Sometimes we’re surrounded by something before we realize just how much of it there is. That happened to me today: I suddenly noticed just how many Christians there are who have firm ideas about why people–especially younger people–are leaving their churches. Those ideas tend to run along one of two lines, and both of those lines are totally wrong.
We’ve talked about this hemorrhage of Christians from churches off and on over the years; “evangelical churn” is even one of the popular tags around here. Just the other day in comments, Lambchop was sharing some links about exactly this topic. Christians are flailing around trying to work out why it is that so many people don’t want to play with them anymore. Their ideas typically don’t make that much sense to people who aren’t motivated to accept specious arguments in lieu of actual good reasons for anything, but oh, there are a lot of Christians who are supremely motivated to do exactly that. And oh, they all have their guesses about why it’s happening. The problem is, as you can likely guess, those ideas are all wrong.
You probably saw that recent story Hemant ran about MormonLeaks.com’s squabble with the Mormon church over their attempt to suppress a document about their own churn problem. The document is interesting because they accept that people who are both more liberal and more conservative are leaving–and for different reasons. Despite that pleasant change of pace, however, their reaction in the end is predictable.
The Mormons’ Guesses.
In the extensive PowerPoint presentation published over at MormonLeaks, we can see Mormon leaders’ concern over their religion’s fast-fading influence and membership numbers. They met in December of 2015 to talk about it. It’s not as earth-shattering a leak as one might guess; the presentation itself is pretty picayune and basic.
Mormons were discussing this question in part because a report was coming out (the 2015 Statistical Report) which showed that Mormonism’s growth rate had slowed to its lowest rate since 1937. I doubt the report told them anything they didn’t already know, though. For years, Christian leaders of all groups have been seeing a serious downturn in conversions and attendance. This document just puts the matter into sharp and explicit relief against the dull background noise of OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG screaming that we keep hearing out of these folks.
In the leaked presentation, leaders identified a number of problems facing their religion. From the ordination of women to pornography to a slew of Endtimes predictions (presumably the issue is that they keep draining off Mormons to the groups making the predictions), Mormons have a lot of blame to spread around. This presentation wasn’t about solving any of those problems–if indeed such an outcome could possibly happen at this point in time–but rather to set up meetings to examine the problem.
The obvious reason for churn, that people keep figuring out that Mormonism’s central ideas and claims are flat-out untrue, doesn’t appear to be part of the list, of course. Only one of the guesses involves “incredulity over Church history,” which translates to people no longer believe that this bullshit is chocolate silk pie. (Also interestingly, this particular guess is grouped with the “Far Left” objections to Mormonism. As a true-blue fundamentalist lass, my primary objection to Mormonism, way back when, was that it wasn’t actually the truth according to any meaning of the word. It doesn’t get more “Far Right” than that.)
Catholics Still Don’t Have Any Idea.
Catholics are in much the same boat. An interesting study reported last year involves a random national sample of young people who were raised Catholic but left the religion. Most of the respondents left the religion around age 13, though a quarter said it’d happened before they’d even turned 10. Since demographically these young people tend to look a lot like their peers who are still members, the survey wanted to know why they’d left.
Some had switched faiths when their parents had, it turns out, or had selected another religion independently of their parents. 11% said they actually opposed the Church (or religion generally). 10% didn’t give a reason at all. But 20% of those young ex-Catholics replied that they simply didn’t believe in the Christian god anymore. In fact, “no other reason was provided as frequently.” (This study meshes well with a Pew Research finding along similar lines: 49% of Nones who’d been been raised religious had simply stopped believing.)
And in the open-ended questions posed, that last group of ex-Catholics provided reasons that sound very much in line what what we normally hear out of ex-Christians generally: they realized that Christianity was just a fairy tale like Santa Claus is, that the religion’s proponents have no proof at all for their claims, and that it simply doesn’t mesh with reality. Only 13% of the respondents said they’d ever consider becoming Catholic again, and many of them set forth conditions for their returns that sound perfectly reasonable as well–centering on someone finding evidence that actually supports the religion’s claims. The study also notes that half of ex-Catholic young people now identify as atheists, agnostics, or Nones.
The Obvious Solution in Christian Bizarro-Land.
All in all, this sounds pretty spot-on so far. But what does the Catholic church appear to be making of this information? That they just have to explain things more effectively to the children they do manage to ensnare.
The site’s authors acknowledge at least tacitly that there is nothing whatsoever that they can do about the people leaving because they realized the religion’s claims aren’t true. Then, they rush declare that The Big Problem Here is that fewer and fewer children are enrolled in Catholic education. Yes, because that’s exactly the problem here: that they just aren’t hammering their doctrines hard enough into children’s heads.
This appears to be the overwhelming thrust of the religion’s leaders and thinkers regarding the hemorrhage of people from their ranks, particularly young people. Get ’em while they’re young, goes the thinking, teach them exactly the right things in the right order, and they will be more likely to stay Catholic forever.
Very seldom does one find anybody saying what these young people are experiencing: that the religion’s various claims are simply false. When they’re not criticizing the state of Catholic education for children, they’re focusing on the various scandals and social issues swirling around the church. Nobody really connects those scandals and issues with the religion’s false claims, of course.
It’s unsurprising that they’re more or less ignoring the biggest reason why young people say they’ve left Catholicism. Any reputable business that did something like that would be lambasted from here to Thalesia–but when a religious group does the same thing, nobody says a word. I won’t even get into how modern culture views advertising that targets children; it’s hardly even necessary.
