why is everyone leaving the church?

nm_youth_church_090506_mnTalk about a string of bad press! In addition to a write up in the Christian Science Monitor [The Coming Evangelical Collapse], a cover article of the Newsweek Magazine entitled “The End of Christian America,” a more readable and short article popped up last week on ABC News entitled, “Young America Losing Their Religion.”

While these articles aren’t great news, I must be a bad pastor because the news of this supposed major decline of Western Christianity aren’t really freaking me out.  In fact, I’m as hopeful than ever before.  Why?  News like this has the potential to awaken a slumbering church and forces us to re-examine the question: “Who is the church and what is our mission?” In addition, it confirms to me that while folks might be turning away from institutional religion as we know, all of these articles point to my conviction that people are still very spiritual and looking and searching for a deeper understanding of life, truth, and meaning.

The institutional ‘C’hurch may be struggling but may not necessarily mean the body of Christ is struggling.  Might even be the contrary.  Think about this from a commenter:

You can’t count us…or contain us or define us or measure our ‘works’ because we just live it out with out banners or fan fair…it’s messy, it’s hard…and it is far more rewarding and real than anything I experienced prior.

Back to the article, one of the quotes that resonated with me:

this “stunning” trend of young people becoming less religious could lead to America’s next great burst of religious innovation.

What’s the next great burst of religious innovation? Please don’t say Twittering at church! 🙂

What will bring people back to church particularly young people?  My guesses are that the next great burst of “innovation” won’t be all that new:

  • The presence of God.  The Holy Spirit.  “What compels us?”  People are drawn to the divine.
  • Community.  We are created for community.  People studying, learning, questioning, praying, eating, confessing, forgiving, and sharing life together. — Wow, that sounds so magnetic.  Acts 2:42-47.  People are drawn to people.
  • Compassion and Justice.  People will return when they see the church making a difference in the city and world – beyond our “awesome” worship services. Actually, I believe these two elements are the core of the emerging evangelism of our context and culture.
  • Teaching and Preaching.  While these things take shots nearly ever week from many individuals and groups of people, I still believe that teaching/preaching are as critical as other things on this list.  Having said that, we’re lacking in compelling, faithful, and integrity-laden teaching & preaching.
  • Creating Culture.  People are drawn to the church and Christians creating beautiful and compelling culture.  So easy for the church to critique, condemn, or create insular culture.

What do you think?

Here’s the article entitled Young America Losing their Religion:

This trend started in the 1990s and continues through today. It includes people in both Generation X and Y.

While these young “nones” may not belong to a church, they are not necessarily atheists.

“Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church,” Putnam said. “They have the same attitidues and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues.”

Putnam says that in the past two decades, many young people began to view organized religion as a source of “intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views,” and therefore stopped going to church.

This movement away from organized religion, says Putnam, may have enormous consequences for American culture and politics for years to come.

“That is the future of America,” he says. “Their views and their habits religiously are going to persist and have a huge effect on the future.”

This data is likely to reinvigorate an already heated debate about whether America is, or will continue to be, a “Christian nation.” A recent Newsweek cover article, entitled “The End of Christian America” provoked responses from religious thinkers all over the spectrum.

Putnam, author of the book “Bowling Alone,” which tracked the decline in civic and community engagement in America (exemplified by the diminution of bowling leagues), fears the reduction in religiosity could have widespread negative impacts.

His research shows that people who go to church are much more likely to vote, volunteer and give to charity.

However, he says, it’s possible that the current spike in young people opting out of organized religion could also prove to be an opportunity for some.

“America historically has been a very inventive and even entrepreneurial place in terms of religion,” he says. “We’re all the time inventing new religions and reinventing religions that we have. It’s partly because we have a free market in religion. That is, we don’t have a state church.”

Given that today’s young “nones” probably would be in church if they didn’t associate religion with far-right political views, he says, new faith groups may evolve to serve them.

“Jesus said, ‘Be fishers of men,'” says Putnam, “and there’s this pool with a lot of fish in it and no fishermen right now.”

In the end, he says, this “stunning” trend of young people becoming less religious could lead to America’s next great burst of religious innovation.

38 Replies to “why is everyone leaving the church?”

  1. I have many doubts about these statistics that are cited in these articles. Because everything that I personally see speak to the contrary. I see churches that are growing by the hundreds and many are filled with young people.

