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Why millennials are losing faith: one man’s take

Why millennials are losing faith: one man’s take

There is no shortage of opinion on why people in the “Millennial” generation are losing interested in organized religion, and, according, to a recent poll, doubting the existence of God in greater numbers. Here is how Nick Vadala at the Philly Post sees it:

Is it really any wonder, though, why twentysomethings are losing their religion? Consider what college-aged people have been witness to on a large scale in terms of what faith can do nationally: hard-line politicization of religion in general and Christianity in particular, browbeating of gays and women, continued attacks on scientific inquiry that border on anti-intellectualism, numerous sexual abuse scandals that destroyed the lives of countless children—the road to hell could even begin, we were told, with Tinky Winky’s less-than-masculine appearance and behavior. What it seems to come down to is cognitive disequilibrium created by being raised with the traditional notion of religion as a wholly accepting, loving force, only to later see it as a harsh divider.

Simply put, the millennial generation’s values are much less traditional than those of previous generations, and as such our concerns lie beyond conventional hangups like homosexuality, abortion and marriage. Culturally and ethnically diverse—moreso than any other generation—millennials seem to be leaving by the wayside the notion of moral absolutes, opting instead for non-judgment and acceptance overall. As the civic generation, we want to see results in action over being subjected to platitudes that lead approximately nowhere. We’re looking for equality, or tolerance at the very least. A connection, something to alleviate the existential angst with which we are all so familiar, is on the list too, no doubt (OK, maybe that’s not so different).

Make sense? Or do you have a different analysis?


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Richard E. Helmer

Thanks, Eric! I tend to agree on all counts.

As a colleague and friend said recently, the change before us is not a matter of “if” but “when,” and — more pressing to us in leadership — a matter of “how:”

Whether we will be dragged into that change kicking and screaming, or be proactive in responding to the grace God offers through it is up to us.

In good Anglican/Episcopal fashion, we will probably do both!

Mike Colgan


It sounds like the core of your comment is that there’s nothing wrong with us and we don’t need to change anything we’re doing at all. I don’t know that I agree with you.

Look, you sort of prove my point – churches do lots of service projects. Soup kitchens, Habitat, education. Those are all good and important things. That is half of the Gospel message.

But the church is failing at the task of being a church. There are lots of secular groups that feed people and build houses and tutor children. You can join Rotary or the Lions and do all those things. What Rotary and the Lions DON’T do, and what we need to do, is worship God and bring people into the communion of saints.

But, for instance, when NPR did a piece on religious attitudes about gay marriage, they interviewed an Episcopal priest for a pro-equality viewpoint. “Great,” I thought, “a piece that shows that not all Christians are obsessed homophobes. This will be good for us.” But instead of offering anything meaningful, she offered some flip remark about “Look, the Gospel says we should love ALL people, OK? What part of that don’t you understand??”

That kind of stuff hurts us. And it’s not just one priest in an interview. We’re viewed, rightly or wrongly as unserious about Christ, with large numbers of clergy that don’t believe in God or try to box Him into some panentheist box, or who dabble in Buddhism or Wicca or Islam. Every time the General Convention assembles it seems that they take something else away from worship. New, dumbed down liturgy and hymnals. We’re about to neuter the sacrament of the Eucharist in the name of some bland, meaningless welcoming.

No Episcopal church I’ve been to in the last ten years (and I’ve been to several) offers any adult education in the Bible or the Prayer Book, and the new GC budget slashes even the meager resources we do have. Many newer clergy seem theologically illiterate, as if you can justify any position you want by saying “God is Love” and implicitly accusing anyone who disagrees with you of being a Pharisee.

We’re seen as increasingly liberal, a service organization and left-wing lobbying organization dressed up as a church. And I’m not sure that’s much better than being too conservative. We increasingly fail to offer real religion, selling away the gift of a serious, moderate spirituality in favor of fleeting social acceptance. And I doubt we’ll attract many people by being shallow and insincere in our worship.


Hi Richard. Thanks for the follow-up.

One point of clarity — and sorry for not being clearer on this — is that I do not espouse evaluating TEC solely or even primarily on its financial metrics, including our giving. Indeed, working for a non-profit, I am reminded that the value of all non-profits transcends the cash and other assets they possess.

Rather, I think there is an inherent call to reflect on our priorities. Specifically, we hear all sorts of concern about tight budgets, but if we look at the assets and total cash flow of TEC, we are wealthy indeed. When we look at this issue in light of our commitment to social justice, we quickly get into some uncomfortable places. For example, Susan Snook’s very well done comments about universal health care within the church is an area where I am concerned–we espouse universal health care, yet in some cases appear ready to walk away from that commitment within our own organization. This, at a time when we are poised to spend more than $100 million over the next three years on overhead. I would rather offload unneeded assets, including 815, than see our employees do without health coverage.

I suspect too, that our organizational fear of change is unattractive to Millennials. Like it or not, change is coming. It all comes down to embracing change, trying our best to do what’s right, and not holding onto the past simply because we can. So, I think we are saying the same thing: The church needs to be transformative. Now, the trick is working together to use all of our resources, not just cash, to acheive our mission.

Eric Bonetti

Paige Baker

Chris Harding–thanks for the clarification. 🙂

And that raises a question–how do we go about trumpeting what we do? Jesus was pretty critical of people who boast about what they do for God or others–and yet we get criticized because people have no idea of all the good we TRY to do. It’s a conundrum….stay quiet and people think you only care about highbrow stuff. Speak up and you look defensive and self-serving. Sigh.

Eric Bonetti–when I say “the church is dying,” I don’t mean just TEC. I mean Western Christianity in general.

We are several decades behind Western Europe, which has had precipitous drops in church attendance since WWII–but, from my vantage point, we are headed in that direction. The fastest growing “religious group” in the United States is “None.”

High levels of church attendance have always been the result of social norms–once those norms are relaxed or jettisoned, it becomes much easier for people to decide to stay in bed on Sunday morning. Couple that with the growing perception of U.S. Christianity as existing largely to bash LGBTs, infringe on the rights of women, and deny science and you have a perfect storm.

I love TEC and I have a vested interest in seeing it do well (my spouse is a priest). But what I’m seeing doesn’t look good for ANY Christian denomination or group. I think the “brand” has been corrupted….perhaps beyond redemption. Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep working with others in my parish to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. I imagine we will enjoy some red wine–and maybe even some quiche!–in the midst of all those activities. But the conversation will be about how we can serve God with gladness and singleness of heart, and be the face of Christ in the world. It will never be enough for some people–but we do the best we can.

Richard E. Helmer


I would argue that evaluating the Church’s effectiveness simply by dollars invested in aid beyond our walls makes us no different than any secular social service agency.

Aid is important, but we are primarily in the business of making disciples for Christ, and that means empowering people for ministry in the world wherever they may be. That in itself is intended to be transformative, I think, for the whole world.

This is why metrics in the church are so tricky (we have a whole diocesan team working on them at present, and even the pro’s from the secular arena are racking their heads), and why casting judgments based on $ alone is not all that helpful, IMO.

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