When we Millennials were born – our parents came back to church.
Most of them weren’t terribly active in their early 20s. Ask them. You might be surprised.
But then, many of them began to reach those traditional markers of adulthood – marriage, a job, having children – and there were certain things that you were just expected to do. Baptize your child. Find a church. Take them to Sunday School. Confirmation. The most critical moments and milestones of life were marked by, surrounded by, and blessed by the church. Birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, death – the church ritualized and sanctified all of these.
It was in the air. In the culture. In the water.
And then, sometime in the past 20 years, everything changed.
Right up until the 80s – maybe even the early 90s – a large part of our society still understood itself to be living in a Christian culture. That is not to say we actually were. But it was the perception. Go to church. Have your child baptized. These things were normative – “normal”.
So WHY aren’t Young Adults coming BACK to church when they are getting married, having children and entering into adulthood – as previous generations did throughout most of the 20th century?
Well…being a Christian is no longer normal.
The truth is, this shift has been unfolding for the past 30 years. We just kept on keeping on…more or less assuming that sooner or later our young people would eventually ‘come back to church’. But they aren’t. In my faith tradition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Sunday School attendance dropped over 60 percent from 1990 to 2010. Worship attendance, giving, volunteering…all have experienced significant drops. And the data is much the same across the whole church.
Forget deep spiritual connection to the church – the vast majority of younger adults are not even being married in churches, having their children baptized, or bringing them to Sunday School. Even funerals and memorial services increasingly take place outside the church. The secular calendar of activities, consumerism, and business is fast becoming the dominant reality in our culture.
If those of us who care deeply about the church can’t start to recognize that what used to work isn’t working, that what used to connect – creating meaning and adding value to people’s lives – is no longer doing so, then we are in trouble.
Because the church is no longer the clearinghouse for the milestones, markers, and signposts of people’s lives.
For more and more people – the church no longer is where meaning is made.
For more and more people - of all ages - it is not so much at church but in gatherings with friends, conversations on social media, and conversations in pubs and Starbucks and organic tea shops where meaning is made. It's at the sports stadium. Or the gym. It might be in shared love of hobbies or activities or a trip to the movies.
But it's not at church.
For far too many, the church of today feels false, artificial, and constricting – a thing for a former time. It feels like a place where we are just going through the motions, repeating outdated programs, patterns and activities that do not connect to the 21st century. Most Young Adults see the church something that impedes, rather than adds value, to their spiritual formation.
So, why would they come?
Because they are hungry for a kind of meaning that can’t be found at work, school, or in the free market.
In fact, they are starving for it.