Waiting longer to get married is one other factor that may explain why youth may be staying out of churches longer. "I think there has been a tectonic shift in the culture," Dyck said. In the past, if a young person rebelled, they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. "This generation may be the first reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America. The cultural gravity that used to pull people back may have dissipated entirely."
Kenda Creasy Dean also sees less pull for the unaffiliated to come back to church. "Kids may be following same patterns they have always followed in terms of trying to distance themselves from institutional life, but now there is less of a cultural support system for young people across institutions," said Dean, a professor of youth, church and culture at the Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school and author of "Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church" by Oxford University Press.
"I think their return is unlikely," she said.
Dyck wanted to know why youth are leaving churches. He interviewed members of the millennial generation, children born starting in 1982. He said he saw several patterns emerge that described why different youth are leaving the Christian faith:
1. Postmodern leavers
Postmodern leavers have a worldview that is suspicious of moral absolutes. Although they are open to the supernatural, they are allergic to any claim of larger truth that excludes other beliefs.
Recoilers were offended by some negative experience at church. They feel they were hurt in God's name either personally or feel betrayed by some public religious person.
3. Modern Leavers
Modern leavers care about reason and rationality. Anything that can't be verified empirically is superstitious and delusion.
Neo-Pagans have a desire for the supernatural in an increasingly secular world, whether it is Wicca's spells and rituals or a softer "Avatar" version of environmental worship.
Rebels are people that just want to have a good time, and Christian morality gets in the way. So they create a creed to match their conduct. Spiritual rebels are more hardcore and have a real problem with any superintending divine authority. Dyck told of one young woman who said to him that even if Jesus were real, she would "rather burn in hell" than follow him.
Drifters just gradually drifted away. Dyck said not everybody rejects religion. In a post-Christian society, he said there was not a lot to push people back into churches.
"I see a shift in the air that may make it less likely that there is an automatic return," Dyck said.
Dean agrees. "If churches are indistinguishable from the popular culture, there is no reason to go to the churches," Dean said. "You can get what you need in 13 other venues — and probably in a better package."
Stark still wonders why churches panic over this sort of statistics, but acknowledges that it is probably good that churches work to retain their members.
Part of that work, according to Dyck, would be for churches to create a safe space for doubt — to not chastise youth when they ask questions, and for parents to admit that sometimes they don't know the answers. "Youth value authenticity over expertise," Dyck said.
In his interviews with unaffiliated youth, Dyck asked them what their prayers were like. Sometimes the prayers were angry at God: "Where are you?"
But other times, the prayers were filled with both pathos and perhaps, a glimmer of hope: "I miss you."
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