The conversation about millennials and church decline continues – see for instance posts by Richard Beck, Bob Cornwall (and another), Tripp Fuller, Hollis Phelps, Eddie Kouya, Allan Bevere, Travis Mamone, Caris Adel, Ann Fontaine, David Hayward, Chris Attaway, and Shannon Barber. Many have suggested that this discussion is one that happens, if not every generation, at least frequently throughout history. Scot McKnight questions whether the evidence indicates that millennials are forsaking church at all. A lot of the posts are responses to an earlier provocative post by Rachel Held Evans, who has since followed up by indicating why millennials need the church.
The earliest evidence is perhaps in a text we looked at in my Sunday school class last Sunday: Hebrews 10:25. It mentions a situation in which some have ceased meeting together as Christians.
This doesn’t mean that they were not meeting in other ways. This seems to have been a Jewish-Christian community, and some were presumably still attending synagogue, and were just not attending the additional meeting on Sunday, after work.
It is interesting to note that the Christian community in question had apparently been more fervent in an earlier period when they faced persecution. Congregations, and a religion on a national level, often finds it hard to cope with its own success, or with the cessation of hardships that confronted them. A community of Christians has a natural role in supporting individuals who are harassed because of their beliefs. But then what does its role become when people are no longer hassled for being Christians in that way?
I think there is a need for a book about church decline. This phenomenon is nothing new, but most churches, denominations, and religions have focused on models for success. But perhaps it is inevitable that decline follows any period of thriving. Learning what that looked like in the past would help provide guidance for those coping with it in the present.
I suspect, given that most of those leaving churches do not consider themselves to be leaving spirituality, religion, or even Christianity behind, that the reason for dwindling numbers is precisely what I suggested earlier: attending church no longer has an obvious purpose related to their faith.
This is unsurprising. Once, gathering people into a single place regularly was the only way to communicate effectively with them, and the only way to have communal interaction. Now that one can be spoken to by a minister on TV or YouTube, and can forge meaningful communities of interaction through digital modes of communication, what is the rationale for gathering regularly in one place? There may be one, but it won’t be the same as it has been in the past, and it needs to be articulated clearly.
The same question faces those involved in education, and in other activities. And so churches would do well to look at the discussions about flipping the classroom, and to ask whether it would make sense to “flip the church” in similar ways.
Also of interest in relation to this topic, see Sanderson Jones’ post on building an atheist church. That is a fascinating topic to look at, since it is a group essentially trying to reinvent from scratch an institution that closely parallels (albeit with important differences!) the one that Christians are struggling to find ways to continue. And consider as well some of the ways that some Christians today are voices of joyless hate. Has there ever been a time when Christianity has not had its reputation harmed by the immature, the hot-headed, and the hateful who’ve ended up in our mix? Also of interest is Steve McSwain’s article about no longer being a fundamentalist Christian.