Whitney Houston sang in the 1980s that she believed that children are our future, and plenty of politicians and religious leaders alike pay at least lip service to the same idea even as they clearly despise the erosion of their own power-bases. Young people are awakening to their own power and agency, and that is very bad news for conservatives in America. Today, in the wake of both the death of one of the architects of toxic Christianity’s entire culture-war model and yet another study revealing losses for Christianity, I want to share some truly good news with you.
Christianity’s Millennial Problem.
I’ve been writing for literal years now about the demographic crisis facing Christian groups all up and down the length and breadth of the religion. Simply put, Christians are very rapidly skewing older as a group.
The aging of Christianity is occurring for two main reasons. First, groups are having a lot of trouble recruiting new members generally. Second and more importantly, however, they’re losing a lot of their existing members. (I call this process of losing existing members churn, after the business term.) Some of the members are poached by other, larger, more active groups; many others, though, are lost to the processes of deconversion and disengagement.1
So the membership roster that any given church has right now probably has a lot of older people on it, and that’s the roster it’s basically going to have moving forward–where it doesn’t shrink through churn–and deaths due to old age.
Christian groups can’t do much about old age, or at least, don’t wish to do much about their tendency toward poor health. Recruitment and churn, however, are both proving even more impossible for Christians to address, which is why they’ve been focusing elsewhere.
To understand that shift in focus, let’s have a quick recap of the sociology of broken systems.
The Broken System: An Overview.
I’ve often described Christianity as a broken system. That term means that the religion’s various groups are set up in ways that inevitably lead to dysfunction and abuse. Over time, I’ve identified a number of markers indicating a broken system, the most important of which is a serious power differential between different demographic groups: one demographic group–like women, poor people, people of color (POC), or children–in a dyad will be stripped of power, which is then handed over to their counterparts–respectively men, wealthy people, white people, or parents/adults. The power-wielding groups are then reckoned as having total authority over the now-powerless have-nots.
In order to qualify for power, which can mean anything from the ability to boss around the other party in a relationship all the way up to leadership in the group itself, a candidate must fit into the correct demographic. And if someone doesn’t fit into the correct demographic, then nothing they do will qualify them for power in the eyes of the masters of the system.
Power is the only real object of worship in any broken system–and so predatory people who are really greedy for power will seek out those systems to join, or else will try to warp otherwise healthy groups into a more familiarly one-sided dynamic. A group that isn’t very cognizant of those sorts of people and their tactics can easily be manipulated in this way. They won’t even see those predators coming. They’ll have no way at all to identify them, and even less of an ability to neutralize them!
Once one of those predatory people gets into real power in their chosen group, it is damned near impossible to dislodge them. People like that who get real power fight to the last breath to keep it. They will bitterly resist any attempts to pare any of it away. They will go to absolutely mind-blowing lengths to get more of it. Worse, people in the broken system itself not only won’t recognize the power differential as a problem, they’ll go to extreme lengths to protect their peers in power from losing any of theirs either.
When–not if!–someone in power in a broken system abuses one of the have-nots, therefore, there’s no recourse at all for that victim. The group’s allegiance will inevitably rest with the abuser, because if one of them is discovered to be completely unworthy of power, then all of them are suddenly going to fall under scrutiny. A broken system is based upon shortcuts and inferences; it cannot bear such close examination.
This is why it is all but impossible to try to reform a broken system from the inside. Christian leaders love to make that suggestion, but that’s a losing game. Literally the only fix for the abuses present in a broken system is a complete dismantling and rewriting of its architecture, and very likely a thorough housecleaning as well–which can only be accomplished by those who have real power within the system. But the people with the only chances of achieving reform are the people least willing to go to those lengths–and they’re also the most likely to block any attempts to fix the system.
Reform is impossible, and it’s meant to be impossible. Do not imagine that this is some accident or fluke.
There is really only one effective way to resolve the issues I’m describing here, and that is to reject the whole mess–to refuse to play the game at all–to walk away–to burn it down to the ground (metaphorically). Of course, the leaders of these systems know this truth too. Their goal becomes trying to gain coercive power over those who might otherwise cause them trouble. The leaders of these groups and their most gung-ho adherents have an incredible range of retaliatory measures at their disposal for dealing with anybody who attempts to leave their groups–or who tries too hard to shake things up.
