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)

(RNS) — 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.

Indeed, the conflict between religion and politics didn’t arise in the last presidential election campaign. Among Jesus’ own disciples, there were at least two who had conflicting political persuasions.

Little is written in the Bible about Simon the Zealot, but his nickname indicates he had been actively involved in the opposition to the Roman government. Matthew, another disciple, known as a tax collector, had aligned himself with the Roman occupiers. We don’t know if those two ever agreed on politics, but we do know they worked together to build the church.

Since then, people from vastly different political viewpoints have followed Jesus together. Christians simply cannot ignore politics and follow Christ’s example.

Church leaders today can find room for political involvement that will not alienate the next generation. Students and young adults want a faith that is relevant to their entire lives, including their political lives. Telling teenagers that faith is irrelevant to real life will not keep them from leaving the church. It may hasten their exits.

Nor must churches shy away from biblical truths on controversial issues. Instead, church leaders should explore these truths further with teens. Talk together more, not less.

For churches today, however, the end game cannot be winning elections, passing laws or securing Supreme Court seats. It’s that kind of shortsighted perspective that led Jesus’ disciples to look for a political savior. Jesus demonstrated he was a different kind of savior; Christians must be a different kind of people.

Part of being different in this age of perpetual political battles is recognizing that not all political issues are created the same. What tends to divide us is not the goals we want to achieve, but how we want to achieve them. Virtually everyone wants to help the middle class, for instance, or to keep the country safe, but parties and politicians disagree on the best way to get there. Churches must discover which political distinctions are essential for Christians and which allow for disagreement.

Jesus’ teaching and other biblical writings repeatedly address issues such as taxes, inequalities, caring for the downtrodden, praying for leaders, obeying civil authorities, etc. Yet they rarely venture into the often contentious debates on the specifics of how governments were to operate.

This is important to keep in mind as church leaders think about those leaving the church. Teenagers and young adults are exploring, trying new things and pushing on social standards — just as previous generations did. They are forming opinions on immigration, guns, the environment, global intervention and numerous other topics.

Not all of their views will be shared by their elders. But as students explore, they are watching to see how older followers of Jesus Christ respond. Teenagers are highly attuned to inconsistencies and an unwillingness to listen to different political views. Both imply to them that God’s kingdom is not our primary allegiance.

Listening to them, on the other hand, demonstrates to teenagers that God is bigger than political differences and that a serious faith can handle all of life’s questions.

Listening can be hard when young adults take idealistic stands or think that the church should learn from them, but not vice versa. Churches have a choice, however: Either relentlessly toe a specific political party line, or make sure young adults know they are valued. Almost 3 in 10 young adults who stop attending regularly attribute this to not feeling connected to people in their church.

Teenagers aren’t likely to be fazed when others in church disagree with them, but they listen closely to see if their fellow church members will demean them or their position. If so, the student will feel judged and less connected to the congregation. A judgmental or hypocritical congregation was cited by 32 percent of young adults as contributing to their decision to stop attending regularly.

Students will notice, too, if only one political party is represented among those who attend a church. Half of Protestant churchgoers want to attend a church in which people share their political views. In a church filled with only people of one persuasion, the unstated but clear message to a young person who disagrees becomes, “You are not welcome here if you are not on our side of the political aisle.”

It’s common for young adults to be discovering their own priorities, and to leave the church, at least temporarily, while they do. If church leaders want them back, they have to ask themselves: Are they willing to love their young people more than they do their political opinions?

(Scott McConnell is executive director of LifeWay Research. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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  • 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.”

    Gee, now what might these “political/social issues” be? It’s almost as though the writer were playing coy by going out of his way to avoid saying.

  • “Scott McConnell is executive director of LifeWay Research.”

    Can we dispense with the fiction that LifeWay Research has any pretense of objectivity? They are the propaganda wing for the Southern Baptist Convention

  • My family and I recently changed parishes – the reason? The priest always brought up politics during his weekly homilies. What I was thinking to myself, my kid actually brought up on the drive home from mass one morning: “Why does Fr. X always talk about…”.
    He didn’t teach the catechism; he didn’t provide any insight to the gospel reading – he seemed to talk about what occurred in the news either Saturday or Sunday morning.
    I don’t have a problem with the priest using current events as inspiration for a homily; as long as it ties to the catechism of the church or the teachings of Christ.
    On the other hand, I do have a problem with anyone who is not a politician using their position; whatever it may be, to give their political opinions.
    For those individuals that decide to leave the church because of one pastor or one priest; I would encourage them to find a priest or a parish that they are better aligned with.

  • So, your position is that your sources of propaganda for the zany positions you put forth are “objective”, but if it comes from the Southern Baptist Convention, it is not?

  • They aren’t ready to address the issues directly. Note he talked about following “biblical truths”. It is precisely what constitutes a “biblical truth” that causes all the problems!

