Millennial Christianity may be neither Mainline nor Evangelical

Fascinating post today from Richard Flory at the USC Center for Religion & Culture, in response to both Rachel Held Evans’ latest writing and (it would seem, given the timing) the Pew Research report.

Based on our data, evangelical Millennials are decidedly not moving into mainline Protestant or Catholic churches in any significant numbers. Looking at just the young people who identified as evangelical when we first surveyed them as teenagers, only 5 percent moved to mainline Protestant denominations and only 2 percent moved to the Catholic Church. Fully 25 percent of these emerging adults now identify themselves as “not religious” and have few or no ties to any religious group.

Bad news all around for established religious groups. But there is some good news:

Despite this bad news for evangelicals, in a current research project we’re finding there is a vibrant movement of younger evangelicals who are neither leaving religion behind nor converting to liturgical forms of Christianity. Instead, they are forming their own churches. These churches are by any measure fully in line with historic evangelicalism, but are motivated by their members’ desire for smaller congregations focused more explicitly on the spiritual and material needs of their local communities.

Most of these new churches differentiate themselves from their evangelical forebears by committing to being multi-ethnic and multi-class congregations. Some are also committed to being inclusive of the LGBT community. None are particularly interested in politics and culture wars as practiced and sponsored by the Evangelical Religion-Industrial Complex. Instead, any politics they may engage in relates to improving local schools, creating job opportunities, feeding and clothing the hungry and any number of other activities that seem to have been lost to evangelicalism as it has been practiced over the last 40 years.

In other words, Flory claims that for those Millennials who remain Christian, both the left and right wings of organized American religion are being abandoned in favor of new, independent churches who combine a right-leaning expression of personal faith with a left-leaning focus on meeting social needs.

Southern Baptists are now losing people as fast as Methodists

Jonathan Merritt provides a more nuanced and honest perspective on the Pew Report:

Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment. Roman Catholics are declining at roughly the same rate as mainline Protestant denominations. The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC, is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.

The numbers look as bad, or worse, than ever for Mainline congregations, but they’re strikingly bad now for Catholics as well and increasingly bad for Evangelicals too.

Russell Moore says ‘Good Riddance’ to American ‘nones’

Russell Moore weighs in on the Pew Research report:

We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news.

Watching some Christians respond to the decline of American Christianity is like being a spectator to a contest of self-delusion. There’s no better example of head-in-the-sand-reasoning than this article. For Moore – and other Evangelicals all over Facebook and Twitter – the argument seems to be that Mainline churches are losing people because they aren’t teaching the true gospel, but if Evangelical churches are losing people, well, good riddance! Those folks weren’t real Christians anyway.

Are the ‘nones’ a massive untapped religious market?

From the most recent Pew Research report on the American religious landscape:

As the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow, they also describe themselves in increasingly secular terms. In 2007, 25% of the “nones” called themselves atheists or agnostics; 39% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” and also said that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives; and 36% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” while nevertheless saying that religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. The new survey finds that the atheist and agnostic share of the “nones” has grown to 31%. Those identifying as “nothing in particular” and describing religion as unimportant in their lives continue to account for 39% of all “nones.” But the share identifying as “nothing in particular” while also affirming that religion is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them has fallen to 30% of all “nones.”

Consider this: the ‘nones’ or religiously unaffiliated are now the second largest religious-related demographic in the United States. According to the data above, most of them have no interest in or value for religion. But, a significant portion of them – 30%, or roughly 21 million Americans – still say that religion is important to them.

To put that into perspective:

  • Roughly 63 million people attend 350,000 American congregations on any given Sunday.
  • The Catholic Church, the largest Christian group by far, claims 68 million members.
  • The 10 largest Christian denominations (excluding Catholics) total 72.1 million members combined.

The nones have long been a black box to professional Christians. I have friends in the Christian publishing market who tell me that nobody has figured out how to sell to them. Obviously, the same is true for American churches. I suspect most of these people are drifting towards agnosticism, but if someone figures out how to make a compelling case for the faith to these folks, the opportunity is clearly massive.

New York Archdiocese to close 7 more churches

This latest round of church closings represents an overall 20% decrease in the number of churches in the New York Archdiocese since just one year ago. Let this amazing little statement by Cardinal Dolan sink in a little:

“For too long,” Cardinal Dolan said in a statement, “we have been in the business of maintaining buildings and structures that were established in the 19th and early 20th centuries to meet the needs of the people of that time, but which are not necessary to meet the needs of the church and its people as it exists today.”

