Why Youth Are Leaving the Church: Politics, Postmodernity, or Pure Rebellion?

As the country's youth continue to leave the Christian Church at a rapid rate, researchers attempt to pin down the reason for the mass exodus, pointing primarily to the relationship between organized religion and conservative politics, the postmodernist movement, and the psychosocial relationship between the youth and the elderly. 

A 2007 survey conducted by LifeWay Research found that 70 percent of 23- to 30-year-olds admitted to breaking regular church attendance for at least a year from ages 18 to 22.

Fifty-two percent of these drop-outs attributed their departure to "religious, ethical, or political beliefs."

Research argues that politicians who promote conservative religious values could be sabotaging the future of organized religion by alienating America’s youth.

Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell address the growing integration of political conservatism and religious ideology in their book, American Grace.

They argue that about one-quarter of America’s population describe themselves as "nones," meaning they claim no religious affiliation. Very few of these "nones" are atheists. As Putnam and Campbell contend, America’s youth are running from organized religion because of the conservative politics that accompany it.

Putnam and Campbell argue that beginning in the 1980s, "Church attendance gradually became the primary dividing line between Republicans and Democrats in national elections."

"This political 'God gap' is a recent development. Up until the 1970s, progressive Democrats were common in church pews and many conservative Republicans didn't attend church," Putnam and Campbell wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times.

A New York Times article from Sept. 2010 argues that President Barack Obama’s nonreligious upbringing and conversion to Christianity as an adult was supposed to break the connection between religious ideology and politics that has grown since the 1980s. 

"Obama does offer Americans what they seem to crave religiously in a president - a president swathed in religious values, but not wearing religion on his sleeve," Tom Sander wrote last year on the American Grace website

Statistics would indicate a triangular connection between youth, politics and organized religion. During his campaign, Obama claimed subtle Christian affiliation but did not serve as a poster child for conservative Christian values, according to observers.

As Time magazine reported, Obama garnered a net gain of 17,000 votes from those under 25 years of age at the 2008 caucuses. 

This is in comparison to the current race among Republican presidential hopefuls, in which Texas Rep. Ron Paul appears to have a hold on the youth vote when compared to Newt Gingrich's and Rick Perry's influence among that demographic.

Ron Paul, although a self-proclaimed Christian, does not trumpet his conservative Christian values as much as fellow candidates Gingrich and Perry. According to a recent NBC/Marist poll, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads with 23 percent support from likely Iowa voters; Paul follows with 21 percent. 

Gingrich, a self-proclaimed Roman Catholic, has pushed his fundamentalist values in an attempt to win the evangelical vote. Early December polls showed he was gaining popularity with the evangelical community in despite his past marital woes, which some conservatives have taken issue with. The NBC/Marist poll shows Gingrich has lost much of his support he gained earlier this month, with the former House Speaker showing 13 percent support from Iowa voters.

In an attempt to woo the conservative vote, Gingrich met with 63 of the nation's most conservative religious leaders in early December to discuss his presidential endeavors.

Perry, similarly, trumpets his conservative values with such promotional ads as "Strong," in which the Texas governor promises to "end Obama’s war on religion." Perry also hosted a national prayer rally before announcing his intention to run for the presidency. 

While Gingrich and Perry trumpet their religious conservatism for votes, statistics show this strategy could be driving youth from the church, thus jeopardizing the future of organized religion.

As policy analyst Alex Mason of the Family Policy Network asserts, a politician's private life does have an effect on how they are viewed by America's youth.

"Young people are fleeing from the candidates they perceive as religious hypocrites," Mason told The Christian Post.

But as Mason contends, the issue runs deeper, relating primarily to youths' movement toward postmodernism, thus relinquishing the dogmas and principles established in modernism.

Mason points specifically to the issues of abortion and homosexuality, toward which the youth have taken a particularly apathetic attitude.

Mason contends that especially young Christians have no "stomach for controversy," and are unwilling to fight such socially unpopular debates regarding abortion or homosexuality.

"[...] they’ve bought into the lie that truth can be different for everyone, which often means they become unwilling to tell their homosexual friend that his behavior is immoral, or their pregnant friend that an abortion would be sinful," Mason said.

Sociologist Bradley Wright, author of the book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve been Told, points to a third reason young people are leaving church: simply inherent social relationships.

"Young people leaving the faith has been a concern for centuries, not just the last couple of years. It’s the nature of young people to differentiate themselves from their elders, and it’s the nature of their elders to be upset about it. Young people dropping out of church is not unique to this generation," Wright previously told The Christian Post.

Wright's claim could arguably connect the dots between politics, youth, and organized religion in very simplistic terms, concluding that the youth will always do the opposite of their elders, and therefore the patterns seen between organized religion, politics and the youth all relate to this inherent need to rebel. 

Whether the increasing number of youth exiting the church is due to politics, postmodernism, or psychosocial behaviors, ultimately churches must adjust with the change to appear attractive to America's youth. 

David Kinnaman, president of the faith-based research organization Barna Group, says that a possible solution for the youth departure is the formation of "intergenerational relationships" within the congregation.

"In many churches, this means changing the metaphor from simply passing the baton to the next generation to a more functional, biblical picture of a body – that is, the entire community of faith, across the entire lifespan, working together to fulfill God's purposes," Kinnaman said in a September press release regarding the Barna Group research study "Six Reasons Young Christians Leave the Church."

Policy Analyst Alex Mason notes that, as the Bible states, there will always be those who stray away from God's word.

"Biblical Christians, young and old, must continue to stand on God's unchanging Word in the culture, no matter how unpopular it may be," Mason said. "After all, Christ and His Gospel are an offense to the unbelieving world. Much of the time, His followers will be perceived no differently."

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