What’s Gone Wrong With Our Churches?

Three Reasons Millennials Are Abandoning Christianity

by Rev. Paul J. Bern

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Chances are that if you are in your 20’s or 30’s, you are not a church member. Polling is now a highly sophisticated industry, and religious organizations are being fed some irrefutable numbers about what is happening among their congregations. In a single generation, the Catholic and Christian church dropout rate across all denominations has increased five-fold. The Barna Group, a leading research evangelical Christian organization based in Ventura, California that focuses on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be “disengaged” before they are 30. The fault for this lies with those same denominations, and particularly their leadership as far as I am concerned. These churches – and I’m not going to name any denomination in particular – and their members spend every Sunday morning being religious for an hour, and then spend the rest of the week doing whatever suits them. They call themselves Christians while isolating themselves from the very people they are supposed to be ministering to! We as believers are charged with this very duty, as Jesus has taught us: “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark chapter 16, verses 15-16) As to whether one believes or not, that is between them and God. My responsibility lies with teaching about Jesus Christ and the Bible. I cannot force anyone to believe, since force is never the way of Christ anyway. But the outcome of disbelief is clearly spelled out.

In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and now exceeds 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from Christian churches, both in America and globally. Is it any wonder? There are too many churches I have been to that look more like fashion shows than places of worship. Many others insist that the members must “tithe” 10% of their income as specified in the Old Testament. Never mind what Jesus taught us, which was that he was the fulfillment of the Old Law (see Matthew 5: 17), the sacred Law of Moses, and that He continuously represents a new covenant between God and mankind. Yes, we should give to our churches as much as we can, when we can, but I disagree with the teaching that one’s donations must be exactly 10% each and every week. If that were the case, then only rich Christians could obey the law. That’s why I came to the conclusion many years ago that this teaching is a distortion of what the Bible says on this subject, meaning so-called tithing is a thinly veiled excuse for procuring the maximum amount of donations to church coffers. It’s all about the money. Then there are the Christian TV stations (speaking of money), which I used to watch some of them, where some of the women have enough makeup on for three people, and where some of the musicians are obviously gay and doing a poor job of hiding it. Still others are preaching the so-called “prosperity gospel”, which is a bogus teaching if there ever was one, and a gross distortion of what the Bible actually says about that topic.

While denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized members, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers. Once baptized, always a ‘listed’ Christian! Simply put, denominations are no longer a reliable source of membership information. If they can’t even be trusted for something as basic as accurate reporting regarding their attendance, is it any wonder good Christ-seeking people are leaving in disgust? The mega-church movement also has flattened, with people leaving as fast as they are recruited. The only real growth among Christians appears to be in the home church movement in which small groups of independent believers gather in a house to worship. While the polling numbers are in, the debate about the reasons for lack of attendance is only just beginning. When a pollster asks if a person has left the Christian Faith and a church, the answer is answered “yes” or “no.” However, when the pollster asks “why?,” the answers become mushy and the numbers lose their significance. Why, then, are people leaving churches so fast?

I am not a pollster, but rather an observer of the religious scene looking in from the outside. Speaking as an independent minister who is unaffiliated with any denominations, entirely too many churches today – from the pastor on down – have a credibility problem because of all the things that I mentioned above. My impressions are anecdotal and in no way scientific. I receive personal responses to my blogs and other postings, and I carry on conversations with a steady flow of people by e-mail. I strongly believe we Jesus worshipers and especially the clergy need to look at ourselves for at least some of the reasons for the decline in membership, and probably most of them. Allow me to offer three observations:

[1] Churches are no longer intellectually challenging, if they ever really were to start with. I can still remember being sent to Catholic school as a child and being “taught” not to think for myself, or to just obey. Christians who think for themselves are considered weird at best, or dangerous at worst in today’s churches. Obedience is good and personal independence is (allegedly) bad. Organized religion has always been like this and critical, independent thinkers like myself are shown the door without just cause way too often. More and more of our young people are college-educated, and in the future an overwhelming majority and will accept the challenge of post-high school education. They are thinking people who are expanding the limits of their curiosity and knowledge. Some of them will be the first American generation to establish outposts throughout our solar system, and eventually beyond. I have often wondered what will happen to organized religion when life is inevitably discovered on other planets and their moons. It is no surprise to me that these young people often conclude that they are not willing to accept the Church’s rigid catechism, an educational method that teaches all the right religious questions and the correct answers. As an educational tool, private religious schooling has become outdated and provides no challenge to students eager to question and discuss. Ministers must take the responsibility to re-establish themselves among the leaders of the intellectual community.