 Then there’s this bit:

At St. John the Martyr on the Upper East Side, a modest church with wooden arches and wallpapered columns, three people came to the noon Mass on Friday. One of them, who gave her name only as Diane and said she had been attending the church “forever,” was realistic and resigned about the closing. She said she would worship instead at St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church a few blocks away.

A few blocks away. Let that sink in.

Churches in the Black Lives Matter Movement

Last week, local churches in Wausau, WI participated in a Black Lives Matter march:

Myles, 17, and her family were among hundreds of people who gathered in downtown Wausau on Sunday for the Black Lives Matter march. Participants took part in the mile-long march from the First Universalist Unitarian Church to Grace United Church of Christ in Wausau.

The march came on the same day Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was lifting the six-day curfew imposed after riots ensued after Freddie Gray, 25, died April 19 of spinal injuries sustained while in police custody April 12. The riots resulted in the arrests of more than 200 people and injuries to at least 20 police officers. Charges have since been filed against the six officers involved in his arrest, ranging from manslaughter to second-degree murder.

And it isn’t just liberal institutions like Unitarian or UCC congregations who are stepping up. In December, the Assemblies of God, the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, pledged its support as well:

Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. of the Church of God in Christ has asked COGIC churches to observe Black Lives Matter Sundaythis coming Sunday, December 14, 2014. As Bishop Blake’s friend and counterpart in the Assemblies of God, I ask that all AG churches do the same. I have two reasons for doing so. 

First and foremost, black lives matter. The lives of all people are precious to God, of course, but at the present moment, many of our black brothers and sisters in COGIC and the AG feel that their lives are not highly valued by many in white America. 

Black Lives Matter is not a Christian movement. Its language would be more than a little off-putting to (I dare say) most white American Christians. So it’s amazing to me that a broad spectrum of American churches, white and black, are stepping in to help mid-wife this cause in their communities. Furthermore, they’re doing it relatively quietly. They’re hosting, facilitating, and spreading the word, and it appears they’re doing all this without attempting to co-opt the agenda in any way. That’s not like American Christianity. I find that remarkable, inspiring, and hopeful for the future of the church.

No, we are not entering the age of liturgy

As usual, Rachel Held Evans has caused a stir with her latest remarks about church:

Many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.

I’m annoyed by the headline of the piece, because it’s a subtle misdirection from Rachel’s core point. And her point is spot-on:

When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.

Reading this, it seems clear to me that the issue for Rachel wasn’t really the style of the church (although, that’s what the headline leads you to believe), it was certain conservative beliefs. Rachel was troubled by her church’s beliefs about homosexuality, science, and the theological difficulties around those issues. For her, style became a problem when it appeared to mask, or even deny, the very real struggles people like her experience when trying to make sense of faith in the 21st century. That’s what she means by “authentic.” And this is entirely subjective. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to bet that whatever church Rachel left, it was highly “authentic” for lots of people who call it their home. I suspect that the very expressions that rubbed her the wrong way (because of her struggles), are the very things that are so comforting to many (because they’re affirming).

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed in my conversations with Millennials: Like other people, they have all different kinds of tastes. Some people like smoke machines and light shows during worship. Some people like liturgical practices, and the older the better. Some people prefer home churches in living rooms and some prefer churches that look like shopping malls, complete with a food court. Each of these has its (sometimes very serious) theological challenges, but none of it is inherently good or bad. But despite our temptation to believe otherwise, there is no single transcendent ecclesiology that we’ll discover to meet everyone’s desires. We aren’t entering into a liturgical age. We aren’t even entering into the age of authenticity. Every age is already authentic to itself. Certainly there are trends and fads that shape our tastes – and perhaps liturgy will make a fashion comeback – but we are a big enough and pluralistic enough society that there is plenty of room for nearly every kind of fashion trend.

What we are clearly entering into is an age when certain conservative beliefs are being resoundingly rejected by a very large portion of younger adults and teenagers. Any church, no matter what their style might be, that can solve that problem for them will have a shot at reaching them.

Why Millennials say they aren’t religious but love talking about religion

In my day job I teach human development and nonprofit leadership at the local University. Yesterday, I had a friend come to my Introduction to Human Development class to talk about end-of-life issues. He’s a hospice chaplain and works every day with individuals and families dealing with the dying process. Plus, he’s excellent at framing sensitive topics in a thoughtful and engaging way.

He also happens to be a former pastor. Now, he’d be the first to tell you his faith has changed pretty significantly over the years, but that’s not what I want to focus on today.