  2. Here’s some innovation for you…
    1. Pastors – be pastors and love and serve your congregation with all of your hearts. Don’t be business men.
    2. Church – be community, love people with all of your hearts, surrender to God with all of your strength, do your best in life.
    3. Practices – be contemplative, be vibrant, be whatever suits your environment – it doesn’t matter so much.

    Not much innovation in there, but will sure make an appealing church.

  3. J. P. Moreland’s recent book *Kingdom Triangle* offers some provocative and (IMHO) exciting reflections on this topic: we need to seek a more holistic approach to our faith that emphasizes the life of the mind AND spiritual formation AND the power of the Spirit.

    Here’s the Amazon page; it’s a fantastic book:

  4. Actually, people are leaving the church if those people are white Americans. The ethnic minority churches are on the rise, but the media doesn’t really concern itself with non-whites, it seems.

  5. Ironic that the evangelical criticism of the decline of ‘mainline’ churches now comes back at them.

    However, I don’t think the evangelical church will decline. It will just emerge in a more mature form – more connected with the spiritual heritage of the Church and more connected with local communities. We’re already seeing this with the ‘New Monasticism’ although I think that this is only the beginning of the story.

  6. Many people are leaving church, not because they are rejecting faith, but rather trying to preserve their faith. What is coming in the future, I believe, will be messier, more chaotic, more difficult in a way, but will be much more fulfilling and spirit-led. It used to be that everybody knew where everybody else stood. You were either a Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Anglican, etc. or you were athiest or a pagan.

    But that world of classification no longer exists because there are all kinds of people in between the lines of classification. And that freaks some people out.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here yet is that so many non-religious people want nothing to do with institutionalized religion or evangelical churches because most churches and christians do not, or seem to not, care about some of the great issues of our day. Like the environment and poverty. This is changing, but for the most part, if you care about the environment, and about helping people in poverty, you don’t become christian because christians don’t care about those things. That, at least, is what most people have seen in the church in America. We must change that image, and thankfully it is changing in many places.

  7. What strange timing that you’d have this posted for today. Just last night I sent an email to our church elders describing why I wasn’t renewing my membership for this year. I intend to be as active and engaged as ever with the church but I’m officially withdrawing because I find the tenets of faith so constrictive as to define me as a non-christian. So I’m one of the people this article describes.

    I absolutely agree that American Christianity’s best days are ahead of it. There’s a lot of baggage to shed but I have hope.

  8. I think this is an expression of evangelicalism that is dying. It doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the future of Christianity but it does show its present state…dying and birthing out of it new expressions that can be more effective in today’s culture.

  9. Another fantastic book, and really interesting counterpoint to this discussion is “What Americans Really Believe” by Rodney Stark, a former UW researcher who is now at Baylor. It’s a report on the comprehensive Baylor Surveys in Religion (or something like that) which were published in 2005 – 2007. One of the most interesting statistics from those surveys is that despite more ‘nones’, attendance at religious worship has held steady at least since 1964 at about 35% of the population/Sunday, and among young people the reported church attendance numbers are essentially the same as they have been in previous surveys. Unbelievable, I know, but check it out:

  10. @jadanzzy: agree and disagree. we know that there are stats to prove that the ethnic churches are still thriving. but it’s misleading. english speaking ethnic churches are struggling and folks under 35 – across the board – are still in decline.

    @jack danger canty: thanks for sharing.

    best days? i prefer to say “newer days.”

  11. I left the ‘evangelical mega’ variety of ‘church’ that I engaged in faithfully for over 25 years…I meet no shortage of people who are chosing to opt out of the traditional way of ‘doing church’. People are certainly leaving the buildings…but, the body of Christ is alive and well beyond the walls.
    You can’t count us…or contain us or define us or measure our ‘works’ because we just live it out with out banners or fan fair…it’s messy, it’s hard…and it is far more rewarding and real than anything I experienced prior.

  12. @joy: love your quote –

    You can’t count us…or contain us or define us or measure our ‘works’ because we just live it out with out banners or fan fair…it’s messy, it’s hard…and it is far more rewarding and real than anything I experienced prior.

