by Brett Bucklin
Church attendance is dropping. As time continues to pass, more people are not attending a church, or becoming members of one. Why is church membership declining nation-wide? Has church become a country club where we only belong if we fit in with the right people? This may be true, but it may not be the most alarming aspect about the future of the church.
In the Memphis conference of the Methodist church, attendance from 2010 to 2019 has steadily dropped from 83,246 to 73,227 while membership has dropped from 30,101 to 23,749. This steady drop brings into question where these people are going and why they have stopped attending church. Certainly some members have passed away, but this cannot account for such a large drop in attendance and membership.. Yet, this can certainly not be the reason why 10,000 people have stopped attending over a period of nine years. There must be other factors in play.
My theory is that today’s youth have lost interest in the church. Today’s youth are attuned to the modern-day social issues of the world. They are also a generation who are significantly less likely to indicate a religious preference than older generations. Youth want something that appeals to them and, more than that, also want something that they can believe in with faith and confidence. The United Methodist Church, in its current state, may no longer be that.
The issues surrounding the church today are something that many youth are aware of, but the question behind this is how does it impact youth attendance in the UMC? Some youth might think of church as just another place to hang out with friends. But other youth, however, see the church as something that they may not want to be a part of because of the social stereotypes surrounding the church. Many perceive church as hypocritical, a place where you must look like you have it all together, and a place where you may not be welcomed if you do not already know someone or are different. Perhaps this is why many youth today seem disinterested in claiming a religion or in attending a UMC church. A looming schism may not help with this either.
Youth are at a stage in their development where they are looking for a place to belong and looking for relationships where they feel safe and secure. According to the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, youth are going through a crisis of identity. In this crisis, youth are trying to figure out who they can be, and whether others around them will reject them. In asking these questions, youth need reinforcement and encouragement to develop in a healthy way. To get this, they most often look to a community of those they trust to help them form their identity as they also test and explore this new identity. However, if this community is splintering, and heading toward a schism, it would not seem like a safe place for youth to explore their identities as they would be fearful of being rejected by the community for venturing into who they are as they grow. Church, then, becomes a place where youth do not feel safe and secure.
Furthermore, the psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development for adolescents states that youth can develop on a theoretical and abstract level of thought. can craft theories about the world and the people around them, as they interact with others. Youth are natural theologians: they are interested in the big questions that come with their developing faith. Youth start to understand the grey areas of rules and then begin to challenge and question rules that they see as unjust. In the context of a church approaching a schism, a message may be sent to youth that these questions are not to be explored. Youth may begin to feel that the church is telling youth what to believe, to the point where they are afraid to ask these questions.
Many youth may be looking at this schism and thinking that they already do not think the church is a welcoming place of genuine people. As Piaget’s theory of mind states, youth can point out hypocrisy when they see people they imagine should be one way but are not, such as the Church being loving. This schism may add to this as they see that the differences could not be settled in a way that keeps the United Methodist Church united. This dis-unity can cause youth, and adults, to see that we cannot put aside our beliefs and love each other as Christ has loved us (John 15:12). When this happens youth can be even more disinterested in the church than they even were previously.
In discussing this concern with the youth in local congregations, it was evident that they see that the issue of sexuality is at hand. Many of them see the possibility of a schism as hypocritical. When I asked their opinion on the possibility of a schism, one high school girl stated that “the conflict definitely drove me away a bit because of how people in our church treated the subject. It is important to stand by what you believe, but I think we should treat people of differing opinions with respect.” This youth, who was an active member and a student leader, is calling out the church for not handling the situation with love and respect. She felt pushed away from the church and is no longer an active member of any youth ministry.
When I asked a middle school boy his opinion, he responded similarly. He stated that he had “negative view on the church because I don’t think God would prevent anyone from coming together to worship together or any group from being able to learn from his teachings.:” This youth knows that we are supposed to love each other as Christ has loved us, and he can see that this is not happening. A third youth, a high school boy, also responded by saying, “I love my church, I grew up here. I just don’t understand why we are saying we are meant to show the love of Christ to all people when we can’t even show it to each other.” These three statements from these youth show something that is alarming. It is not only the issue of sexuality that is driving them, and others, away from the church, but it is also the internal fighting that they see as hypocritical.
With the attendance of youth in the UMC already down, the future of the UMC, or any Methodist denomination that may form, comes into question. If the church is not retaining members or adding new members, then the church will eventually die. As a church, we need the faithful witness of our youth to not only ensure that the church survives, but also because they bring new perspectives on how and where the Spirit is moving among us and in our world. If we continue down the same path, we will lose this faithful witness and lose a big part of who we are as God’s people who gather.
Overall church attendance is in steady decline. The youth of today have become increasingly disinterested in the church due to social stereotypes and the church’s internal fighting. I believe that a schism would only further the divide between the UMC and the youth of the world which would be harmful to the future of the church and of our faithful witness to love each other as Christ has instructed us to do.
Brett Bucklin is a youth minister currently serving in Medina, TN. Brett has a passion and calling to youth ministry with eight years of experience and many more to come. Brett is a recent graduate of Memphis Theological Seminary with a Masters in Youth Ministry and is a lover of all sports.