendance.  And I am not sure if there is cause for alarm.  While my generation may have been attending church, evidence found in the divorce rate, porn addiction, and drug abuse show that we weren’t taking the teaching home with us.   Also, I am pretty certain that parents in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago also had a hard time getting kids out of bed on Sunday morning.  

So what can we do?  Relax.  This has been a problem with every generation and there is no need to rush out and have your pastor get a tattoo and start wearing skinny jeans with Toms.  No need to cancel choir practice and bring in a folk band with candles on the stage. Millennials may not be attending church but they are very much attending life.  Maybe church isn’t about the building but about community.  Maybe church was never supposed to be about the building.  

Millennials want access, not ownership. They don’t own things, they use things. They want an exceptional life that lives up to the marketing hype.  Instead, as George Barna suggests, help them move from “dabbling to devotion, from transience to permanence, from preference to proximity, and from beliefs to practices.”  And don’t worry about the building that occurs in.  Or on which day of the week.