  13. Honestly, i think most of those things are already being done and the church is STILL declining. A friend and i over dinner last night said we rarely see TRUE TRANSFORMATION in peoples lives. i told her i see us being busy about the Father’s business, but way too busy not to deal with the planks/issues in our own lives and really listening to see where G-D is moving. Taking care of the poor and the earth are all good and necessary. Yet, sometimes i think it strokes our egos to be doing these good things. i think sometimes we are called to do other things but are not really listening to G-D. AND, we also need to deal with stuff in our own lives. When we deal with things and learn to TRULY love ourselves, we are then able to love G-D and others. Sometimes we are overly busy trying to fill voids and it sometimes comes out of a place selfishness. i also think we are headed to a post-Christendom society here in the USA like in Europe that i believe we are in denial about. The signs are all around us. People i meet want NOTHING to do with Christianity and/or Jesus. We need to face the realities of possibly becoming like Europe. i do believe G-D by the Holy Spirit will move but we better start learning to really and truly love people no matter what. i think we better start putting relationships with people and how we treat them above doctrines and dogma. For the most part, i do not see this sacrificial love and i am often on the receiving end of unkindness, unloving and hateful words and actions of people who call themselves Christians. We just happen to view things differently but we are still brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, to them, i am just another sinner going to hell, worthy to be treated like crap. i think we so often miss the forest for the trees!

    i am reminded of the story where the man is stranded in a flood on the roof of a house. He is praying and asking G-D to rescue him. A boat passes by and asks him if he needs help. The man says no because he is waiting on G-D to rescue him. A helicopter then flies over him and asks him if he needs help. Again he says no because he is waiting on G-D to rescue him. He ends up drowning and in heaven asks G-D why he did not answer his prayers to rescue him. G-D tells the man that he sent him a boat and a helicopter but he refused help. The point being the man had his expectations of how G-D should rescue him that he missed the signs from G-D!

    G-D wants us to love G-D, ourselves and others. i think G-D sheds many tears over the lack of love followers of G-D show fellow Christians and those that don’t proclaim to be Christians. So often right beliefs, doctrines and dogma take precedence over flesh and blood human beings that need grace and love. So often we have to be right or correct in our assertions that we forget there are hearts involved.

    Just my thoughts! i have ranted.mused long enough.


  14. I read the coming evangelical collapse several months ago over on Michael Spencer’s blog, and while some people have issue with it, I think that he is right on.

    As a 20 something Lutheran Youth “pastor” in Oklahoma, I’ve noticed that I’m one of about 3 people my age in church.

    Spencer is also quick to point out that even in large mega-churches that boast great young adult ministries are mostly pulling from other mainline churches, not from a non-christian background.

    I find that the information is hopeful and I agree that the best days are ahead of us. American Christianity will look very different than the anemic, passion-deprived church that is now, and I pray that God stirs our hearts and our spirits to move forward to care about something other than ourselves.

  15. i’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of how we share faith and bring new people into the kingdom. the question, how do we do it!? i’m in my community serving, coaching, meeting people outside the church walls but don’t know what to invite them to. do i simply invite them to worship? that’s where the community piece comes in. we need to do life together and we need to get it right. until then, the church will continue bowling alone…

  16. P.S. Green and poverty being ‘cool’ is to me another marketing strategy to build numbers. There are rich people who are empty and poor in spirit. They need to know of G-D’s love just as much as the homeless people. My friend last night said she imagines homeless people understand G-D more than the rich people possible do. Then there’s loving our enemies, which i admit is difficult for me. That is RADICAL LOVE! It’s easy to reach out to poor people. But what about working on relationships where we have different beliefs within Christianity and working to find common ground. It’s hard and messy and not always successful. G-D is holistic and cares about EVERYONE of us, rich or poor, jew or gentile, male or female, gay or straight, etc because G-D does not see us in in those either/or labels. YES, we have our own identities, but we must realize G-D is NOT bound to those. G-D transcends labels.


  17. @chad m: i struggle with this as well. maybe not as much now with about 90% of my church being between 18-35. but years ago, i was growing worried and frustrated that what was being conveyed by the older generations was:

    “See HOW we worship.”

    They wanted so much for my generation to follow in their steps, style, methodology, and such.

