Why Christianity is Unappealing in the 21st Century

The percentage of the population that claims Christianity has been declining for years (see more info here.) I am not going to pretend I know all the answers to this rather huge subject matter, but I definitely have a vested interest in this question- what is so unappealing about claiming a religious identity, specifically Christianity, in the 21st century?

At Magruder, I oversee the summer staff, some of whom consider themselves Christian, some who very adamantly do not. I have spent many late nights, threatening on early mornings, with summer staffers grappling with their faith. I’m glad to say that at Magruder, we offer a space where people of any spirituality can feel comfortable and where they can serve together with the understanding that meaning-making and big questions-- that’s a part of the job here, that’s a part of the work we do together. So, given what I’ve learned from those perspectives, here’s my take on what’s so unappealing for people right now:

The myth that politics should be left out of religious beliefs.

I think this is a belief that I found more in the South than here in the Pacific Northwest, but I also see people from far and wide posting something along these lines on social media regularly: “Don’t mix the two; it offends less people.” And I understand the impulse-- it’s discouraging to live in a time with so much polarization, but we cannot separate our guiding principle (our religious beliefs or ideologies) from the system that structures society (our politics). Here in the PNW, I usually find that people are more comfortable talking about politics than they are religion, but if we cannot articulate how one informs the other, we lose the ability to model how our faith informs a meaningful life.

When politics are not critically considered in a religious environment, we are not doing the deep work of integrating our theology into our actual lives. Politics are an important way that we put faith into practice. How do we mean what we say without applying our beliefs? Religious beliefs, our ideology, need to be the lens through which we understand politics and policies. When our religious beliefs are left out of our politics, we forget things like, “the first shall be last,” (Matthew 20:16) and who Jesus was most interested in spending time with (tax collectors, thieves, sex workers, sinners).

The truth is our everyday lives may not have us brushing elbows with “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), but our politics can. The young people on staff that really feel burned by faith are likely the same ones that haven’t seen the way faith can be an organizing force in the change they hope to see in the world. Our beliefs can’t just be for “peace,” without also being for active peacemaking. 

The outside world puts a lot of weight and often negative judgement on the label “Christian.”

When someone reveals they’re religious-- I have that impulse, too-- I am almost immediately suspicious. And I hate to admit that! I immediately start trying to figure out what that means for the person because of the uncomfortable situations I’ve been put into before because of someone else’s faith. I know that if I have that reaction, with all the information I have about diverse spiritual and religious beliefs, that that knee jerk reaction is even harder for others to kick.

So, why is that? It’s all those things we already know. It’s the news stories that report Christians are more judgmental (like this). It’s the beliefs that we hold that do not reflect the love of Jesus, those icky hypocritical beliefs that go unchecked. For Gen Z, it’s the Instagram bio with a Bible verse by the person at school who bullies them. That last bit-- that’s straight from a camper’s mouth. For a lot of young people, one unappealing part of claiming Christianity is because of its association with rightwing groups that use it to spew hate and violence.

Until we are radically confronting those assumptions with a love that offers solutions and change, we can’t expect that perception to be different. It’s our actions that are communicating who or what we believe God is, after all.

There’s an insider/outsider dynamic.

This one is a no brainer, but still I continue to hear about it. And you know who else can be the worst about creating insider/outsider environments? Camp people. Seriously, how many people do you know that have “camp friends,” who are SO cool and funny and awesome, but also who you can’t fit a word in edgewise to the inside jokes or memories? Guilty.

It’s a hard balance, to create a community that is close and deep AND inviting to others. But I know so many people who’ve felt turned off by the whole shebang because of the awkwardness or closed-offness they’ve felt trying to break into Christian communities.

If there’s one thing my work at Magruder has taught me it’s that “Christian hospitality,” a foundation of our mission here, means to actively include people, affirm their identity, and make space for them at the table.

Christianity’s concerns are irrelevant to the needs of my life.

I hear this from a lot of young people who are moving away from their home religion. When church goes from youth group-- fun, mission trips, and pizza, and hopefully, also meaning and guided reflection-- to sermons that we must learn to translate to our real lives, we lose the element of community and mysticism. Then we’ve lost the thing that makes church essential. When time is such a commodity to people, the traditional model of a Sunday morning sermon may be a format worth inspecting.

The main thing I get the sense of when I talk to young people is that to make the label, “Christian,” worth it, it has to actually mean something. It has to go deep. It has to hold meaning and ask and seek to answer big questions. Not just “what is God?”, but also “how do I grapple with depression?” and “how do I learn to value myself?”

We’re currently in this wave where our Google searches range from “directions to nearest gas station” to “how do I prioritize self care?” There’s this whole industry blowing up right now trying to help people answer that last question. And I’m left just feeling like, if our spirituality isn’t giving us the tools to grapple with this, what is it doing? People are longing for tools to help them cope with their daily lives, and if Christianity only begins to answer those questions after they’re already a fad, doesn’t that just point towards the irrelevance that people are talking about? Our faith should be giving us a framework for meaning making.

If faith doesn’t speak to your experience-- that’s a problem.

Christianity just isn’t my language.

Right now, with more information than ever at our fingertips, if we aren’t connecting with what’s right in front of us, the Bible, let’s say, there are other options. And I think when we find another option that’s meaningful, that’s awesome. The Bible isn’t the only path towards something sacred. I think my own doubt has led me towards the questions that have best shaped me.

I’ve also found the more I’m engaged with interreligious dialogue, the more I learn about my own traditions and the more I learn from others. Interreligious dialogue can help us to deeply inspect our own beliefs and to know if the tradition we claim is the one that best helps us understand the world and transform it. It can also continue to give us framework and tools to use to cope with life.

Still, I worry about what we find when we are vulnerable or misguided or susceptible to selfishness. What fads or well-worded but shallow belief systems are out there now that better (or more quickly) meet the immediate needs of people seeking justice, solace, or meaning? Until we understand that, we aren’t understanding the essential language, and ultimately the essential questions and truths, that are leaving people searching for more.

So where does that leave us?

We, the world, are changing right now, and people are scared and frustrated by a lot of things that are happening. My hope is we let that fuel us towards hard questions and we bring people in on those questions and the ways we seek to answer them. To combat the image of Christianity that currently stands tarnished at the forefront, there’s some real trust building that we must do with the general culture.

I would love to see a Sunday morning where two or so clergy (or lay people!!) close read a text and discuss it together; modelling how to both agree with and challenge each other. Here’s a podcast I listen to each week that models a format I think would be a lovely example of that (and allows you to nerd out on Harry Potter at the same time): https://www.harrypottersacredtext.com/ (I really enjoyed

their most recent episode on Persistence, Book 6, Chapter 26, if you’re looking for an arbitrary place to start). I would love to see our spiritual lives prioritizing action and service, a faith that’s largely outside the walls of the church. Finally, something that I haven’t talked about much here, is that it is still very valuable to find practices that allow us to interact with the mystical, and if those aren’t ever changing, they’re likely falling behind.

I’m hopeful about the future, knowing what I know about the young people I spend the summers with. And I’m hopeful that our faith-- whatever that looks like, whatever we call it-- can guide us the whole way.