As I get around the country there is one question I hear from church leaders more than any other: How do we reach young people? They don’t need research from Barna, Lifeway, Pew, and Gallop to tell them young people are leaving the church. They see it every Sunday as the congregation gets a little more gray.
But the evidence is mounting that reaching or retaining the young is going to take a lot more than new music styles or even a systematic rethinking of church leadership and organizational structures. There is the larger cultural matter of politics.
An eye-opening article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both,” is a must read. Using research among young adults, Putnam and Campbell ask why the next generation is increasingly identifying their religious affiliation as “none.” They conclude that politics is a significant reason. They write:
“The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”
Their last point is an important one. Those raised in the evangelical tradition under the age of 30 have no experience of Christianity separated from conservative politics–what some are now calling “Christianism.” And the most visible Christian leaders in the media for the last three decades have been political activists fighting for conservative cultural causes. A 50 or 60 year old pastor may have fond memories of the Jesus Movement, campus ministries, or the innovative spirit of American evangelicalism of the 1960s and 70s. But my generation associates faith with Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right, political crusades, arguments about abortion and homosexuality, and a combative posture toward “liberal” neighbors. (I suggest reading Jonathan Merritt’s article in The Christian Science Monitor on the impact of the current GOP primary on young people in the church.)
Even for those raised in apolitical congregations, like me, this has been an inescapable part of our experience as a Christian. My college years made this abundantly clear. I attended a secular state university. When my identity as a Christian was revealed to my peers, I often spent the majority of my time fighting the assumption that I was a homophobic, judgmental, Republican, racially insensitive, misogynist. To be honest, I grew so tired of fighting these stereotypes that I was often tempted to “hide my light under a bushel.” I was eager to talk about Christ and his Good News, but getting to that subject required crawling through the sewage of so many political and cultural issues that I sometimes concluded “why bother.”
One might conclude from Campbell and Putnam’s article that the church simply needs to jettison partisan politics. Reject the religious right, keep your mouth shut about politics and controversial social issues, and the young people will stop leaving the church. But it may not be so simple for two reasons.
First, even where churches avoid politics, the general perception of Christianity as politically conservative in our culture is still firmly established. Just as this view took decades to establish, it will also take decades to dismantle. And, second, there is no evidence that churches avoiding Republican partisanship are having any greater success reaching the younger generation.
Peter Berger responded to the Campbell/Putnam article with a more nuanced explanation for why young people have left the church. He writes:
Let me, with all due respect for Campbell and Putnam, suggest a hypothesis of my own: Most “nones” have not opted out of religion as such, but have opted out of affiliation with organized religion. Among Christians (the great majority of all survey respondents) there are different reasons for this disaffection. The two authors are very probably correct that, broadly speaking, those who are turned off by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics do so because they don’t like the repressive sexual morality of those churches (the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has not helped).
But the “nones” have also exited from mainline Protestantism, which has been much more accommodating to the liberationist ethic. Here, I think, there has been frustration with what my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann long ago called “secularization from within”—the stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel, and its reduction to conventional good deeds, popular psychotherapy and (mostly left-of-center) political agendas. Put differently: My hypothesis implies that some “nones” are put off by churches that preach a repressive morality, some others by churches whose message is mainly secular.
So, we are left with a narrow path. Veer too far to the cultural right and the young will dismiss the church as a puppet of Republican politics. Veer too far to the theological left and the power of the Gospel is lost amid cultural accommodation.
The younger generations, and our culture as a whole, needs evidence of a third way to be Christian. It will require more than individual voices, but an organized and identifiable community of believers that reject Christianism and stands for Christ’s Good News, manifested in good lives, and evident in good works.