    And I had hoped they would have been passionate in sharing:

    “This is WHY we worship…”

  18. @Hannah, you said, ‘I pray that God stirs our hearts and our spirits to move forward to care about something other than ourselves.’ i agree that the consumeristic, selfish side of us needs to decline, but i don’t think we spend enough time lamenting and dealing with our own stuff. We get wrapped up and busy in doing ‘the work of the Lord’ when i think we need to be working on ourselves to be better people, more loving people, seeking why we do things out of selfish motivations, allowing the Holy Spirit to work, convict, shed light on our hurts, weaknesses, whatever holds us back from being the most loving we can be. Sometimes i think we get in the ‘rut’ of doing work for the kingdom that we neglect our own beings to the detriment of the kingdom and ourselves. i hope i make sense.

    Warm Regards,

  19. we should not assume that a revival of faith amongst christians will equal church growth– or that we can measure the spread of christianity SIMPLY by what is happening in our institutional churches.

    This is a misnomer.

    This is an old paradigm.

    Jesus has left the building.

    We must begin to understand that Christians are operating in the general public and virally networking with other christian– outside the influence and control of institutions and services. I’m not here to argue if that is good or bad– it just is.

  20. Eugene, best post yet. I also agree with Jimmy. We shouldn’t measure the kingdom of God by church attenders anyway, people are coming to know the truth and being set free from bondage and death, mainly IMHO outside of the “traditional church”, and I say that with a grain assult, because the reality is, if only 1 person in the ‘pastor’ then what about others that are gifted with pastoring, do they really need a title and/or a paid position to do the work of the Lord? No. What about prophesying, is that opening welcome in a traditional setting @ church, what about healing, what aboug great power? These things really happen outside the mainframe. Again, my opinion and again what I’v witnessed. People may be leaving the ‘church’ but instead they are actually BEING the body of Christ.

    peace, hc

  21. @eugene: You’re probably right that saying the church’s “best days” are ahead is pretty shortsighted. “Newer days” is much more accurate 🙂

    I think the reason for my hope is that some of the best people who are the most dedicated to having a Christlike character are outside the church. I can think of several internet business leaders off the top of my head who I know to be agnostic/atheist and yet have internalized the message of Christ in a powerful way.

    I believe one day the church will be more effective in translating the message of the Kingdom of God without all the baggage that keeps these people out. It would mean a huge compromise in what the church considers fundamentally uncompromisable issues, but I’ll bet that’s how every reformation works.

  22. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what everyone is talking about. If “church” is the Sunday morning building where everyone sits and listens to the pastor and sings songs and maybe drops a fractional “tithe” then that’s one thing. And such a church is a thing of Christendom past and not really worth saving. But if we’re talking about the body of Christ, the proclaimers of the Kingdom of God working for justice and salvation in subversive, Jesus-like ways in a non-Christian world, then indeed we are in the beginnings of something new and old and very good indeed. But keeping score by church attendance is a thing of the past that should not concern us.

  23. Eugene–thanks for this excellent post and great discussion!

    I grieve for my younger friends in Christ who are have been wounded and alienated by what has passed for “church” in recent decades. In my era it was a different spiritual tyranny we were reacting against. But the path of healing for us all is the same.

    I myself had to step over the wounds left by the religious-political liberalism jammed down my throat in the mainline church growing up, and find Christ and His healing mercy in spite of it.

    Thankfully, He has also delivered me from the angry, reactive, “I’ll do it better than my clueless parents and their dumb church” conservatism that latched to my soul. It’s a process that’s taken decades of painful soul work and much tender grace. The real issue isn’t politics. It’s daring to fully receive His love in those wounded areas of vehemence and protest we all have against those who had power over us when we were young and at their mercy.

    Have I given up on the Church in spite of all the above? No way! I believe loving honesty in community, grace for broken souls, and infectious lowliness and joy are timeless and will never go out of style. And it’s not even about why we worship, but WHO we worship and what kind of Person He really is–and isn’t.

    Younger friends, count me among the older saints cheering you all on, praying that you will far outstrip me and leave a better heritage in Jesus for those following after you than I have.

  24. @queermergent – I love what you had to say in your first comment about taking care of both the world outside and the self inside. So many churches seem to only do one or the other but both are necessary.

    As for myself, I’ll admit that it’s far easier to think/write/talk about the problems going on in the world at large than it is to do anything about the junk in my own trunk.