  • The answer is never. But several times writers here cite to LifewayResearch under the guise of allegedly polling on the religious beliefs of people other than Southern Baptists. It undermines their credibility.

    Ever notice how many critics of the SPLC seem to support things like discrimination of various minority groups and attacks on civil liberties? Of course you haven’t. You love organized bigotry.

  • SPLC used to have credibility.
    Now they produce skewed studies to support democrat positions.
    More fake news than the Clinton news network.

  • What they are telegraphing is that they “might” have been willing to be “flexible” on high-end tax cuts, regulation of corporate business activities, climate change, health insurance subsidies, etc., but they are NOT going to give ANY kind of support to reproductive choice or LGBT people.

    Well, IT IS TOO DANG LATE to be taking any such stances. Those “possible flex” issues are already lost because of the real deplorables The Church partnered with in politics while ranting around on its hot buttons. These Churches deserve for their young people to walk out their doors and never return, saying, “You lied to us for our entire childhoods. You elected a cabal of snakes who are giving everything to the Sharpie Upper Crust of the Financial Trading World. You betrayed the lower 80% of people everywhere, and you have neither admitted your colossal civic screwups nor stopped doing them. Yes, we grew up and are utterly sick of being associated with your bad fruit.”

  • No they don’t. Republican positions have adopted white supremacy whole hog.

    Calling something fake news is a sure sign you are full of it.

  • Couldn’t agree more.
    Plenty of people making excuses as to why they would rather continue their sinful ways instead of Gods way. Amirite?


    “14 Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. … 36 Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.’ 37 Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ 38 Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’ 40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’ 41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

  • “Here’s the solution” first you have to understand how the word generation is used. Next, you have to understand Acts 41; was the Baptism of the Word or do you think it was of water.

  • Did they poll that level of specificity? I didn’t get the impression they did. I assume it’s Trump-related, but I don’t know.

  • I would assume that the rise in the politics answer corresponds to the rise of the Donald Trump phenomenon. Polls shows that the younger one is, the less likely he or she is to find Trump appealing. It’s not hard to see the hypocrisy of older Christians who say that character matters in our leaders but then they go vote for Trump. That type of hypocrisy turns away young people.

    In general, churches shouldn’t steer clear of politics as if it doesn’t matter, but clergy and laypeople alike need to hold their public policy preferences loosely and not act like their particular public policy preferences are God-approved. Churches should be spaces where people can hold different views and still worship together. There is so much more to Christian community (or at least there should be) than finding people with similar views on public policy.

  • That would be tiresome (the priest bringing up political issues every Sunday), even if I agreed with his political stance.

  • ALL THERE IS TO TRUE BAPTISM (Everything Else Is Religious and Secular Garbage):

    “βαπτισθήτω πὶτῷνόματι ησο Χριστο” – “baptisthētō epi tō onomati Iēsou Christou” – “be baptized (i.e. ceremonially dipped, dipped under, submerged, immersed, but never sprinkled) in the character-revealing, distinguished, unique and unmatchable name of Jesus Christ.”


    Here are the key gospel scriptures for True Baptism:

    (1) Acts 2:38 Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

    (2) Acts 10:48 Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

    (3) Acts 19:5 They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

  • What do you think the definition of “propaganda” is? Asking seriously, because your comment sounds as if you have a niche definition.

  • SPLC is a terrorist organization. Best thing is to call FBI or Homeland Security. Ask for their SWAT teams.

  • Funny how the people most supportive of discrimination usually say that.

    As if disclosing information about bigoted public statements and attacks on civil liberties is somehow dangerous to them and reputation. As if they are hate groups.

  • “Republican positions have adopted white supremacy whole hog.”

    Let’s have one actual quote from the Republicans of white supremacy position.

  • ” It’s not hard to see the hypocrisy of older Christians who say that
    character matters in our leaders but then they go vote for Trump. That
    type of hypocrisy turns away young people.”

    Since the President is Chief Executive and Commander-In-Chief, I am not sure that expecting him to pass a morals test makes a great deal of sense.

    This President’s morals are at least as high as Hillary Clinton’s, the other choice, and John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, Lyndon B. Johnson’s, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s.

    Consider Preacher-In-Chief Jimmy Carter? Could we survive someone like him again?

  • If you don’t think it’s all that important that our leaders be moral that’s fine. But don’t complain about other leaders’ lack of morals while giving a pass to those political leaders you like on their lack of morals. That’s what turns people off.

  • I don’t believe you’ll find a single post of mine – ever – complaining about any President’s morals.

    I have, from time to time, pointed out that Trump is by no means the worst, and given examples.

    We elect Commander-In-Chiefs, not Preacher-In-Chiefs.

    The last one of those we had, Jimmy “Toothy” Carter, was a nearly unmitigated disaster as President.