David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, a sort of Christian think tank, has written a book on the findings of a multi-year study of why young Christians are leaving their churches. I found some of this very interesting as a guide to what thoughtful young Americans think about. Kinnaman identified six main reasons:
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
Young Christians know more about the non-Christian world than ever before -- about other religions, about atheism, about sex and marriage and drugs. They want to be open-minded but feel that their churches are “stifling, fear-based and risk-averse.” One-quarter agreed with the statement, “Christians demonize everything outside of the church.”
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
Kinnaman: One-third said “church is boring” (31%). . . . 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%).
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
Nobody in our era has figured out how to convincingly express Christian teachings in scientifically plausible terms. The successful fusion of dogma with up-to-date science, achieved in the Middle Ages by both Christianity and Islam, now seems impossible. As our world grows ever more scientific and scientific thinking comes more and more to be the gold standard of how to reason, it will become a bigger and bigger problem that 29% of young Christian adults feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in.”
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
I have written about this before: Americans know or know of lots of good people who are not Christians, so it becomes harder and harder for them to accept that non-Christians are condemned to miss out on paradise. The modern commandment to be tolerant and never condemn those of other faiths really does undermine any sort of exclusive religion; and how can you have a religion that does not discriminate between believers and non-believers?
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
This is something Andrew Sullivan writes about all the time. Serious Christian theologians accept doubt as part of faith; faith has been described as a “struggle” ever since St. Paul. But this is hard to incorporate into church practice. Most Christians think worship should be an affirmation of faith, not a chance to air doubts and grievances.
What I see here is a big waffle between two ideas of religion. In one, religion is an intense experience based on firm beliefs expressed in rituals that bind together a tightknit community, providing an emotionally fulfilling experience of divinity. In the other, religion provides a coherent path through life in our world and matches up well with most of what people believe and experience. How many people can find both in contemporary Christianity? (Or Islam or Judaism.) If religion is too tolerant and open-minded it loses God and becomes boring; if it insists powerfully on its own truth it seems intolerant and narrow-minded. If it accepts science it undermines its own claims to special knowledge; if it denies science it sets itself against the whole modern world. I don't see any way out of this, and so I expect that at least for the next few decades religion will decline and secularism increase. What that will mean for us I do not know.