The Deconstruction Deluge and Why Millennials are Leaving Church

We meant to have a games night. And by games, I mean chocolate, wine, trash-talking and friends with a side of games. Instead, my husband, three friends and I ended up having a long conversation about Church: the local church, the global church, deconstruction, attendance, and what we need from the church. It got me thinking. People are deconstructing, the world is changing, but the church (globally) seems to be clinging to old structures and wondering why people aren’t flocking to it like they used to. In fact, church attendance has been on the decline for the last century with recent statistics revealing that 59% of Millennials raised in Church no longer attend. Last month, we read as Christian relationship guru, Josh Harris, donned the hat of the “apostate” and walked away from the faith. This week, Relevant magazine has carried a story detailing Hillsong stalwart Marty Sampson’s disclosure that he too is losing his Christian faith.

It might be easy to assign blame and get our good Christian “judgment and gossip” hats out, but I think there’s a better way to go about this. It isn’t just Josh and Marty who have issues with the church. Millennials seem to be telling us that they aren’t happy here. 

Of course, I have to hit you with the good old-fashioned disclaimer – I don’t have all the answers here. I only have my experience of deconstruction and my own observations from looking at the church at large (albeit with a big penchant for Googling what the experts have to say.) I can’t ‘tell you why Josh Harris or Marty Sampson walked away, but I can tell you a few thoughts that have been burning in my brain over the last few months as I have pondered the plight of this vast and varied institution we call “the church.”

First, the stats: According to Pew Reseach, 59% of American Millennials raised in Church no longer attend. This has corresponded with an 8% dip in attendance overall, which perhaps shows that while older generations are holding on to Institutional church, we young whippersnappers aren’t. While Judaism is no longer the largest non-Christian religion (pipped at the post by Islam), the biggest growth in the religious survey was those who practice no religion. Interestingly, this has been marked by only a small bump in atheists (+1.5% of the “no religion” cohort) and agnostics (+1.6%). What this means is that there are a lot of people out there who believe in God, but don’t believe church attendance is the best way to outwork this.

McCrindle Research offered up some insights into why Australian church attendance is sliding. These data points relate to the church as a whole, not just to Millennials, but they are fascinating none-the-less. They found that:

  • 47% believed church attendance was irrelevant to their lives.
  • 26% didn’t accept how “it” is taught.
  • 24% believed church had an outdated style.
  • 22% had issues with clergy/ministers.
  • 19% didn’t believe the Bible.

It’s not hard to see why some people would have issues with the clergy, as members of major institutions get hauled through the legal system over and over again because of child abuse. Even this week, Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he would rather go to jail than report sexual abuse disclosed in the confessional. This sort of thing can leave young people (with an increased interest in social justice) scratching their heads over why on earth that is thought to be noble. I mean…What the?

Its no longer good enough to blame people like Josh Harris and Marty Sampson for leaving their faith, when it is highly possible that these exits were fruit of a church that isn’t serving its people or recognizing their changing needs. Following Josh Harris’s journey over the last few years, and reading Marty Sampson’s statement about why he was losing his faith, I am seeing something familiar: they have deep questions about life, equality, purity culture, church culture more broadly, eternity, and the meaning and authority of the Bible that the church just has not answered. The word “Deconstruction” is being thrown around the internet a whole lot more as communicators and influencers go public with their journey into applying critical thinking to faith. A lot of them lose their faith during this time.

I didn’t. But my faith has changed a lot because of my own deconstruction. I don’t regret staying a Christian, but I do have some observations.

Its time we do away with the “Don’t ask questions, just have faith” approach to Christianity. Parenting a generation or two ago was guided by an ethos that said children were to be seen and not heard, and that they didn’t ask questions of their parents. “Why Mum/Dad?” was often answered with “because I said so.”

We don’t do that anymore. We don’t do it with kids (all the time at least). We shouldn’t do it with adults. But somehow, the experience of many millennial Christians (myself included, and I have to acknowledge my own bias here), is that “because I/Jesus/The Bible” says so cuts off our deep need to understand. The ability to go the hard yards and grapple with the big questions seems to be cut off at the knees and what I’m seeing in my own circles on the interwebs and in real life is that this isn’t good enough anymore. We want deep answers to the big questions. We want to know our faith is relevant.

We have witnessed our parents and grandparents generations somehow equate Christianity with voting patterns (republican in the US, and oftentimes Liberal or minor parties in Australia). We now get left with the question of why being a Christian means you have to support Donald “Grab ’em by the pussy” Trump, or Scott “Lock them up in detention indefinitely” Morrison.  We get left with the question of why the church willingly throws open its doors to anyone, no matter their past transgressions, as long as they are straight and cis-gendered. We aren’t sure how the best way to show the love of God is to hurl abuse at women who feel abortions are their only (heartbreaking) option. We are baffled as to why so many Christians are climate change deniers as if the Bible ever admonished us in the direction of denying science and being poor stewards of the Earth.

Denying these questions, applying the “because I said so” logic, isn’t serving Millennial Christians. We want the depth. We want the grapple. We want to hear if you don’t know the answers. We want to be open to the search.

My solid belief is that truth stands up to scrutiny. If you apply the critical thinking lens to matters of faith, and if God is real, He will still be standing at the end of the search. It’s interesting to me that, of the 59% of American Millennials raised in church who no longer attend, only a total of 3% profess atheism and only 4% profess to be agnostics. The rest are saying “There is a God, but I don’t want a bar of church.”

So what do we need from church then?