As long as the broken system retains some certain amount of coercive power, toppling it–or even simply rejecting it–remains damned near impossible.
The problem is, Christians don’t have nearly as much coercive power as they used to enjoy, which means that people have to want to play with them–and can walk away at any time. That means that recruitment and retention efforts have suddenly surged to the forefront lately in ways that never mattered before.
A Logical Predation.
Millennials sit right at that all-important young adult demographic that used to be so important for churches to capture. They’re on the very cusp of entering adult life, which for the longest time meant they were looking for stability for their new little families, guaranteeing both donations and generational membership. So advertising campaigns for a while were aimed straight at that age group.
But Millennials really threw a monkey-wrench into that conceptualization. They rejected anything that produced hypocrites, anything that made them feel undignified or inauthentic, anything that conflicted with their values as human beings–values they’d cultivated despite their elders, not thanks to them. Many of them even still identified as Christian, but they pushed away anything that smelled like a culture war. The Christianity they were building didn’t look a whole lot like the Christianity their more traditionalist elders wanted them to pursue; it was almost as bad as them not being Christian at all.
I’ve personally heard pastors speak in awe of Millennials–of their searing courage and honesty, of their willingness to examine every long-held, long-cherished notion, of their intellectual curiosity, of their unwillingness to compromise, even of their skepticism. But these pastors were also bitterly eating their own livers in jealousy. They spoke in awe of those qualities because they’d seen so little of them among their tribe.
So Christians developed marketing that would hopefully get those folks through the door without actually changing anything churches were doing. One of the campaigns that made me laugh the hardest ended up becoming the focus of a post on that topic, since it was so perfectly representative of what churches were doing to try to recapture the Millennial audience: try to look totally hardcore and edgy; try to look sincere; try to look as non-churchy as possible. Churches tried to out-Jesus each other to attract young people who were thought to value sincerity and compassion above all. Sometimes they’d even pretend to be super-welcoming, to attract LGBTQIA-friendly young people without actually being inclusive. It’s like they wanted to catfish people, just to get them in through the doors!
Those catfishing (crossfishing?) efforts have largely failed miserably. College-area groups still do that stuff, but I’ve noticed a drift in focus away from Millennials. (Here’s your snerk for the day, speaking of which.)
Instead, churches are turning to the children under their control.
If they can’t have Millennials, then they will reach for the generation coming up next after them.
And thanks to the power of the broken system, that’s really easy to do!
I guess sooner or later they were going to figure out that once kids reach their teens without buying into Christian nonsense, they probably never will. So churches have been focusing on their “train up a child in the way he should go” horse-puckey on the kids they can get their hands on. And they don’t care if it’s their own adherents’ children or the children of total strangers, ensnared through zealotry-riddled or overly-trusting schools and care facilities.
Some churches think that huge, thriving, super-busy youth ministries are what produce lifelong Christian adults. Others eschew youth ministries entirely and have kids remaining in “big church” with the adults from infancy onward, thinking it’ll mainline the kids with the adults and thus ground their faith. Some have youth ministries that are very playful; others prefer a really intensive education in theology and doctrines. And many, especially in the more toxic flavors of the religion, are brutally suppressive, oppressive nightmares for the children involved.
And you know what?
Nobody’s ever really sat down and figured out what reliably produces lifelong Christians.
Yes. A broken system’s masters cannot grow or adapt; all they know is whatever they’ve always done. And Christianity in particular has always been all about creating clones and duplicates (that’s why so many young men in the religion look so surreally like old men wearing boys’ skins), so that handovers in power will result in as little change to the broken system as humanly possible.
And you know what else?
Probably none of these approaches works better than any other.
Children are going through all of these different types of indoctrinations, and then they are hitting adulthood and leaving the religion anyway.
Yet Another Survey With Good News.
Knowing all of this, I look at Barna’s new study with pleasure. Bear in mind that Barna Group is a fundagelical outfit that sells stuff based upon its research to fundagelical leaders; they are not totally unbiased, particularly in how they word questions and in how they interpret the data they receive. Every time I read one of their reports, I end up snerking hard over their commentary, and this one’s no exception to that rule. Still, this study is a good sign even with those caveats. Haul up your salt-shakers and let’s get a good look at this thing, shall we?
It’s called “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z.” (Generation Z is their term for people born between 1999 and 2015, an age cohort that Barna asserts is “the first truly ‘post-Christian’ generation.”)
