Research has shown that Christians are leaving the church. Younger generations are less likely to attend church. They’re also less likely to think that church is an important part of their life. There are many reasons people say is the cause of this. Some blame modern technology and the ability to get content online and in your pocket. Fundamentalists will claim that these people aren’t true believers. Or maybe they couldn’t handle who God is and so they quit to fit in with the world. I know because I heard this from people when I left my conservative church.
Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) published a study in May called Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval that talks about what is actually happening. This self-reporting study asked what the reasons were to leave their previous religion. While this study goes beyond Christianity, the findings are still valuable. Most people said they left because they stopped believing in the teachings of the religion. Other notable reasons were treatment of LGBT+ people, public scandals, and politics from the pulpit.
So what are the reasons people leave their religion? How can we learn from this to evolve our faith for the next generations?
The Single Error?
I think these reasons are all connected, and they stem from the teaching of the church. Christian theology takes cues from the culture around it – conservative and liberal theology. We cannot escape our experience in culture and we read with that in mind. That’s why we can so easily parallel Jesus and the Matrix.
American Christianity has been shaped by the conservative nature of our society. Many of what we consider far left ideas in politics would be centrist in Europe. Think any way you’d like about that, but this means that our society has a right leaning stance. This conservative pull is seen in our churches as well. Our most popular churches hold fundamentalist positions like young earth creationism and eternal conscious torment. Modern science and philosophical arguments cast doubt on these example.
The problem is that we don’t know that these ideas are not necessarily the only or orthodox views of the Church. There are so many different interpretations and definitions that the history of the Church has to offer. Yet many American Christians are stuck in a theology younger than the country itself. I often wonder how many people who left the Church would have stayed if they knew there were other options – that the cognitive dissonance they felt was not a new phenomenon.
The Culture War and Personal Responsibility
The White Conservative Evangelical Church in America has made several cultural sifts over the last decade. The most profound may be engaging in the culture war and the lack of emphasis on personal responsibility.
The culture war has dominated much of the Conservative political rhetoric for the last 20 years or so, and now it has become more popular in the Church. Stances on abortion, gay marriage, and trans rights have all become political virtual signals. Democrats use the same markers to identify their tribe, but the Conservative Church has become much more closely associated with conservative politics than the mainline and liberal churches.
Scandals in the Church is not new, but it seems that more people are willing to open up about what happens in the Evangelical spaces. Documentaries on The Duggars and Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz were produced for the mainstream audience. The implosion of Mars Hill Church documented in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill was a little more insider focused, but shed light on a huge abuse of power. If the White Conservative Evangelical Church doesn’t authentically address these issues, there is no coming back for those who left.
What will be the next chapter of American Christianity? I think what we have seen is just the beginning. Young people aren’t necessarily leaving faith, but they aren’t dealing with the hypocrisy. They feel that political and social engagement is an important aspect to their moral convictions, but they won’t be fooled by power hungry politicians. Until the Church in America can become the family of subversive movers for the poor and oppressed, I don’t think the exodus will end.