Our Emptying Yesteryear Church

Welcome back to the Our Emptying Church blog series!
I’d first like to thank the great and very tech-savvy Abbie Culbertson for the new look on the blog!

For the past five months, we have been exploring why Millennials (ages 18-30) have left or will leave the church. We’ve had several blog posts, some significant interviews with Millennials, and enlightening guest posters.

We are specifically addressing the six most common reasons why the number of religious unaffiliated Millennials is on the rise (in order, they are: antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, old-fashioned, out of touch with reality). So far we have covered: too involved in politics and antihomosexual, and now let’s jump into old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

Now before we begin, I would like to freely admit that I may not be the best source on all things pop culture, the latest trends from Vogue, or even who the Beibs is shacked up with. Born in the wrong decade, folk music is the beat that I dance to and I don’t really have a clue as to what iPhones are capable of. BUT, for whatever it’s worth, I am a hippyish Millennial who still dearly loves our emptying, old fashioned, out of touch with reality church.

In his book, UnChristian, Christian researcher, David Kinnamen, writes:

“[Non-Christians] think Christianity is out of tune with the real-world choices, challenges, and lifestyles they face. Only one-fifth of young [non-Christians] believe that an active faith helps people live a better, more fulfilling life. … Christianity is perceived as separated from real spiritual vitality and mystery. It seems like a religion of rules and standards.”

It is sadly ironic that some Millennials see Christianity as lacking spirituality, but I understand this as religion and spirituality are two very different entities. Millennials value their spiritual identities and are willing to find these outside of their upbringing. In an ever expanding technological realm, they have more access than any other generation to various philosophies about life and existence. They are willing to break away from the protective religious institutions that they may have been raised in to explore new alternatives that tend to include people rather than exclude them based upon an identifying feature. Millennials also tend to embrace mystery and shy away from dogma that claims to have all the answers about the complexities of life. Simplistic solutions and answers to life’s complexities are viewed as old fashioned and out of date. Educating the mind with dogma instead of engaging the lives of Millennials will not sustain this generation’s commitment.

According to Kinnamen’s research, 78% of non-Christian affiliated Millennials polled (n=440) perceived Christianity to be old fashioned. Remember these young adults polled probably do not go to a Christian church and so they are basing their perceptions on experiences with Christians, the media, etc. Perhaps they have read some of the Old Testament which was written during a primarily agrarian society as compared to a very technologically heavy modern day society and have trouble reconciling the commands from an older time. Additionally, some sects of Christianity still deny certain church and familial positions to women, which is a taboo protocol in today’s culture.

In addition to seeing the church as yesteryear and old-fashioned, the data suggested that Millennials also don’t believe the church has a deep sense of reality and ability to meet the needs of a young generation (72%, n=440). Such examples would include the heightened emphasis on virginity until wedlock and the assertions that one is less than whole if one falls off the bandwagon. Teaching such a stringent moral code leaves one choice for followers and that is celibacy; however, many do not live in such a black and white environment. The church has left teenagers utterly unprepared to live in a culture where promiscuity is becoming a norm (as the 1950s ended, 30% of young adults approved sex before marriage, whereas now 75% do).

Substance abuse, eating disorders, addictions to pornography, unwanted pregnancy, spousal abuse, struggles with self-worth, these things greet us in the morning and a religious do/don’t list doesn’t help cope.

The church has been responding to the fact that she is losing Millennials. Different sects have responded differently. Pastors like Joel Olsteen have downplayed theology into what has become known as the “prosperity gospel.” Give money, pray, have faith and you’ll be blessed with wealth and prosperity. A far cry from the teachings of Jesus. But I assert the same may be true for some conservative evangelical theology as well. Some mega-churches have poured thousands of tithing funds into creating spectacular light and sound shows which even have smoke machines. Southern Baptists recently voted to change their name to: “Great Commission Baptists,” as a way of separating themselves from the association that they once had with supporting the institution of slavery in the south. I wonder how much a name change will do. Is it enough to attract Millennials who didn’t have a problem with the name, but with the theology or exclusivity?

Smoke machines and a name change mean little to me.

Fancying up a service with frills to prevent boredom does not engage me, instead, I want to know if you accept me, do I belong in this place, what are you doing to fight trafficking, how do you love people, do you know the most recent data on suicides and depression, do you completely ostracize me as a scientist, can you find holiness in coffeehouses and bars, do you welcome my doubts, do you encourage my critical thought, will you let me partake of communion if I am not a member of your church?

You may be thinking, with all this criticism, does the church do anything right? And how can the church love Millennials in an authentic way?

I wonder if we all need a little denominational humility. Especially the absolutists among us. That we would admit and embrace that we can learn from folks that believe a little bit differently than we believe. What if we were partners and not competitors?

Perhaps a move away from the country club mega church is in order too. How much does it cost to maintain the church light bill? How about the water bill? Do the bar-b-ques and potlucks outnumber the soup kitchen meals? Do members know more than 20% of other members in the church? I don’t mean just names, I mean their stories. We know Millennials need authentic community. How can the body have an authentic community of 3,000+ people who have trouble remembering the names of the couple that sits two pews behind them?

I may have offended you with the post. I willingly take that risk. It will take honest dialogue to try to understand this generation of Millennials. Be encouraged by dialogue, for it means we care. It will take the willingness to admit we don’t know everything and that we may be wrong about some of our interpretations of scripture. But in our inability, we keep loving.

Because in all of our uncertainty, this we know, the greatest command of us is loving God our neighbor.


Do you perceive the church as old fashioned or out of touch with reality? Do you know Christians who have perpetuated or eliminated this perception?

This post is the twelfth in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Fake Smiles and Judging Eyes: OEC Interview with Millennial #1, Prioritizing Sin: OEC Interview #2, You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance, Our Beloved, Overly Political Church, Heroes in Disguise: OEC Interview #5, Good Church Folk: OEC Interview #6, OEC Guest Post: Mark and Tammy Edwards, Spirituality v. Religion: OEC Interview #7, When John Speaks: OEC Guestpost #2

2 thoughts on “Our Emptying Yesteryear Church

  1. More great stuff, Kate. This one seems to digest and summarize well much of the content of other posts, plus add a few new insights. I particularly like your comments about Southern Baptists changing their name. I hear the Republican party is in the midst of renaming much of what they represent to make it more palatable too. As Jon Stewart facetiously observed the other night, “You see how Elmer’s Glue used to be Elmore Richardson’s Horse Boiling Emporium?”

    • Thank you! Yes– good correlation by Stewart… changing a name does necessarily change anything about an organization or entity. From the research I’ve seen, the ultra conservative evangelical branches which were born out of the take over of the Moral Majority must change more than a name to welcome Millennials into their congregation and pass leadership onto them. I don’t say this to be harsh… I say this to be realistic. If Millennials continue leaving the church in these numbers, the church will have no leadership in 20-30 years.

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