As the dialogue with the class unfolded, I realized something I’ve subconsciously noticed over the past few years: Millennials in my classes are quick to say they aren’t religious, but they love talking publicly about religion. So much so, that – despite the fact that the topic wasn’t overtly religious – the students kept pushing the discussion back to religion, going so far as to press my friend on his personal beliefs and ask how his faith had been impacted by the work.

I think to some extend this may represent a generational reversal. Older generations are quick to claim their religious allegiance, but reluctant to discuss it publicly. My own cohort (Gen-X), seems neither quick to claim allegiance or discuss it publicly.

But with Millennials, it often seems that the immediate disavowal creates space for safely engage a topic that is clearly of great interest and importance to them.

What this confirms to me is that younger adults are just as interested in spirituality as previous generations – maybe more so – but are looking for forms of faith that will meet their concerns and provide space for their sometimes unconventional expressions. If that’s true, then typical dismissals of Millennials will come back to haunt the institutions who write them off.

There are two raging social justice issues in the United States today: racial inequality and acceptance of alternative sexuality. Beyond that, there are a few simmering beneath the surface: gender equality, economic inequality, and immigration reform. All five of these issues fall predictably along certain religious divides. I suspect many Millennials are looking for a place where they can be free to hold non-traditional views on these topics while still engaging in a robust and thriving life of spirituality. Until someone solves that problem for them, most will continue to disavow any form of religion and simply carve out their own individualized expressions of spirituality.

Case in point: after the session, one of my students – a young woman – came up to my friend and shared, quite seriously and somewhat emotionally, that because of his talk, she is now inspired to become a hospice chaplain herself.

The twist? She’s an atheist.

Reba Riley’s guide for losing your religion

Reba Riley’s post today, A Field Guide to Losing Your Religion (But Not Your Soul), is simply outstanding. Two quick snippets:

Unearth fear camouflaged as love, judgmentalism as wisdom, literalism as truth.  
We talked about God’s love a lot, but we lived in the shadow of fear. Love was for bumper stickers and lapel pins. Fear was our everyday wear. We thought we were doing our duty by judging everyone. We thought we knew how everyone else should live. We thought our rigid, literalist belief structures were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Turns out, nope.

She’s just getting warmed up…

Try super hard to be an atheist (optional). I wanted to be an atheist at some point along the way, and I still sometimes find intellectual comfort in the idea that, as far as the God I grew up hearing about, I am an atheist. But not believing just as adamantly seemed like the other side of the same coin. I wanted a new currency altogether. Besides, the idea that we somehow have all of life’s answers seemed unlikely. So I eventually let myself have hope again. That was important. You have to rescue those big concepts from the hold religion thinks it has on them. Religion doesn’t own those truths. Their provenance is cosmic.

A few years ago I gave up God for lent. It was one of the most important spiritual disciples I’ve ever practiced, partly because I discovered that atheism, for me at least, was as much a false emotional comfort as dogmatic religiosity. In their worst forms, both can be little more than variations on the same modernist-reductionist-foundationalist certainty.

Seriously, go read the whole thing.

From the department of ‘Find me a picture of the Pope doing his best Macaulay Culkin’

Seriously, check out the headline and picture from this Yahoo! Finance story, recapping the most recent Pew Research projections on global religious growth. At first, I thought this was another example of a ridiculous, link-bait headline (like my own, above), but it turns out the author isn’t far off the mark.

As of 2010, Christianity was the dominant world religion with roughly 2.2 billion adherents and Muslim’s were second with about 1.6 billion adherents. If current demographic trends continue however, Islam is expected to catch up to Christianity midway through the 21st century. 

Furthermore, people are leaving Christianity in droves. About 106 million Christians are expected to switch affiliation from 2010 to 2050 while only about 40 million people are expected to enter Christianity. 

The religiously unaffiliated (athiests, agnostics) are expected to see the largest net gains from switching, adding more than 61 million followers. 

This study is driven significantly by two things. First, birth rates. Well, no big surprise there. But the second important factor is that Pew used data from religious switching surveys and attempted to project changes through the year 2050. That’s what the “largest net gains” quote above is referring to. From the Methodology section of the Pew report:

Studies of religious switching indicate that this phenomenon is often concentrated in young adult years, roughly between ages 15 and 29. 

So, while we’re all wringing our hands over the Millennials, it turns out whatever we end up calling the next generational cohort, they’ll likely be a big problem too.