Reflections | March 1, 2017

To attract new young adult members, tackle Post Traumatic Church Syndrome

Photo by Emily Tyler

Recent demographic surveys studying religious affiliation in the US display an alarming trend: fewer and fewer Americans identify as Christians. For instance, a 2015 Pew study concluded that 70.6% of Americans identify as Christians, a historic low and a decline of 7.8 percentage points from 2007. During the same timespan, the percentage of Americans who claimed no religious affiliation rose by 7.8 points, to 22.8%.

Among those with no religious affiliation, only one-third are atheists or agnostics. The rest identify as “nothing in particular.” Nearly half of these believe that religion is important and most believe in God. Yet they don’t attend church or identify with any particular faith. These are the “nones” or “spiritual but not religious,” the fastest-growing religious group in America.

Most “nones” are young. 36% of Americans between 18-29 years old have no religious affiliation, and just 53% are Christians. The trend is clear: young people are abandoning the church. But why?

Some argue that young people are leaving because traditional Sunday morning worship doesn’t suit them. They claim that services start too early and are too stuffy. The music is old-fashioned, the sermons too long, the dress code too austere, and the pews too uncomfortable. Yet church membership continues to decline, even as churches pilot contemporary worship programs, complete with modern music, comfy seats, and youthful, jean-clad pastors. Additionally, a 2014 Barna Group study showed that nearly 70% of millennials say that they prefer traditional worship services to contemporary.

When church leaders assume that young people simply want a “cooler” worship experience, they’re underestimating my generation. Our distrust of the Church runs far deeper, and can’t be assuaged by tweaking the superficial. Among the spiritual but not religious is profound ambivalence: they yearn for Christ but fear the Church.

Many “nones” grew up in Christian households but suffer from “post traumatic church syndrome,” when hurtful experiences in their faith upbringing tarnish their perception of the church, and, ultimately, of God. Often, they were judged and bullied by their faith leaders and peers because of their sexual orientation, class, gender, or beliefs. Many more haven’t experienced this personally but leave the church because of the harm it has wrought on their friends and loved-ones.

Young people today are more likely to say that the church is judgmental than loving. They’re more likely to say that it excludes people rather than accepting them. They believe that Christians are more concerned about appearances and traditions than meaningful questions about spirituality, community, and world events. They think the church is unchristian. Is it really surprising that they are leaving the church? If you felt this way, would you stay?

The Church of the Brethren is no stranger to waning church membership, especially among young people. I am optimistic, however, that our values about peace, simplicity, community, and service could attract new young members because these values resonate with millennials. But we can’t take for granted that these positive qualities will attract young people. Our congregations will repel young people when they discriminate, judge, or remain silent on today’s issues of justice, especially on questions of race, environment, war, and poverty.

We in the Church of the Brethren can defy the trend of declining church membership. We must acknowledge the harm that Christian churches have done and actively seek to be a tonic for post traumatic church syndrome. If we emphasize our beliefs about peace, community, service, and simplicity, we’ll differentiate ourselves as a denomination that resonates with millennial values. If we choose to become welcoming and socially engaged, we’ll truly emulate Christ. If our congregations cultivate spaces of welcome and sanctuary, we can repair broken trust.

Imagine: a church where serving others is an act of worship and promoting peace and justice is liturgy. Where the style in which we gather is less important than the people with whom we gather. Where unhindered welcome and unconditional love are our most important traditions. Where being Christian means being like Christ. Now that’s a church that will attract young people.

Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred is a member of Hollidaysburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren and attends Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, D.C. A recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, he is a Young Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. He also runs and is a host of the Dunker Punks Podcast.