At the end of March, a Gallup poll revealed that U.S. church membership has fallen below 50% for the first time since 1937. When Gallup began tracking church affiliation during the latter years of the Great Depression, which included those who attended synagogues and mosques, the percentages were in the low 70s and remained solid at this level well into the late 1990s. As we entered the 2000s, the number of people showing up for Sunday morning worship services began to dwindle across the nation.
Gallup attributes much of this decline to generational factors. The oldest millennials, who were coming of age at the beginning of the 21st century, now represent a large segment of the “nones,” those who have “no religious preference.” Church membership for the older generations of traditionalists — those born before 1946 — and Gen Xers and baby boomers remain at 50% or higher. Many Gen Zers who are fresh into their young adult years are following the path of millennials who have left the church. The intriguing research question for Gallup is determining the reason for church rolls decreasing; however, I do not believe the answer can be found solely in quantitative and qualitative assessments. The church, specifically Christian churches, must take a deep look within as to why its ministry is not reaching those who desperately need it.
One place to start for this essential self-reflection is examining the messages that are being preached. In a 2017 study, Gallup found that “sermons relevant to life” and “sermons teaching Scripture” were the main reasons for regular churchgoers’ attendance, at 75% and 76%, respectively. So, with many young adults leaving church or having never attended, there has to be a major disconnect in keeping them in congregations or initially drawing them in. I have given much thought to this dilemma in recent years, following the Gallup data, and something I saw this week while on my daily power walk provided a forthright answer.
I came across a young African American woman preaching on the corner of a busy intersection in Columbus, Ohio. She had one huge speaker that was tethered to her phone. A Days Inn hotel was behind her, and a Chase Bank branch was across the street. As cars hastily passed the corner, this young lady was literally preaching her heart out. One of the scriptures she spoke on was James 4:7, which says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
The church, specifically Christian churches, must take a deep look within as to why its ministry is not reaching those who desperately need it.
She passionately talked about how God’s delivering power had saved her life and urged all under the sound of her voice to come to Christ. When I passed by, I encouraged her to keep “preaching the Word,” and she smiled shyly. As I continued walking, I wondered more about the backstory of her testimony. Did she overcome drug addiction? Was she a survivor of an abusive relationship? But what really stood out was that she was not someone people would normally expect to see preaching on street corners. I have seen mostly older men in street ministry. This young woman, who is most likely in the younger tier of the millennial generation, is boldly stepping out in evangelism.
We are living in a troubling season right now in this country, and I’m sure a lot of young folks are asking, “Where is God?” There is unending racial unrest and economic anxiety as we are still battling the coronavirus pandemic. The young woman I saw preaching is part of the generation that is marching in the streets of Minneapolis’ Brooklyn Center, hurt and angry over the recent fatal shooting of Daunte Wright. More protests will be coming in the wake of the shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer. Yet, this young woman has a message of hope that the Word of God is living, active and powerful to provide strength and wisdom in these distressing times. More young people like her, who are “preaching sermons relevant to life,” are needed in ministry, to stem the sanctuary exodus shown in the Gallup poll.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.