Nearly every study tells us that Millennials are unconcerned with religion and feel unconnected to any sort of faith. But could it be that this same generation is actually returning to the traditional church?
Yes, 18-to-35-year-olds are still leaving mainline pews in ever-increasing numbers and some are leaving the faith entirely. But many are leaving in search of a different kind of church — a church that is traditional, reverent, and decidedly uncool.
There are more than enough statistics to remind us that each generation cares less about religion than the last, and that Millennials have far outpaced them all.
Research by the Pew Center, the Public Library of Science, and the Barna Group confirms those suspicions. It tell us that Millennials are quickly evacuating the church. They pray less, attend services less often, are less reliant on religion, and are less religiously affiliated than their parents and grandparents were at their young age.
Most recently, a particularly concerning poll by the PLOS found that Millennials are not just less religious, but also less spiritual. Researchers concluded that the results indicate, “A movement towards secularism among a rapidly growing minority.”
However, many individuals are leaving the church because it has failed to fulfill their spiritual needs.
Nicholas Hahn, editor of RealClearReligion, believes that numbers decline when the church ceases to be the church. Today this happens when churches become over involved in politics and when churches attempt to be hip and relevant.
“They aren’t looking for politics from the pulpit, they aren’t looking for entertainment from the pulpit. What they are looking for is prayer and spirituality from the church,” Hahn said.
Information from the Barna Group reflects this desire for church tradition. More than 40 percent of those 18-to-29-year-olds “have a desire for a ‘more traditional faith, rather than a hip version of Christianity,” the report stated.
Younger generations get lost when the church tries to cater to them.
“A lot of churches are trying to pander to the youth and it comes off looking ridiculous. Pastors are trying to be the cool step-dad, trying to gain favor with kids that aren’t his,” Hahn explained.
Instead, Millennials need, like all people, for the church to sustain their spiritual lives.
Kathleen Ward, writer for Church in a Circle and one of the first to identify this trend, understands why younger generations return to tradition.
“Young people today have been marketed to all their lives, and they can see past gimmicks and tricks. They find it refreshing to enter a building which openly proclaims itself as a worship space. They’ve swapped the salesman’s pitch for simple sacraments,” she said.
Hahn predicted that churches will continue to die off unless they “have a come-to-Jesus moment with their empty pews, and decide to change their course.”
Changing course means, in many instances, a full reverse, a return to the church traditions that have functioned for thousands of years.
Rachel Evans, the author of Searching For Sunday, describes how efforts to rebrand the church as relevant and modern have backfired. Trendy, coffee house style worship has failed to attract the young folks.
“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick,” she wrote.
This should be a relief to the many churches straining to get the fog machine and light show running before 8 a.m.
Evans wrote, “The sacraments are what make the church relevant. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, and explained by a loving and authentic community.”
Politics are another offense entirely. In the last 50 years mainline churches have wallowed deeper and deeper into politics and seen their congregations dwindle as a result.
The best example of this is the Disciples of Christ denomination. In 1958, the denomination was the fastest growing in the country with nearly 2 million members. Since 2014, the congregation has dwindled to less than 500,000. During those decades, the denomination involved itself in politics, even becoming the first denomination to endorse gay marriage and taking a stand against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana. The denomination’s leadership believed that these moves would help, “grow the church,” but their attendance numbers flat-lined instead.
Other politically affiliated denominations have suffered the same fate. Presbyterian USA lost members in 2014 when its members decided to pull their money from companies that sell to Israel. Even the Catholics are not immune. A recent papal encyclical drifted to suggestions on global warming and climate change.
As churches become more political and attempt to rebrand themselves as trendy younger generations will continue to leave the church. Not because they no longer need religion, but for just the opposite reason.
Millennials need the church, now more than ever, but they need the church to just be the church. Concert entertainment, coffee, and friends can be easily found. But as Evans wrote, “Church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality.”
If churches return to the liturgy and tradition that has always sustained them, the pews will fill back up again. Until then, Millennials and other generations won’t find what they’re really looking for.