Turned Off, Fed Up, Dropped Out: Can the United Church of Christ Become a Home for Disaffected Evangelical Millennials and Other Church Dropouts?

This article was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) website in January 2017.

Young Evangelicals are leaving the church in droves—and their exodus has bracing implications for us in the United Church of Christ.

Not that anyone could have predicted their departure in 1972; that’s when sociologist of religion Dean M. Kelly published an influential study entitled, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Essentially, Kelly argued that, in the words of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Evangelical churches grow precisely because they do what liberal congregations and denominations [do not]—they make serious demands of believers in terms of doctrine and behavior” (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” Christian Post, April 26, 2011.

As it turned out, a lot of those serious demands were exclusive and harsh—and living up to them proved unsustainable. Today—forty-five years later—Barna Group President and pollster David Kinnaman, a self-professed Evangelical, tells us that many Evangelical congregants and former churchgoers, as well as the vast majority of “Unchristians” (who don’t ascribe, or no longer ascribe, to any organized religion) “are skeptical” if not “hostile and resentful toward present-day Christianity.” They “have little trust in the Christian faith, [or] esteem for the lifestyle” of churchgoers. They view Christianity as “weary and threadbare,” and are offended by conservative Christians’ “swagger”—how Evangelicals “go about things and the[ir] sense of self-importance” (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007), pp. 9, 13, 16, 22, 24).

Indeed, a 2005-2006 Barna Group study concluded that “the most common perceptions” of those outside the church toward Christians and Christianity are antihomosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. These were followed by: old-fashioned, sheltered and out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, boring, not accepting of other faiths, too focused on converting people, and confusing. “This is what a new generation thinks about Christianity” (Unchristian, p. 25).

Tellingly, many Evangelical Millennials and “Gen-Z’ers”—young adult churchgoers —“share the same negative perceptions as outsiders” (Unchristian, pp. 31-32); in a related poll of 18-29-year-olds with Evangelical backgrounds, young churchgoers “describe[d] their individual faith journeys” in words that were startlingly similar to those of Millennial outsiders. “Most of their stories include significant disengagement from church—[and/or] from Christianity altogether” (David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011), p. 9).

 

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at https://carducc.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/the-united-church-of-christ-looks-at-sixty-you-cant-dismantle-an-idea-whose-time-has-come/

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Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.

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