Let me ask you a rhetorical question today. What helps you grow in your faith? The Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, asked American adults that question. They listed prayer, family, friends, reading the Bible, even having children. But going to church did not crack the top-10 list.
Half of us (49 percent) say church attendance is “somewhat” or “very” important, but half (51 percent) say it is “not too” or “not at all” important. The younger we are, the worse the numbers get. Only two in 10 adults under the age of 30 believe church is important; more than a third take an anti-church stance.
Furthermore, the nature of church-going is changing. “Regular” attenders used to go to church three or more weekends every month. Now those who show up every four to six weeks consider themselves regular churchgoers. While 43 percent of those who attend church say they go “to be closer to God,” 40 percent of those who don’t attend say, “I find God elsewhere” and 35 percent claim that “church is not relevant to me personally.” This is the first time this has happened in American culture.
None of this should surprise us. Every age has its personality, one usually molded by its experiences. My grandfather’s generation was shaped by World War I and the Depression, and learned to value family and faith above material possessions. My father’s generation was shaped by World War II, and remained loyal to the nation and institutions they risked their lives to defend. My generation (I’m 62) has been shaped by the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Woodstock and Watergate, and learned to challenge authority while chasing material prosperity. We are consumers, attending church for the benefits it offers us.
My sons’ generation has been shaped by academic postmodernism, with its denial of fixed truth and objective ethics. They reject absolutes and prize tolerance. As a result, 59 percent of young adults who grew up in church have dropped out. They cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders. One-third of young adults who have left the church blame its “anti-gay” policies. Many say God is missing and doubts are prohibited. We are living in a period where there are actually four cultures co-exist (Traditionals, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials).
How do we get them to come back? I believe that’s the wrong question. Rather than measuring success by how many people go to church, let’s measure success by how effectively the church goes to people. Jesus didn’t wait for his culture to seek him. Rather, “he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39). He met felt need to meet spiritual need.
Our Lord launched a movement, not an institution. His church is an army attacking the gates of hell, not an ark built to weather a storm. Nowhere does Jesus tell us to build the church. If we build the Kingdom by taking Christ to our culture, he will build his church (Matthew 16:18).
When our skeptical culture sees the relevance of our faith in the reality of our compassion, they will want what we have. If it worked for the first Christians, it will work for us.
So I ask you, what will you do to share Jesus’ love today?