When Pew published a poll May 12 that presented a “sharp” decline in Christian religious attendance over the past seven years, the Internet responded en masse. Some said that this was not demonstrative of an actual decline in Christian faith—but rather, was indicative of a decline in nominal church attendance. Rod Dreher suggested that perhaps it’s a response to growing discrimination, the changing realities of post-Christian America. Both Michael Brendan Dougherty and Mark Movsesian considered the consequences of a world in which “Nones” (Americans who define themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular”) continue to fill the American landscape.
As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry notes in The Week, religion is “mutating, thriving, growing” fiercely throughout the world. Christianity is spreading at an incredible rate throughout many former Soviet bloc countries, through China, Latin America, Africa. It’s here in the U.S. that things seem stale.
Much of the changes reflected in the poll goes back to the “remarkably rapid growth” of “nones”—a group that has grown from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent in the last seven years. Damon Linker believes this growth “is closely connected to the fact that more than one third (36 percent) of the so-called Millennial generation declines to affiliate with any religion.” An older, more religious generation of Americans “are being replaced … by what seems to be the most secular generation in American history.”
So let’s look at the millennials. Why are they “nones”?
In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”
Additionally, Riley points out that declining marriage rates have a strong impact on church attendance. Young adults have always demonstrated a likelihood to sow “wild oats” and wander from church. But getting married usually tied such people down: church attendance is always more steady among the married, especially those with families. Today, young people are putting off marriage for longer and longer amounts of time. This decreased emphasis on marriage has a profound effect on church attendance.
It seems the two declines could be philosophically related: marriage is increasingly seen as a feelings-based, consumer-driven relationship. Many worry about the commitments and sacrifices that marriage presents, the narrowing of options and choices that it signifies. Meanwhile, the idea of marriage as “covenant”—as a sacred and binding act, “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God”—has fallen out of popular memory.
The church, throughout Scripture, is referred to as “the bride of Christ.” Marriage is meant to be a reflection of “the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” Thus, this shift in our understanding of marriage would seem to impact youths’ ability to build a proper relationship with the church: they view church, and God, through the same self-focused eyes with which they view marriage. They don’t understand that being part of a church constitutes being part of a covenant, binding relationship. Church, instead, is about them—their wants and wishes—and they’ll only attend if it gives them tangible goods.
In discussing things that have drawn millennials back to the church, Riley occasionally provides examples of this consumerist mindset: some churches, synagogues, and mosques have focused on building fun programs for single adults, providing things like potlucks, hiking activities, international trips, and interactive worship nights. These things aren’t wrong, in and of themselves—indeed, they can be great ways to build community amongst church members. But they are also offering goods or products to youth, rather than cultivating a self-giving relationship. And for this reason, it seems unlikely they will foster a long-term relationship between youth and their religious group. They seem more likely to foster an atmosphere in which the church must constantly cater to its younger demographic, trying to make itself as “fun” and “cool” as possible. This is a trap that churches have been steadily falling into for the past several years, and it’s resulted in an atmosphere that many feel is fake, irreverent, and stale.
This demonstrates another problem with modern American churches, and with the people who accept or reject them: they so often focus on momentary, worldly concerns. Not all such concerns are bad—many choose churches based on their service in the community, their work with the poor, the traditions they espouse. There can be many good material reasons to join a church‚ as well as bad reasons. But the problem here is that we may become so focused on the political or social facets of our faith, that we lose sight of the deeper philosophical and theological truths necessary for a church to thrive. “Church shopping” is symptomatic of someone looking for a laundry list of experiences or services that they think it ought to provide. But church is meant to be more serious, more metaphysical than this: church is meant to delve into the deepest subjects, the ones that have to do not just with this world, but with the next.
These are conversations that aren’t happening within the church—and don’t seem to be happening outside it, either. Questions of existence and being, good and evil, life and afterlife—are they a part of our regular public discourse? Are they discussed at dinner parties, social gatherings? Do college students regularly delve into discussions of the divine? Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems such talk is far from popular today. Social and political topics are explored at length. Questions of culture and civilization abound. But these discussions are always tied to the momentary. Our discussions of church rest upon its social and political views, rather than on its ability to address questions of truth and being.
These two problems—consumer preference to the neglect of covenant, focus on the material to the neglect of the spiritual—are obviously related. It seems that unless Americans are willing to take seriously the prospect(s) that we are not alone in this world, that this life is not all there is, and that there is a moral, omnipotent God, then church attendance will continue to decline. Because without those deeper spiritual concerns, one can get more community and affirmation out of a local club or sports team than one can get out of a church—and with less personal sacrifice and discomfort, too.