December 21, 2009
[The following article originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2009 issue of BALedger.com, the website of the Broken Arrow Ledger.]
Some churches suffering loss of attendance.
By Lucienda Denson, Lifestyle Editor
“Nationwide polls and denominational reports are showing that the next generation is calling it quits on the traditional church. And it’s not just happening on the nominal fringe; it’s happening at the core of the faith.”
That’s the opening paragraph in a press release promoting a new book, “Already Gone,” by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, with Todd Hillard.
Nick Garland, pastor of First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, considers the findings so on target, the church recently hosted an “Answers in Genesis” conference led by Ham.
During the conference, Garland asked those in attendance to have a small group prayer that young adults at First Baptist would not be among the two-thirds who are “already gone” from the church.
Two-thirds of young adults who have grown up in evangelical churches are leaving, according to Ham and Beemer.
Information in the book is based on data collected from 20,000 phone calls and detailed surveys of 1,000 20-to-29-year-olds who used to attend evangelical churches on a regular basis but have since left them behind.
Garland compared what is happening in 21st century evangelical churches to Martin Luther’s Reformation in 1517 that created protestant churches and the creation of the Puritans who separated themselves from the Church of England.
“This is a literal re-shaping of the church the way it has been for the past 400 or 500 years,” Garland said.
“They (young people) have written church off as a moralistic bad guy that wants to keep them from enjoying their life. You don’t have to have a passport to find them; they are on every street in the city,” he said. And they’re not just young adults. Separation is beginning as early as middle school.
Young people no longer believe in Genesis, which is the basis for Christianity, Garland said. They question everything from creation to the divinity of Christ, and for that he credits laws that require the evolution theory be taught in public school classrooms and ban instruction on Biblical creation.
Nancy Mabry, youth director at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, agrees that evangelical churches are losing twenty-somethings, but she credits a reluctance to make any sort of commitment as the underlying cause.
If young people can’t commit to a skating party on Sunday evening until Sunday morning, they’re going to have difficulty making long-term commitments to anything else, Mabry said.
When she was in her 20s, she said “If you didn’t have a fever, you went to church. Some people say they don’t come to church because Sunday is the only day they have to spend with family. Why don’t they spend it with their family in church? Now, church is an option,” Mabry said.
There is an exception, however, according to Mabry. Traditional churches that are liturgical churches and smaller evangelical churches seem to be retaining their twenty-something members in greater numbers than larger and mega-churches.
The Rev. John Wilke, senior pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, has read the book and said he found it to be a fascinating study.
He cited one of Luther’s writings as something for church leaders to consider: “A faith that costs nothing and demands nothing is worth nothing.”
“I think that is where the church is today. I get too many things in the mail from churches that say, ‘Come just the way you are, you don’t have to change,’” Wilke said.
“While God loves you where you are, he expects you to change. We don’t put the fear of God in our churches, we don’t have that respect. We’ve made Jesus our homeboy. He’s not our homeboy, he’s our Saviour.”
Wilke said the only church he knows of that is experiencing growth in the 20-to-29-year old age group is the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The Greek Orthodox Church is a liturgical church. Kids want to return to something different from what they get from the world. If we want to reach these kids again, we are going to have to return to what the early church was doing. We need to raise the bar,” he said.
Wilke would endorse a movement to extend confirmation study to two years, so members fully understand the doctrine of the church they are joining, and that God is bigger than they are.
“God isn’t a vending machine of good gifts. This (joining the church) will not be the easiest thing you have done,” Wilke said.
The Rev. Shelby Scott, pastor of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, said the 20-to-29-year-olds are holding steady at St. Patrick’s. One of Scott’s sons is in that age group.
“There is sort of a strange rebound in some of the ancient liturgies, such as Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Episcopalian. What we would call the emerging church is something that is very appealing to that age group. Places that have a sense of order, mystery and transcendence are very appealing.
“Those are the areas that are growing. I am seeing a slight uptake here of people of that age,” Scott said.
“I think there is a hunger where entertainment is the approach to worship. It doesn’t really satisfy. I think there is a richness in the ancient traditions that speaks at levels where contemporary music fails. My experience is different than what you’re seeing in the ‘already gone’ people.”
Scott agrees with Garland that Christian worship is going through a significant change. He believes young people are looking for a doctrine that requires more of them than just showing up at church.
“The pendulum is swinging back. What previously had been discredited – traditional liturgies and such things as incense and mystery – has become something of a strength and intrigue for the younger generation,” he said.