I’ve written before on the youth exodus from the Church. Well, now Christianity Today has posted an article called “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church.” The article cites a number of statistics that many find alarming, such as:
- “The percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” almost doubled in about two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend wasn’t confined to one region.”
- The Nones were most numerous among the young: a whopping 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990.
- The study also found that 73 percent of Nones came from religious homes; 66 percent were described by the study as “de-converts.”
- The May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”
- “[A]pproximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22.”
The fact that many young people leave the church when they hit adulthood isn’t new. I did it myself, coming back after a few years of wandering the wilderness. What is alarming to Drew Dyck, the author of the piece, is the incredible spike in numbers in such a short time. Moreover, the usual sociological factors that bring young people back to church as they mature may be eroding:
First, young adults today are dropping religion at a greater rate than young adults of yesteryear—”five to six times the historic rate,” say Putnam and Campbell.
Second, the life-phase argument may no longer pertain. Young adulthood is not what it used to be. For one, it’s much longer. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back after more than a decade is considerably more unlikely.
Third, a tectonic shift has occurred in the broader culture. Past generations may have rebelled for a season, but they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. For those reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America, the cultural gravity that has pulled previous generations back to the faith has weakened or dissipated altogether.
Nor is this only a Christian problem. Schmuley Boteach writes in the Jerusalem Post in preparation for releasing his latest book:
Let’s confront a painful truth. Judaism has failed. Despite billions of dollars spent over the past 40 years to bring Jews closer to their tradition, we have barely moved the needle on the 50 percent assimilation and intermarriage rate. Israel has the worst reputation of any country with the possible exception of Iran and North Korea. The facts are indisputable but the question remains why. Is it because the Jewish religion is inherently impotent and Israel really is harsh, or rather that our model of promoting both is fatally flawed.
The real failure is Jewish insularity and isolation. Judaism for Jews is too narrow, too particular to really inspire. The vast majority of the world’s Jews want to live mainstream and fully integrated lives. But every form of Jewish outreach – from Reform to Orthodox – is designed to bring them back to the Jewish community. News alert. They left 200 years ago during the great emancipation and they aren’t coming back.
Boteach’s solution is to attempt to reach out with a de-Judaized Judaism, essentially a missionary program to convert Gentiles to Noachides.
It’s one thing to seek ways to translate the eternal truths into terms, concepts, and symbols that can be better understood by one’s audience. Paul of Tarsus was a master at this, so successfully explaining a Semitic religion into Western terms that he sometimes comes to overshadow Yeshua Himself as the go-to guy for answers on Christian practice. Before Paul, the Jewish philospher Philo was engaged in the same endeavor. As Messianics, we have to be prepared to shift verbage from Jewish to Christian and back again depending on our audience . . . but we need to be very careful that the essential message does not change. That authority has not been given to us.
And there will be periods in history when the message won’t be popular, especially–as the chart above shows–when times are materially good and there are so many less-demanding alternatives to Biblical faith.
Watering down the truth of Scripture may seem like a good way to get people into the pews, but in the long-run it never succeeds. For example, in the rush to get away from the “angry and vengeful God” stereotype, the churches increasingly softened His image and created a caricature of the true Good News. To quote a Washington Post article I noted four years ago,
“Every Muslim man knows that he is locked in a great battle between good and evil, and although that was a prevalent teaching in Christianity until about 100 years ago, today it’s primarily about having a relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally,” Murrow said.
“And if that’s the punch line of the Gospel, then you’re going to have a lot more women than men taking you up on your offer because women are interested in a personal relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally. Men, generally, are not.”
And what was the result? A massive gender gap in the pews which is rapidly morphing into a generation gap.
Schmuley Boteach thinks the answer to Jewish survival is in creating a “Judaism-lite” version that will better appeal to the masses. The statistics do not back him up:
The 1990 NJPS indicated that Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews are far more likely to intermarry than Orthodox Jews. Secular Jews have doubled their intermarriage rate, while Reform and Conservative Jews have tripled theirs. Secular Jews in the 18 to 39 year age group have an intermarriage rate of 72%, while those over age 39 have an intermarriage rate of 35%. Younger Reform Jews now at a 53% rate, compared to a 16% rate for the older group. Among younger Conservative Jews, the intermarriage rate has increased to 37%, compared to 10% for those over age 39. Only Orthodox Jews have reversed this trend: Their intermarriage rate has fallen from 10% among those over 39 to 3% of the 18-39 group today.
In the long run, the answer is not and has never been to water down the Scriptures or to allow a congregation to become more lax in its theology, practice, and discipline. On the other hand, we cannot be so inflexible as to create a lock-out for those genuinely seeking the Eternal One. How can we walk the tightrope between the two?
“Always leave them wanting more,” as Derek Gilbert reminded me last week. I’ll explore the answer I think I see in Scripture after Thanksgiving.
Until then, Shalom, and hold fast to what you have until He comes.
- Rabbi Sid Schwarz: The Necessity of Jewish Values in the Contemporary World (huffingtonpost.com)
- Finding my religion (bbc.co.uk)
- Rapper Shyne Revitalizes Jewish Faith Behind Bars (craigconsidine.wordpress.com)