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The Church in A Lurch: Reasons for the Declining Attendance Among Youth

(Posted June 16, 2014)

Reverend David Witkovsky, chaplain at Juniata

According to the Hartford Institute on Religion Research, less than 20 percent of Americans actually attend church on a regular basis and between 4,000 and 7,000 churches are closing every year. Reverend David Witkovsky, Juniata's chaplain, provides insight into this trend away from religion based on research and his experiences at Juniata.

Q: Is the "millennial generation" less religious?

A: It's definitely a trend that this generation is less interested. Both my personal experience and the research that I've read suggest that young adults, the millennial generation, are less interested in organized religion. If you look at many congregations today, they are composed of people over 50 years of age.

Q: How does this trend away from religion affect churches?

A: It's interesting because churches as a whole are still trying to figure out what it means. If you go back to the 1950s, even up until the 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that young adults would leave the church, and then when they got married and had kids, they'd come back. So the churches became sort of complacent in letting youth grow apart from the church, but now they're discovering that the youth are not coming back.

Q: What are some social trends affecting church attendance?

A: There are a lot of reasons. There's a whole phenomenon called "emerging adulthood", which explores the social situations that must be present in order for young adults to be considered "real adults." However today, many people wait to get married and have kids, if they have kids at all, and economic factors inhibit young people from buying a house and acquiring jobs. So when it comes to religion, it's less likely that people will go back "when they're adults" because it's taking longer. If church hasn't been a part of their lives for over a decade, by default, church won't become a priority.

Q: Why are today's youth so disinterested with religion?

A: David Kinnaman, a member of the Barna research group, asked young adults why they weren't part of a church. They discovered six main reasons why. First, young people feel that religious people are hypocritical. Second, Christians have too much of a focus on "saving" people. Third, the church is perceived as anti-homosexual. Fourth, religious people are "sheltered" and out of touch with the world. Fifth, Churches are too political and sixth, Christians are judgmental.

Q: Does this trend affect religion as a whole, or just Christianity?

A: I think it's pretty broad. At Juniata, we have a number of Jewish students on campus, but not many who would consider themselves practicing and religious. Christianity is seen as a choice you make, but it's really not if you were baptized as a baby and grew up in a Christian homes. The real choice is whether or not to practice. Dave Widman, from the psychology department, is conducting a study on the "religiosity" of our students by asking them different questions about religious practices such as going to church, reading the bible, and praying. By these standards, our student body as a whole is not very religious.

Q: What does it mean to be "spiritual" but not "religious"?

A: Basically, people don't affiliate with an organized religion and don't practice outwardly, but at the same time, they consider themselves spiritual in that they're seeking the bigger questions of life that we don't necessarily have answers to such as, "Who am I?" or "Why do I matter?"

Q: Could this trend also be related to advances in science?

A: Creation is not consistent with what we know about science and so the tendency is just to say, well, they're wrong. People see disconnects from what they're learning, but I think science and religion can learn from each other, and you don't have to choose. I don't tend to look at the Bible in a literal way. I think it's important to take science seriously, but that means that we have to keep changing how we think about things and talk about them in light of science.

Q: How does this trend affect your job on campus?

A: My job is to help college students grow both in their religious life and spiritually. I have to figure out what college students are hungry for when it comes to religion, so I try to stay connected and informed. If you're going to be religious, you have to know why, why it matters, and what makes that particular religion important to you.

-Hannah Jeffery '16, Juniata Online Journalist

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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.