What's Wrong with Church, Anyways? #FoF

By Carey McDonald



In a changing world, faith and spiritual search remain

Our last post described the surge in the number of non-religious Americans, or “nones,” which are most heavily concentrated in the Millennial Generation (born between the early 1980’s and 2000) However, the fact that the “nones” are here to stay does not mean that we are headed towards a European-style secularism. In fact, Millennials’ theological beliefs regarding existence of God, inerrancy of scripture, or the afterlife are largely consistent with Americans of other ages and generations[1]. Millennials are not hostile to religious activity, per se; 76% agree that, in general, Christianity espouses good principles and values[2]. The root of the drift away from organized religion is a dissatisfaction with religious institutions themselves[3]; large numbers of Millennials do not believe that Christianity or religion in general shares their core values and beliefs, and this is particularly true for members of the Millennial Generation who are most sympathetic to the liberal values and principles of Unitarian Universalism. Among Millennials, 84% describe Christianity as judgmental and hypocritical, 79% say Christianity is anti-gay, and 73% claim Christianity is too involved in politics.

This dynamic will come as no surprise to those of us who grew up not with the proclamation of the social gospel, anti-communism or the Civil Rights struggles, but rather with the moralistic and overtly political Religious Right. In their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell fault a “second backlash” for this trend, a response to the ascent of conservative evangelical Christianity in the 1970’s and 80’s[4]. Coupled with waves of scandals of clergy misconduct in some religious organizations over the past few decades, it is clear that trust in the value of religious institutions is quickly ebbing.

My generation has also displayed an overall lack of confidence in traditional institutions, from government to major corporations[5], which likely amplifies our distaste for denominational organization. The Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations are institutions in the same mold, with a proliferation of bylaws, committees and officers. Ironically, rather than supporting the institution’s long-term health, as they were designed to do, these structures can often weigh down our faith organizations with process that was designed for another era and thus has little impact today. One of the most respected and emulated congregations across Christian faiths is the 5000-member Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church of Tipp City, Ohio, host of the Change the World conference[6], which promotes a minimalist structure of only three standing committees and a small leadership board.[7] An institutional feel can make it difficult for local congregations to develop a distinct and organic identity, a critical component for every congregation working to align its mission, vision and operation in a manner that clearly communicates the congregation’s values to the broader community[8]. Institutions also tend to find it more difficult to adapt to shifting cultural norms, an unavoidable necessity in today’s increasingly diverse society.

Because the a-religious Millennials are driven by values, being clear about principles and values is vital for any religious organization. As Putnam and Campbell point out, Americans are attracted to congregations by looking for the places that share their values and beliefs[9]. “Church shopping” is a familiar phrase but, as anyone has tried it can tell you, what keeps you coming back is the people you meet. Putnam and Campbell confirm that feeling like you belong, that you have social connections and feel comfortable with the dominant culture, is the key factor in determining whether a new worshipper returns to a congregation they visit[10].

American churches are held to together by cultural and social ties[11]. Seen in this light, our frustration that so many congregations are racially, politically and socio-economically homogenous, contrary to our efforts to diversify over the past decade, makes more sense. Today, the increasing frequency of religious switching has accelerated the trend of Americans sorting themselves into polarized religious practices and communities that match their values, conservatives towards active religious participation in conservative faiths and liberals away from religion altogether[12]. Less than 2/3 of Americans today have followed their parents’ religion[13], including 60% of mainline Protestants and 85% of those who adhere to non-Christian faiths who have switched or lapsed their religious affiliation. Christian religious professionals often note that the traditional rites and life transitions that have provided crucial links to religious communities after adolescence through wedding ceremonies, baptisms and religious education classes are fading with the declining rates of marriage and childbirth in the Millennial Generation[14]. Absent these traditional ties, individual preferences and beliefs are even stronger determinants of one’s connection to a faith community.

When I look at religion in America, I see a fluid religious marketplace driven by the preferences of Millennials, a more liberal and diverse generation than their parents, who are disenchanted with traditional forms of religion but still open to new experiences that meet their spiritual needs. Our next post will examine how Unitarian Universalists fit into the overall picture.

This post is the third in Blue Boat’s #FutureofFaith series. Click here to read the previous post describes the big shifts in American religious life. Click here to read post #4 in the series, Totally Normal but Extra-Special – Ed. [1] Pond, A., et al. (2010). Religion Among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional In Other Ways. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Washington, DC. http://www.pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx [2] Jones, R.P., et al. (2012). A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values and Politics Among College-Age Millennials. Public Religion Research Institute, in collaboration with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University. Washington, DC. http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Millennials-Survey-Report.pdf [3] http://www.odysseynetworks.org/video/jefferson-bethke-on-loving-jesus-but-doubting-religion [4] Putnam, Campbell (2010). Pg. 120. [5] http://www.nationaljournal.com/njmagazine/nj_20100505_2490.php [6] http://legacy.ginghamsburg.org/ctwhome/ [7] http://vitalleaders.blogs.uua.org/leadership-skills/minimal-structure-maximum-mission/ [8] http://religioninsights.org/distinct-identity-helps-churches-remain-vibrant [9] Putnam, Campbell (2010). Pg. 169. [10] Ibid. Pg. 174. [11] Putnam and Campbell also describe the exceptionally strong pull of religion among ethnic and racial minorities in the United States who are more likely to feel marginalized, including Black protestants and Latino Catholics. [12] Ibid, Pg. 144. [13] Ibid. Pg 137. [14] http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=10288