    Lots of food for thought there, thanks.

  25. I think all the reasons for the dwindling numbers in churches that have been given in P.E.’s post and in the comments are real and important.

    But I think one thing that really needs to happen if the church at large is to be seen as real, relevant, and worth investigating is we need to make peace with science. IMHO, anti-evolutionists are in the same boat as those who argued that an earth-centered universe was the truth because it was how the universe was described in the Bible.

    I believe there is much that God is trying to tell us through the sciences (becaue God reveals aspects of himself through his creation) and I believe that science needs to be informed by the moral compass that the church can provide (because science apart from religion reduces us to mere genetic machines).

  26. Like others, I really have some doubts about how these statistics are tabulated. And secondly, I wonder if accounting in the past have been off and now, are being accounted accurately.

  27. You nailed it Eugene. I’m batting maybe .300 with my children. As PK’s they saw the dirty inside of the institutional church and were deeply turned off, but they still embody and look for the stuff you mention…maybe not in church but somewhere in their world. The other thing that is intensely important for them is creation care. In my dissertation…which i’m beginning to repack for a book, i take about 50 pages to deal with our syncretism in the North American church. It is kind of a look from the inside of the passing, dying institutional church. Bring it on, quickly, so we can get on with the new thing.

  28. @jimmy spencer: good thoughts.

    my one pushback. we need the organic movement and the institutional church. numerous times, i’ve seen folks swear off the institutional church – but only to come back…when they need something.

  29. “we need the organic movement and the institutional church.”

    Why do we need an institution? I don’t think that we need an institution, we need organization.

    Organic churches tend to be more chaotic, strongly relational, and often anti-institutional, and sometimes anti-organizational (like my last pastor). But to match up to our missional values there needs to be organization. Without organization, you talk all the time about all the things that need to get done, but nothing ever gets done. But with an institution, all your resources end up going to sustaining the institution rather than towards the mission. There needs to be a balance.

    My own personal idea of how this should work, though I don’t hold this standard on anyone, is that the organic church is Church (something more like a house church, strongly relational), and we should create organizations that fulfill our mission as the Church, but the organization itself is not the Church. The organization is purely a tool used for the mission. If this were the case, if an organization was found to be ineffective, or irrelevant to the context it was working in, there would be no problem with changing it, or scrapping it and starting over. But with an institution that we too often consider “the Church” you cannot do that without accusations of heresy and whatnot.

    That is how I imagine the Church to be in the future and hope for. I’m sure it is flawed, but it makes sense to me.

    I was part of a group of people that decided to plant a church. We had a core group of about 10 people. Looking back I realize that the year leading up to the day that we began “having church” every sunday, was one of the best years I have ever had when it came to learning and relationships. It was wonderful. But the day that we started having services, it changed. The dynamics of the group changed at its very core, and was never the same again. And it took over three years to fully see that fact. In the traditional sense, we became a church that day, but in my view, planting that “church” was what destroyed us as the Church. Looking back, I believe it was that we had this assumption that to be a “church” you have to do certain things, like have a sunday service, etc.

    Considering all of the effort, time, and money that we threw at that churchplant, and the fruit that it didn’t produce (it was not void of good things, but there is very little to show for what we put into it), we would have been much better off focusing our energy in a more relational and missional direction. We already were the Church, we just needed a way to be on mission, but instead we tried to create church, and our mission became the work of keeping it going.

    I believe that we need Church to be the relationships, and organizations to be the expression of our mission.

  30. Thanks for posting this Eugene. I think that we are headed for an exciting time. I live in Portland and am always fascinated how open to God people are here but most of them would not associate with a religion. I talk to people all the time that truly want to live and love like Christ did, even if they would not associate that lifestyle with Christ. I am not sure this move away from association with major denominations or religions is a terrible thing, but i am excited to see how Christianity will react and adapt. I guess i should say i am super excited to be a part of the solution.

  31. it would be nice, from my view, if churches started saying hello to new comers at their church. I don’t want to seem like I have a chip on my shoulder, but it seems that “church’s” have their own sub culture that excludes new people in many aspects, and therefore losing their membership and visitation to church’s making it seem as though there is a decline in attendance, but that’s easily fixed, if someone would just say hello for a change instead of handing them a “visitor’s” card and telling them to join their social online networking site

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