Young people are leaving the church at an alarming rate. At least that’s the narrative you hear over and over again. As the narrative goes, these godless, self-centered, me-first, consumerist millennials are abandoning the church, the body of Christ, for individualistic spirituality. No more will organized religion suffice for them. They are forsaking the faith of their fathers. We should be concerned, very concerned!
Assuming that young people are, in fact, leaving the church in droves, it raises a question: Are millennials more godless than previous generations? It seems like obvious answer is ‘yes’; they’re leaving the church after all. But such a question deserves closer examination.
In decades past, America was a traditionally churched, religious nation. A significant portion of society was religiously involved, and church was a cultural centerpiece. Those who grew up in explicitly religious families and contexts attended church out of habit. It was expected that come Sunday morning they would scrub behind their ears, put on their nice trousers and tie, and off to church they’d go. The power of cultural expectations was enormous. In entire swaths of the country a person was a pariah if he wasn’t a churchgoer. But no more. Sure, the Bible-belt still exists, but the cultural pressure to be in church week in and week out has waned to near zero.
Along with waning cultural pressure, the respect for institutions has diminished among young people, and with it the respect for institutional leaders. While the good Reverend McGillicuddy might once have been a community icon and an authority figure in people’s personal lives, he is no longer. Neither are churches community hubs (at least in white communities). Young people don’t look to institutions or their heads for instruction. The trust isn’t there.
And there is a reason trust is missing for the institutional church. For decades a gospel of moralism and legalism was taught in numerous churches. People attended because it was the ‘right thing to do’ and a way to ‘get right with God.’ The expectations placed on members were a particular brand of morality built around which things we don’t do (drink, cuss, smoke, watch certain movies, listen to certain music, etc.). It was a burdensome law, one nobody could keep. Many didn’t even try, though they acted like it on Sundays. And while everyone knew it, they kept on doing it. Except now young people won’t pretend any more or follow an institution so full of fakery. They don’t trust the hypocrisy and they reject the moralism.
So what is it young people are leaving behind? In many cases they are leaving a faux godliness. Millions of lost people, people hanging their hat on morality or mere attendance, populated the pews of the church in previous generations. They were just a lot harder to pick out than those who brazenly walk out the door, so hard we can’t even be sure how many there were.
To answer the question, no, millennials are not more godless. They’re just more obvious. People suffer from the same sin condition now that we have since Eden. This generation’s expression of it is to reject the hypocritical, cultural Christianity of yesteryear. But the hypocrisy that was subtle before, while easier to ignore, was not godlier. It was no more connected to the gospel and to regeneration than is walking away from church altogether. Yes, be concerned that young people are leaving the church, but be more concerned why. In many cases it isn’t because they reject Christ; it’s because they never found him at church either from the pulpit or the pews.
[Disclaimer: Writing anything about ‘the church’ is risky, as is writing anything about an entire generation of people. It requires writing in generalities and broad strokes. This is not intended to lump all churches, church-goers and millennials into the same boat but rather to speak to tendencies and trends over the years.]