A new Pew Research poll indicates that American Millennials are losing trust in the positive impact of churches on society:
Younger generations tend to have more-positive views than their elders of a number of institutions that play a big part in American society. But for some institutions – such as churches and the news media – Millennials’ opinions have become markedly more negative in the past five years.
Since 2010, Millennials’ rating of churches and other religious organizations has dipped 18 percentage points: 55% now say churches have a positive impact on the country compared with five years ago, when nearly three-quarters (73%) said this. Views among older generations have changed little over this time period. As a result, older generations are now more likely than Millennials –who are much less likely than their elders to be religious– to view religious organizations positively.
But this poll doesn’t indicate why fewer Millennials think churches do good in society. It also doesn’t explain why these same Millennials have an increasing trust in other social institutions, like businesses, labor unions, and financial institutions.
Many people have explanations for this dip in Millennial religion. The most common explanation is that Millennials don’t like the church’s stance on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. According to some, the church has become too political for Millennials. This is one of the major contentions of Rachel Held Evans, self-proclaimed mouthpiece for Millennial Christianity:
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
But Evans goes on to explain that these same Millennials are quite attracted to more conservative high church environments:
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions — Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. — precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
That doesn’t make a lot of sense if Millennials are leaving the church because it is “too political” and “old-fashioned.” No. I think something else is at play here. I think Evans touches on it in one word: authentic. Millennials are concerned with authenticity. The majority of mainstream evangelical communities are simply not authentic. Posturing, marketing, and bandwagoning mark the modern evangelical church as a community that emphasizes style over substance and willingly monetizes priceless sacred things.
Politics does play into it, but perhaps not in the way Evans and others believe. I think Millennials would be fine with the church being political if Millennials believed the church were not being used as an unthinking pawn in a political game. In other words, Millennials don’t necessarily hate that the church is political. They hate that the church isn’t choosing its own politics.
Millennials, it seems, more than anything else, resent being pawns and dislike institutions they believe are either manipulating or being manipulated. We want the church to be more involved in the local community and less involved in an abstracted national conversation.
Millennials are not turned off by self-interest. If they were, why would they be okay with banks and labor unions? Banks and labor unions are clearly and transparently pursuing their own interests with no hidden motives. Millennials respect that, for better or worse.
But the church doesn’t seem to be talking straight about its aims. It claims to be in the humble service of other people’s salvation. So why is it so concerned about money, numbers, style, and staying current and relevant? Why does the church seem like it’s in the pocket of others? That’s a disconnect. Ironically, the church would be far more appealing to Millennials if it didn’t try so hard to be appealing to Millennials. Millennials have a good message for all institutions: Do what you say you’re trying to do and be who you say you are, and let the consequences be what they will.