[2] Churches are no longer leaders in moral and ethical discussions. Young people have grown weary of churches that cannot get past issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Although I personally am not in favor of either abortion or gay marriage, God has given me enough wisdom to know I can’t persuade everybody to think like myself. Instead, I choose to follow the Bible, which warns us not to judge others (see Matthew 7: 1-5; James 2: 12-13; James 4: 11-12) and to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2: 12)! My job is to bring the good news message of Jesus Christ to everyone I can. I cannot ‘save’ souls, only Christ can do that. Once I have presented the message of the Gospel, I have fulfilled my responsibility. If the Gospel is presented any other way but that, it starts to sound like a sales pitch. Moreover, millennial Christian drop-outs are still very interested in alternatives to the selfish, hedonistic and violent society we live in. More and more, they are catching on to something I have been preaching and teaching for years – namely the unilateral rejection of materialism and the trappings of wealth, and a rejection of violence and hate. Success in life is not defined by how much money and possessions we have accumulated! That type of “success” is only an illusion. Instead, success in life depends on what kind of legacy we leave behind when we’re gone. Justice, fairness and compassion are supposed to be high on our agendas, and looking for opportunities to serve as a way of worshiping God should be the priority of people of good conscience. Life is all about how we treat other people as well as how devoted we are to serving the less fortunate. It’s not just about religion. Today’s generation of young people want to be involved in solving environmental problems, ending poverty and homelessness and their root causes, and in peacemaking. “Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus said, “for they shall be called ‘sons of the living God’.” (Matthew 5: 9)

In contrast, pizza parties and rock concerts – techniques that have been used to make churches appear more relevant to the young – are not high on the agenda of young people concerned about society’s deep-seated problems. In other words, too many churches are concerned about the hot-button issues of today, such as same-sex marriage or abortion, when the preachers should be talking about the extreme immorality of waging war! Or, how about pointing out the extreme immorality of 50,000 children per day dying of starvation globally? What about the fact that fully one fourth of the world’s population has no access to clean drinking water or electricity?? If the same amount of passion were devoted to protecting and upholding the living as has been said and written about protecting the unborn, the world would be a markedly better place in which to live. As for same-sex marriage or abortion, Jesus never said anything about either. The Bible does teach that being gay or bisexual is wrong, but it also warns us repeatedly not to judge other people. I don’t hang around gay people, nor do I approve of their “lifestyle” – as they call it – but that does not give me the right to hate gay people, nor is it an excuse to hold them in contempt, and never to condemn them. “Love your neighbor as yourself”. By showing disdain for gay people, I would lose all hope of ever persuading them to believe in Jesus and all he stands for.

[3] Churches are no longer visionary for the reasons I have stated above. They have remained focused on offering rituals, dogma, pomp and circumstance, tied to perpetuating theologies while not bothering to explain to people how they should live once they have left church for yet another week. That’s because many of these theologies aren’t based on what the Bible says, and can even contradict it, and people who take the time to pick up their Bible and read it see right through that. Too much religion today is taught from the perspective and viewpoint of the extreme right-wing of American politics, and as before it is a glaring contradiction of the teachings of Christ. If the teachings of Jesus could be compared to modern political ideology, its closest comparison would be to what we call socialism today (see Acts. 2: 42-47; Acts 4: 32-37; 2nd Corinthians 8: 13-15). This is one Biblical fact that invariably infuriates the conservative extremists who have invaded America’s pulpits. Read the above passages of Scripture and you’ll see what I mean (If you have no Bible and want one, send your email address to webpreacher@pcmatl.org and I’ll send you a free one. Seriously.) People are figuring out that God is not a conservative Republican, and that he never was. For all these reasons, churches are no longer significant players in shaping the life of our communities. If priests, ministers and their churches will not lay out what the kingdom of God on earth might actually look like, young people will continue to look elsewhere for other models. In that sense, I don’t know who to be concerned about more – the young adults who are leaving churches, or the churches they are leaving behind. In the meantime, the rest of the world is rushing at top speed towards World War 3. Millions will be killed instantly in what is bound to be a nuclear conflagration, and then they’ll be out of time. Maybe we all will, who knows? The best we can do for now is to start praying – a lot – for peace.

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