by Loren Seibold, 26 August 2013
This is the first article in a two-part series. An increasing number of young Americans appear uninterested in being part of a church. How can we reach them?
Andrea is 28 years old. She’s lively, fashionable and unafraid to speak her mind. She grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family and still has generally positive feelings toward the church, though she attends only rarely. “Here’s how I see it,” she says. “I’m a spiritual person. I try to educate myself about spiritual things. But I just don’t think you need to go to church to have a relationship with God.” She reads Christian books, but admits she also enjoys studying Native American spirituality.
Her fiancé, Vince, a few years older, agrees. “I’m content where my heart is,” he says.
“But don’t you feel the need to be part of a structured church family like the one you grew up in?” I ask.
“It’s not high on my list of priorities,” he says. “As long as you’re a good person, you shouldn’t have to declare yourself in one denomination or another.”
Pastors often hear some version of this scenario, but never more frequently than now. The number of people, especially young adults, who have little interest in organized religion and claim no church affiliation is rising. Andrea and Vince are good
citizens, loyal friends, loving family members and responsible employees. They aspire to a happy, loving life together. But, church doesn’t seem to them to be a necessary part of that picture.
Who are the “Nones”?
In a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, they found an increase in the number of Americans unaffiliated with any faith community. Their research revealed that 20 percent of Americans listed their church affiliation as “none”—up from 15 percent in just five years. Even more startling: among the Millennial generation (born 1981-1994), 32 percent have no religious affiliation. Extrapolating that trend line, Adventist sociologist Monte Sahlin, director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference of the Adventist denomination, sees that “by 2020 the ‘nones’ may be the majority of American young adults, and by 2050 a majority of all Americans.”
Many pastors say they have seen it coming. “Young adults tell me they love God and are serving Him in the real world, and they don’t need to be associated with anyone or any group to do that,” says Jennifer Deans, pastor of Community Praise Center, a church planting project of the Potomac Conference in Dulles, Virginia, that targets this demographic.
Raj Attiken, president of the Ohio Conference, adds that the change in attitude toward religion is reflected in the faces you’ll see in most Adventist sanctuaries. “One can surmise, from the clearly evident aging of most of our congregations, that many of the young adults who are missing are likely to be ‘nones,’” he says. “The values, world views and thinking of emerging generations are being shaped by a societal and cultural context that is increasingly foreign and distant from our church culture.”
That doesn’t mean the unaffiliated are uninterested in spiritual things. Pastor Deans insists the young adults she meets “want an honest relationship with God.”
Sahlin points to a key finding of the Pew study: “Only 2 percent of the ‘nones’ are atheists, and only 3 percent are agnostics,” he notes. “Three quarters of the 20 percent are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ They believe in God and they pray, some daily, yet they do not see religion as helpful in meeting their spiritual needs.”
Rajkumar Dixit, who for the past 11 years helped pastor New Hope Church in Fulton, Maryland, for the Chesapeake Conference, explains that even though they have spiritual interests, the “nones” process religious language differently. “When you use a term like ‘true believer,’ I understand that you mean a concrete, absolute, unchangeable theology. A ‘none’ doesn’t understand that. Their definition of truth is how it relates to their life. Whatever part of spirituality works for them is their truth.” He believes that denominational connection, seen by us as an asset, is to them a roadblock. “The effect of postmodernism, secularism and globalism means corporate identity isn’t very important,” Dixit adds. “They may still want the feeling of belonging, though not to a corporate brand, but to a group of people who have similar experiences.”
Are We the Problem?
Our pluralistic culture has played a large part in shaping these attitudes. At the same time, all of the leaders I talked to felt the church (Adventists and the others who’ve presided over Christianity during the rise of the “nones”) has to shoulder some of the blame.
Christopher Thompson, a young associate pastor at Ephesus Church in Columbus, Ohio, (part of the Allegheny West Conference), is blunt: “I believe that, at the bottom of all of this, is one main issue: the church is irrelevant to people’s everyday lives. Too many are convinced that the church is determined to ignore where they really live and what’s really going on in the world.” This disconnect hit him hard when he worked in urban Pittsburgh, a place with many Christian churches but little spiritual vitality. “The church is preaching a gospel of health, wealth and happiness, but poor urban dwellers are seeing none of it,” he says.
Rubén Ramos, multilingual ministries director for the Columbia Union Conference, sees a parallel dynamic in Hispanic congregations. “In immigrant churches, the first generation of young adults is very close to the church,” he says. But, as the church produces second and third generations, he believes these young people are influenced by American culture. “The immigrant churches don’t always meet the needs of their own new generations,” Ramos says. “So, disinterest in church affiliation is much the same as in American churches.”
