It seems that nearly every week there is hand-wringing over the state of mainline Christian denominations and the decline in attendance, membership and giving. It provokes a crisis of confidence in many of our leaders, both pastoral and lay. And while there are myriad reasons that have to do with a shift in culture (job-related location change is more prevalent, youth ministry programs have done a poor job of connecting people to the broader church
A recent research study by the Barna Group caught my eye. It’s called, Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church. Two things in particular struck me about the report:
1) The leading reasons were about intrinsic values rather than external circumstance. In other words, the values that were or weren’t reflected by churches had more influence than whether someone had to relocate for a job or school.
2) The values that seemed lacking in young Christians’ experiences in church are those that I think the UCC is uniquely positioned to champion.
The six reasons are here in bold, with comments and quotes included:
1) Churches seem overprotective. In the Barna research, teens and young adults expressed, “the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience).” Sound like the UCC to you? Me neither. In fact, the UCC has been clear about placing value on exploring, examining and engaging with diverse points of view and being a place that openly pursues understanding.
2) Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow. This had much to do with peoples’ experience with church. “One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).” This is a tough one, as every single congregation is different in this regard. Our forms of worship, music, service, spiritual practice and pursuit vary by community. But the value of creating deep, meaningful spiritual experiences is embedded in the UCC, and we would be wise to explore new forms that are at least guided by our young adults.
3) Churches come a cross as antagonistic to science. No need to worry about this in the UCC. In fact, the denomination has a wonderful post to affirm that, “we extend our unequivocal welcome to persons who devote their lives to scientific inquiry,” and there is a great statement on faith and science and the belief that they are not mutually exclusive.
4) Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. The research showed that, “teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality.” The UCC (and UU) have made great strides in producing the Our Whole Lives curriculum that is a holistic, comprehensive and affirming view of sexuality that respects the complexity of the subject in an authentic way.
5) They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).” The first two statistics here address theological exclusivity, and in that regard the UCC again gives hope in our commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and understanding. In fact, Claremont Theological Seminary is pioneering a new model of an interfaith seminary, where multiple faiths study alongside one another. The last statistic is a challenge to any established congregation that can grow insular in nature over time. No one is immune to it, but hopefully our values of openness, diversity and community can help to combat any temptations to stay inwardly-focused rather than outwardly directed.
6) The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. “Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%).” This reason for departure is a near polar opposite of the values that we at UCCLM have espoused. We value diversity in thought and welcome the questions and doubts as a vital part of our own spiritual journeys. The complementary value of listening goes hand in hand, as our congregations must become adept at actively listening to the questions, doubts, desires and passions of those in our communities.
The majority of this is good news for us! We are a denomination whose espoused values are in almost direct opposition to the things that seem to drive young adults away from participation in churches. What this means is that we have tremendous opportunity to welcome people into our community – people who may not realize that there are church communities that express values that positively address their questions, struggles and desire to belong. But we need to be seen, heard and available in order to do this. In some ways the UCC is one of the best-kept secrets in American Christianity. But to change the tide we need that to stop. It would be my hope that we be among the worst-kept secrets in our communities. We have a great opportunity to extend our extravagant welcome in a pro-active way to share with people what a community like ours can offer.