Scott McConnell: Are Churches Willing to Love Their Young People More Than Their Politics?

A young man prays during a 16th Street Baptist Church service on Dec. 10, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Change is part of the journey into young adulthood, the years in which Americans are most likely to move, attend college and change jobs. For the past 12 years, LifeWay Research, an evangelical firm that conducts research on the intersection of faith and culture, where I am executive director, has been studying how these changes affect the faith of young Protestant Christians. The results of our new survey are being released today.

It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that as they grow, today’s youth are also rethinking where church falls in their lives.

What may surprise many church leaders, however, is the increase in those who say politics played a role in their walking away.

The rate of Protestant young adults leaving church has not changed statistically in the last decade, when their departure was first quantified systematically, but some reasons for leaving have shifted — including more pointing the finger at the political positions of the church.

“Did you stop attending church regularly (twice a month or more) for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22?” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

In the new study, a follow-up to one released in 2007, LifeWay Research surveyed online 2,002 young adults about why they stayed or why they stopped attending church regularly. Today 66 percent of young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school stop attending regularly for at least a year between ages 18 and 22.

Those who left were given a list of possible reasons from which to choose, and they could choose as many as they liked. Many reasons for no longer attending regularly were repeated from the earlier study, plus several reasons related to the student ministry at the church that were not explored in 2007. In all, 55 potential reasons for leaving were offered, and the average young adult stepping away from church selected seven.

The top 10 reasons look similar in many ways to the 2007 study. Moving to college, work responsibilities, and judgmental or hypocritical church members all made the top five reasons in both surveys.

But the reason that saw the greatest growth, jumping to the fourth most frequently given, was, “I disagreed with the church’s stance on political/social issues.”

In 2007, 15 percent of church dropouts gave this as a reason. Today, 25 percent say it played a role.

The proportion of young adults leaving Protestant churches is statistically unchanged, so we cannot conclude that politics is causing a new segment of people to leave the church. We can say, however, that political views expressed in churches are having more influence on people who are leaving.

“Top five reasons church dropouts say they stopped attending church” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

This research should cause reflection on what has changed in the last 10 years and what needs to change today.

Inevitably, many outside and some inside the church will say the solution is to never mix religion and politics. A majority of Americans, our previous research has found, think the church should be silent on politics.

It could be easier for church leaders to not talk about politics at all. In fact, 30 percent of Protestant churchgoers don’t know if their political views match the majority of those around them in their congregation. But this misses the opportunity to show how God cares about the ills of our society.

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Source: Religion News Service