Earlier this year, I conducted an interview at my campus radio station with my soon-to-be former pastor (he is moving to another state in November). We discussed a number of cultural issues. One topic of particular interest was millennials (generation Y) and religion. I mentioned to him that, according to a number of polls recently conducted by various organizations, it appears that many young Americans under 35 seem to be either ambivalent about or less inclined to attend church regularly or embrace religion.
Always candid and forthright, he responded without hesitation that he did not dispute such findings and harbored no illusions about the fact the church is facing a potential crisis in regards to millennials as the institution moves further into the 21st century. I concurred with his assessment.
The reasons for this current situation are varied and there is likely to be no one singular factor to focus in on. However, given the type of pluralistic world (at least in theory) that many millennials have grown up in, there are likely to be several.
Thom Rainer CEO of Lifeway Christian resources cites several reasons for this current disconnect. Among them being:
· Millennials perceive established churches to be too limited in their outlook.
· They (millennials) perceive that churches exert too much effort pacifying certain members’ personal preferences.
· Many younger Americans are turned off by denominational churches, seeing them as out of touch.
· The perception that many elders are far too set in their ways and are unable to change is a common belief (rightly or wrongly) among many millennials.
· Too many churches are parochial.
According to social scientists and other observers, this is a generation of men and women that is collaborative, community minded and service oriented. This is the Occupy Wall Street generation. Many of these men and women are the products of alternative family structures. A notable number of them are biracial or multiracial, and/or are products of single parent, interracial or same-sex parent households; they are accustomed to having non-White, gay or lesbian, transgendered or disabled friends, neighbors or co-workers. They supposedly subscribe to a philosophy of unalloyed altruism and pluralism.
The spirit of renaissance and reformation is deeply embedded in their DNA and souls. They see the current model and attitudes of religion and contemporary Christianity as it is currently being practiced and promoted by its elders (particularly in regard to social and economic issues) as old, bigoted, antiquated, outdated and in need of reform. To be sure, not all millennials have an adversarial attitude toward religion or the church, but the fact is that many do.
These are issues that need to be addressed. After all, these are the men and women who will be needed to populate houses of worship as older generations pass on. Their participation and contributions to the larger religious community could/will be crucial for its long-term survival. There must be a generational outreach to address this current situation. Thus, the larger fundamentalist community should take heed.
Dr. Elwood Watson Is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide For Graduate Students of Color (Routledge Press, 2014).