We want something more than shallow Ted Talks and mediocre music. Church used to be the great obligation. A century ago, if you weren’t at church on a Sunday, then there were serious questions raised as to your morality and ideology. It might affect your employability or marriageability. As a young person, it certainly affected your social options. There were church dances, church bake sales, church missions, church church church. Many of the service clubs still hanging around the traps had their basis in church or faith (Scouts, Lions, Rotary for example). To step away from Church was a big, big deal. You were either in it, running it, or receiving its charity. Then the world evolved. Church isn’t a big obligation anymore. It has become an option. Gradually and over the years, the church has been evolving to suit the target market (except that very few churches have put those words with it).

We now have coffee machines in foyers (thank God! Because parenthood!), youth groups, kids ministries, shortened service times, hot topic Ted-talk-length sermons that barely have the time to delve into the big issues. We compensate for this with small groups and special interest courses. People have less and less weekend time they are willing to sacrifice for a service, so we shorten them. It’s needed, but it also means we have to cut content. It’s a conundrum. New research seems to be indicating a perplexing picture: we want digital engagement with quality resources, we want community but we don’t want to turn up regularly. We want deep intellectual reflection in big issues, but don’t turn up to hear it. It’s a contradictory wishlist and in truth, I don’t envy the people at the helm who have to sort through these debacles in order to create a picture of “church” that works for their tribe.

I love my church. I love serving in it. I’m also happy to acknowledge its shortcomings and to put my shoulder to the plow in order to fill the gaps that I can. It seems to do a pretty good job at giving progressives like me a seat alongside stoic conservatives and giving us all room to flourish together.

But when I look at the broader picture I can see something that’s an issue: Church isn’t blowing our minds anymore and obligation alone won’t pull us there.

We want to stand for something, not just against everything, even if it requires deep thought to re-form our picture of how to do that.  In the beginning, Church stood for belief in Christ, the benefit of community and a shared desire to emulate and imitate the Son of God who was the greatest example of love and life above temptation. (Ek, look that’s a crappy definition but it would take a whole series of blog posts to even get to the tip of the iceberg on that). My point is that church was for something. Now it seems to be an institution that is largely against things. You really only hear about church in the news when it is against marriage equality, or refugee rights, reproductive rights or left-leaning politics. etc.

Maybe there is a role for that among the non-progressive Christian cohort. But other indications suggest that millennial and progressive Christians want us to be standing for something. Church should never have been reduced to strong opposition to social evolution, and bunkering down on old social conventions. It used to be about giving to the poor and fulfilling the great commission too. It used to be about reaching out, not holding back. I found this quote interesting:

“Christianity in the United States hasn’t done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection with young people, in ways that would be relevant to their lives. If it is the case that millennials are less ‘atheists’ than they are ‘bored,’ then serious engagements with Christian social innovation, and with deep intellectual reflection (and these two things are connected), would offer promising signs of hope,” said L. Gregory Jones, a senior strategist for leadership education at Duke University in North Carolina.

I know. Its a US-centric quote but it works anywhere there are millennial Christians grappling with faith. Since I started this blog, I’ve been a little flabbergasted with how many people have said to me “I didn’t think I could be a Christian because I didn’t agree with the Christian doctrine on X, Y or Z.” It seems to me that “Christian” is anyone who fits the Romans 10:9 clause (Confesses with their mouth the Lord Jesus, and believes in their heart God raised Him from the dead. They will be saved.)

Somehow, we have made Christianity mean “Unquestioning agreement with dogma and conservative ideals.” It doesn’t have to be that. It can be faith, belief and your best efforts at following Jesus who was divine love made human. I’m not saying conservative ideals are bad. I like some of them. A lot of them even. But that doesn’t mean I would say someone more progressive than me isn’t a Christian. Gosh! Why are we excluding people? That’s not our job.

We aren’t admitting that church is a social club, albeit one that isn’t really fitting the brief. I can’t exactly close off this blog post without commenting on community, can I? I do agree that church has a valuable part to play in providing community – a village of relatively like-minded people where you are likely to find people who can become your tribe. This provides a valuable asset for mental health and wellbeing, but its not the whole shebang. What concerns me is that people put too much pressure on the church to fill every void here.

The truth is we can’t and shouldn’t outsource our social life to our pastor. It’s not his/her job to fill our dance-card of friends. When we connect with a church, regardless of its size, it is our responsibility to choose and manage our friendships within this. Of course, this needs to be balanced by capable pastoral staff to recognize people in need and assist them in finding community if it’s difficult. It also needs to be balanced with a welcoming and accessible atmosphere. It’s a tricky balance, especially on either end of the size spectrum: this is hard to adequately manage in large churches, and easy to over-manage in small churches. My point is every individual is a contributor even though the church provides a pretty good social structure.

We hear often that the church is a family. I both agree with and cringe at the phrase. Why? Because family means a lot of different things to people. To some, it is trauma and mistreatment. To others, it is guaranteed inclusion with no personal responsibility. Both ends of the spectrum open people up to become disgruntled. “Why isn’t the church coming to seek me out and invite me to things? I’m part of this family,” or “Wow. Family. Triggered.” Throw into the mix the need for digital engagement and the management of changing expectations and wow – what a puzzle we have for post-modern pastors! Good luck with that guys and girls!

I don’t envy church leaders right now. I believe the right approach is to give them grace while they figure it out, offer our talents to help solve the puzzle and have patience while we also make the shift in our own hearts to be willing to go deep and ask the right questions. Like Jones said – social innovation and deep intellectual reflection. I like that. I like that a lot.

Just a thought. Or three.

Peace: Kit K

Make sure you follow my socials and/or drop me  line if you like what you read. Because COMMUNITY people.

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Church Attendance in Australia [INFOGRAPHIC]

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