As we’ve been seeing for like 10 years now, Christian identification is still falling with age cohort. Atheism, however, is becoming a far more popular identification with young people. The levels of atheist identification are stable in every age group at about 5-7% of each age groups surveyed. Then we get to Generation Z, and suddenly 13% of them say they’re atheists.
Further, Barna asked the non-Christians (of all age groups) what stopped them from
buying this car being Christian. Interestingly, the prototypical “they had a bad experience” excuse that Christians all imagine is pervasive doesn’t show up much for any age group. Instead, non-Christians cited the Problem of Evil, hypocrisy among Christians, and lack of credible evidence as their main reasons for rejecting it. (<— we’ll address these later)
In another post on their blog, Barna expands a little on their research into Generation Z. There, we discover that they’re working with three different definitions of “Christian.” An unchurched Christian identifies as Christian but is largely disengaged from the religion. A churched Christian both identifies as Christian and also has attended a church service within the past six months. (Really! That’s all it takes now! WTF, really! WTF! I’m speechless!) And an engaged Christian is a churched Christian who is also super-gung-ho for Jesus.
I’m giving you those defs so you’ll know why you hear me cackling faintly in the background as I inform you that Barna says that of Generation Z, only 9% of their survey respondents counted as engaged Christians. 33% were churched; 16% unchurched; 7% “other faith,” and 34% Nones of some flavor (including atheist and agnostic).
This. Is. HUUUUUUUUUUUGE.
Young people are waking up.
They are coming to a keen awareness of who they are and what power they wield.
And they are rejecting the broken system out of hand.
This shift in national consciousness shoehorns very elegantly with another shift in Christianity’s power structure.
Finally, Billy Graham is dead. Finally, though Christians still too addicted to his culture-war model of Christianity to see that his entire paradigm relied upon them maintaining the power to coerce compliance from everyone around themselves. That’s the entire reason he helped create the anti-Communism culture war–and why his solution to that imaginary problem, the National Day of Prayer and other associated pompous displays of preening religiosity, took the form it did.
Oh, it’s not like Graham invented toxic Christianity–that foul, stinking miasma of a religion that chokes and poisons anyone who comes into contact with it. He just honed it into a weapon and then used it to seize control of his country’s politics for a few decades. In the doing, he has permanently stained and tarnished the religion and made it a cudgel in the hands of oppressors.
And by participating in Graham’s quasi-religious white Christian male supremacy movement, by adopting it so firmly that now it’s hard to even imagine a Christianity without such elements, older Christians set in motion their very own doom.
Young people, uniquely disenfranchised and pushed around by the demands of their elders in the broken systems that infest our country, are proving uniquely difficult to keep held down in place. Increasingly, they are walking away from those systems–or challenging them in ways that their elders can’t suppress and can’t ignore.
Yes, friends, these young people grew up bombarded by claims and demands–and in response, they learned to pierce rhetoric and bluster to see what’s true beneath the veneer of false certainty. They got fed bullshit through a straw from infancy–and so they learned in turn how to detect bullshit so they could reject it. They are surrounded 24/7 by information–and so they’ve had to learn the hard way how to evaluate that information to figure out what they could trust (or not!).
It’s a beautiful thing to see them awakening. It’s like watching young gods arising from eons-old slumber, slowly collecting their wits as they orient themselves to a new and altogether wondrous age. This past week we’ve been seeing it all in realtime and in hundred-foot-tall flaming letters. It’s been just dizzying to see the next generation forcefully reject the mewling pablum of thoughts and prayers, demanding instead real action to solve real problems. It all goes hand-in-hand with their rejection of religion; it comes from the same place; it pushes back against the same exact people and ideas.
But remember one thing above all:
American Christianists helped create the political and religious climate that these young people are now rejecting. Once again, Princess Leia was right: the more oppressors tighten their grip, the more people will slip through their fingers.
We’ve got another busybusybusy week up ahead of us. We’ll examine bad Christian marriage advice, so-called prayer shaming, a peek in on a guy who was totally an ex-Satanist Wiccan during the Satanic Panic, and how the power of narratives shapes culture wars. Whew! See you next time!
1 Deconversion is fully losing belief in Christianity. Disengagement is pulling away from doing Christian stuff, like praying or attending church. Sometimes a deconverted Christian can’t or doesn’t want to disengage, or a disengaged Christian still believes.
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