Mainline Denominations Seem Resigned.
Compared to evangelicals and Catholics, mainline groups are absolutely disintegrating. The ELCA, a very large Lutheran group, has stated that pretty much all of their churches are shrinking. They’re the victims of increasing polarization in Christianity, with many of their adherents and churches leaving for more conservative and bigoted pastures. Over the 25 years of the denomination’s existence, they’ve lost a solid 23% of their membership and 13% of their churches. The Lutherans remaining are growing older and older on average as well. As a denomination, this one certainly appears to be dying on the vine.
There’s not even really much they can do about it.
And Evangelicals Are Still Clueless–on Purpose.
Of course, evangelicals know why Catholics are leaving Catholicism, as “charles allan” hilariously writes on that CNN link’s comments: there’s just not enough Bible study! Yes, that’s obviously it!
Evangelicals are also extremely sure they know why people are leaving those mainline groups too: they’re just not hardcore enough. Hell, mainline groups might not even be real churches. They might look like real churches and do a lot of the same sorts of things, but–cautions one fundagelical site in the sternest terms–it might not actually be one. A Christian is only really safe and sound in a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church like the ones those writers favor.
But that blithe explanation doesn’t explain why so many people are leaving that end of Christianity, which bills itself frequently and proudly as the group of Christians who most idolize and fetishize the Bible and are the truest and realest possible Christians who ever mangled the faith. For all their criticism of any form of Christianity that isn’t their own–and you may be sure that this criticism is to be had in ready supply–they’re losing people too, just not quite as quickly as the other groups are.
We’ve certainly talked a lot here over the years about the various silly and shrill reasons that right-wing Christians tend to give when confronted with people leaving their ranks in tidal waves. Typically they blame those leaving for not believing the correct doctrines, not understanding those doctrines, or not wanting to follow those doctrines. As their Catholic bedmates do, evangelicals also blame ex-Christians’ parents and childhood pastors for their later deconversions.
But few of them engage with the simple truth, that a lot of people leaving have figured out that their claims aren’t true either–and don’t want to tangle with groups as toxic as theirs when they’re not even honest.
Progressives Don’t Even Get It.
Progressives have no shortage of criticisms to make of modern American church culture. Most of those criticisms are accurate. You might even have seen this semi-viral post by John Pavlovitz making the rounds a while ago, in which he accuses Christian churches of having overly-slick Sunday presentations and being too politicized. He joins a number of his peers in trying to describe, contain, and try to fix a growing problem for their churches.
Caught as they are between the most toxic group of people in the civilized world and their own starry-eyed idealism, little wonder that some progressives wonder what they even have to offer the world that it can’t get elsewhere.
They tend to be pretty decent folks, so it’s almost sad to tell them that the answer to that question does not mean good things for their end of Christianity.
The Actual Answer.
People increasingly have choices about where they’ll spend their time and money. The social forces that once forced people to pretend to be members of the religion don’t hold as much sway as they once did. Moreover, other social forces have been put into play to ensure that people are crunched for time and money in ways they never were until recently.
So with all those choices and all those new constraints, people don’t have time or energy for stuff that they don’t really want to do or don’t see as important. They’ll make time for stuff that they think is important, but stuff that isn’t important is, more and more often, getting skipped or omitted from their lives.
When we look at the formal non-work-related groups that Westerners–especially Americans–join and do stuff with, we see that they fall into one of two categories: those groups either offer something true and real, or they offer something beneficial and resonant for members for the time invested.
Fandom groups are built around fictional stories, but they’re resonant as hell for a great many people. Knitting and hiking groups do real stuff and have beneficial effects on members’ lives, even if they’re not universally resonant outside their narrow interests. Charity groups are based in real needs and are seen as important and useful by most people–not only by giving back to the community but by enriching volunteers’ lives. Astronomy clubs, flash-mob groups, you name it: they have to offer some good reason for people to join and hang out, or people just won’t!
A lot of groups offer both truth and resonance, but they’d better at least hit one of those two points or they won’t be viable for long.
If Christian groups cannot offer the real truth to people (and they can’t), then they’d damn well better at least be a good group to hang out with. But increasingly, they’ve begun losing their monopoly on resonance as well.
In years past, people might have figured out that Christianity’s various claims were totally false but either couldn’t leave thanks to those social forces or else decided voluntarily to stay because they saw religion as generally benevolent and useful in some way (such as giving them a social outlet or an opportunity to get involved with charity work). But those years are long gone. Now the religion’s groups must compete for people’s time and attention along with all the other groups that want it. And I don’t think Christians like this new reality very much.
Not only do Christian leaders not appear to like this new normal of theirs, they don’t even seem to be able to engage realistically with it. They’re barely past accepting that their religion’s numbers and influence are dropping as fast as they are; they’re not yet to the stage of accurately describing the problem, much less at the point where they can begin addressing that problem. The clock is ticking for them, however: the longer it takes them to understand what they’re doing so wrong, the less time they’ll have to fix those errors.
Be watching and paying attention to the growing number of screeds and guesses coming out of Christianity about why nobody likes them anymore. That number will only grow. My prediction is that the religion will be long past the point of reform by the time they accept what’s actually going on.
So… humanity eventually wins in the end!
NEXT UP: Why the glurge book/movie The Shack grates on me. See you soon!
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