Citing the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman, Attiken says, “New generations of Christians find the church to be overprotective, shallow, anti-science, repressive, exclusive and doubtless (no tolerance for questions or doubt).” He adds, “Younger generations of Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. They have also been conditioned to be more eclectic in terms of religion and sources of authority. The Adventist Church, on the other hand, has offered a protective, predictable, staid experience to its members, with a high moralist content.”
Predictable and protective aren’t what the “nones” are looking for. What they value, says Pastor Deans, is authenticity. “The picture of the church they sometimes paint is of hypocrites who act one way when they are at church, and another the rest of the week—which isn’t necessarily true, but perception is 90 percent of reality,” she notes. Perhaps that’s why the “nones” are more attracted to what Pastor Dixit calls “the bare product,” which is “following Jesus, not the denominational experience, culture or brand.”
Turning It Around
How can we bring back the growing number of Americans unaffiliated with a faith community? It may not be easy, warns Sahlin. According to the Pew study, “Only 10 percent of ‘nones’ are looking for a religion that meets their needs; 88 percent aren’t. The nine out of 10 who are not looking have lost all interest in the possibility that religion might be helpful.”
What these new generations want isn’t church as usual, or they’d already be worshipping with us. Deans thinks “young adults have little tolerance for tradition for tradition’s sake,” she says. “They are in search of the journey, not dogma,” observes Dixit.
How comfortable can we make them, then, in a faith community that guards our orthodoxy so carefully? Attiken suggests that, for this group, churches will need to create “spaces where young adults can safely explore their questions, doubts and concerns;” where no conversation is off limits; where believers listen as well as teach. Because churches are by nature inertial organizations that struggle with change, that will be difficult for some congregations. Adventists are accustomed to asserting certainty and defending the truth, not to discussing doubts and uncertainties—much less hearing truths they hold precious be regarded as irrelevant.
Ramos believes securing their interest in the church starts before children reach young adulthood. “Immigrant parents have such a financial struggle when they come here that they may neglect some of those early spiritual lessons, like prayer, Bible study and church participation,” he says. “The children are influenced more by school than by their family and the church.” Ramos feels it’s about setting priorities in the new cultural setting. “Hebrews says that ‘Noah built an ark to save his family.’ But, we sometimes work ourselves to death to buy things for our family rather than building religious values in them,” he proposes.
It should come as no surprise to those of us who have studied Jesus’ example that relationships are key to reaching the “nones.” Deans says, “The young adults who stay connected with a church are the ones who have been given a true voice and role to play. They’ve been able to form peer relationships as well as intergenerational relationships and feel that church is an extension of their family,” she adds.
Attiken agrees that churches would do well to make “opportunities for youth and young adults to build and maintain meaningful relationships with adult spiritual mentors who are able to influence their spiritual formation in positive, wholesome ways.” Participation is the key factor in immigrant churches too. “If the young people don’t participate, if they don’t feel ownership, then they don‘t care,” says Ramos.
Therezinha Barbalho, pastor of the Brazilian Community Church in Richmond, Virginia, (affiliated with the Potomac Conference), attempts to “provide activities that can compete with the activities of the world. That’s practically impossible,” she admits, but with tremendous effort she’s organized a vigorous program of social activities—sports, ice-skating, paintball—to secure strong bonds of friendship in the congregation. “When they’re connected in social activities, they’re more open for the spiritual ones,” she says.
Some in the church have assumed that involvement means congregational leadership, such as sitting on a church board or being an elder. Others have suggested seating our young adults on denominational committees, such as a conference or union committee. These are important functions, but not necessarily where one experiences the church at its most rewarding and functional. While it may be necessary, church leadership is also the realm of power struggles, money problems, occasional harsh discussions and hours spent on mundane organizational maintenance—hardly encouraging to the skittish young person. Because they’re not as interested in the church as a “brand,” young adults value meaningful service more than keeping the machinery of the church running.
I once sat by a “none” on a flight who told me (upon learning that I am a pastor) that she had no interest in church. But, she did believe in God, and as we talked, she admitted that if she found a church that was doing serious work to lift up her community, she’d want to take her children to participate in that. She wanted the experience of happy, meaningful involvement without a lot of religion.
“The world is becoming increasingly secular,” says Sahlin. “We can’t continue to operate on the assumption that, if we give them Bible studies from a King James Version, people will get it. Yet, we can’t give up trying to reach them either, if we’re to be faithful to the gospel commission.” That leaves a challenge for us that we’ll only be able to meet with prayer, creativity and dependence upon God’s promises.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This artilce is republished with the permission of the Columbia Union Conference Visitor.