Low Church Numbers Vs. High Church Numbers: The Stories Are Not Adding Up

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Like many of you, this week I have seen many posts and re-posts of that chart from PewForum detailing the current rises and falls in religious demographics.  (Spoiler Alert: It was mostly just falls.)  The nones stole the show again and rightly so as they are booming.

Click to read full report.

But the second place winner seems to be us evangelicals who have decreased by less than 1% in 7 years.  This is noteworthy because 1% is well within the margin of error, which may mean we shrunk a bit more or that we even (*gasp*) grew.

This was very curious to me considering for the last year I have been inundated with articles claiming that evangelical youth are fleeing evangelicalism at rapid rates and that evangelicalism is all but dead.  I have heard that an overwhelming number of millenials are finding safe sanctuary in more ancient, high church traditions like Catholicism and Mainline Prostestantism.  I had a sneaking suspicion this claim was not true because those articles never gave any sort of hard data.  They just quoted popular millenials and assumed their narratives were normal.

I bring this up because I just got done reading another such article called “Dear Church: An Open Letter from One of Those Millenials You Can’t Figure Out.”  I agreed almost wholeheartedly with the author’s theological standpoint.  I too am sick of flashy worship and very skeptical of “church mascots.”  I really loathe the patriotic moralism that fuels evangelicals.  And I want a higher church and a truer church with more Eucharist and less pyrotechnics.

But I am not meeting too many other millenials who agree with me.  And when I read the actual studies done by people who know how to compile and interpret data, I am realizing that I am a rare breed.  The numbers just don’t add up and have not for some time.

The mainline churches with their liturgies, liberal theologies and well developed ecclesiologies are still hemorrhaging members while the low church, coffee selling, cowboy mimicking, America loving Evangelicals are at least holding their own.

There is a huge disconnect between the narrative that millenials are fleeing into the arms of the loving high church and the data that says high church’s doors are all but closed.

Where did this come from?  I have a few guesses:

1) Nobody listens to the millions of uneducated, never churched.  The dominant stories filling our headlines are almost always the stories of wealthy millenials who grew up in the church and hold master’s degrees, usually in Philosophy or Theology.  These wealthy theology buffs are frustrated that the church of their theology classes is not the church of their childhoods.  I definitely share that frustration but no one who has not taken a theology class does.

Instead anybody who has worked with poor, uneducated, never churched millenials knows their story is vastly different.  They still want the booming worship and religious paraphernalia and silly mascots and rock bands and they are absolutely okay with the patriotism.

If it is true that we are not listening to them, I think that is sad.  After all, us educated church types are always talking up a great game about loving the marginalized and outcast.  Yet we are refusing to hear their stories.  Is it possible that those cowboy church, honky tonk evangelical churches are listening to them better than we are?

2) We assume that because someone’s story is popular, everybody agrees.  Therefore we focus on the blogs that get the most clicks and assume everybody who is clicking has the exact same story.  This is not true.  Those blogs are certainly relatable, but they are not normative.  Take for example my wife, who has read every Rachel Held Evan’s book and is leading discussion groups on them but isn’t about to go join the Episcopals.  .  .I hope.  Likewise, I very much relate to Rachel Held Evans but I am not going to become Episcopal.  .  .unless my wife does.

This is compounded by the reality that a high for Christian blogs is 10,000 clicks.  There are 80 million millenials.  That means if only millenials are reading those blogs (which isn’t true) there are 79,990,000 millenials who aren’t reading them.

3) The Baby Boomers might still be alive and important to America’s religious landscape.  I am not naive.  I know that the Evangelical statistics could have absolutely nothing to do with my generation.  It might be about the great retention of baby boomers, who love everything that booms especially worship services.  These baby boomers might still be alive and still loving their low church, yeehaw praising, mascot leading, rock worship services.  And that might not be a bad thing.  There are still quite a few Baby Boomers who don’t go to church or never have. (source).  And though their attendance numbers are declining, they are mostly declining in mainstream churches.  If the current model of evangelicalism is reaching them or retaining them, than the church is better for it.

Conclusion

I am also reading reports this week that a huge blockbuster movie about superheroes punching robots has managed to fill auditoriums with those from every age.

It would seem you don’t need the Holy Spirit or liturgy or sacraments to fill up a venue.  You just need theatrics.  And if the theatrics of evangelicalism are keeping their pew chairs full, it means absolutely nothing.

Because our God given call is not to fill auditoriums.  We are definitely not called out of the world, equipped with good gifts, empowered with the Holy Spirit and sent out so that we can draw in the millenials, or the baby boomers or even the silent generation.

We are called, equipped, empowered and sent so that we can love.  If love works, praise the Lord of Love.  If Love does not work we still serve the Lord of Love.

And my frustrations with evangelicalism have nothing to do with their failure to fill pews.  We have always been very good at that part and still are.  My frustrations stem from our failure to fill the world with love.

All of the generational headlines are dominated by this idea that the church should do what works.  But if church is about what works then it is not about what loves.  And if we don’t love, we have nothing and are nothing and will accomplish nothing.

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