In April 2015, 21st Century Christian released a study that confirmed what many churches and churchgoers had been noticing: a distinct decline in church membership. According to the study, church of Christ membership fell to 1,183,613 from 1,284,056 in 1990. That is a 100,443 person, or 7.8 percent, decrease.
Though the report specifically informed on the decline of church of Christ membership, many academics on the subject said this is something all church demographics are experiencing.
“The decline mentioned is not uniquely in the church of Christ,” President Bruce McLarty said. “It’s something that is happening all around us, and it’s being driven by the numbers coming in specifically from millennials. There is less identification with a particular church or even with the Christian faith among millennials than with any other age group right now.”
With these findings, church and religious leaders began searching for answers as to why this is happening and what a possible solution might be.
Harding students, through responses collected from Professor of Bible Dr. Joe Brumfield, identified hypocrisy in the church, struggles with sexuality, and conflict with science and philosophy as major issues within the church and Christianity.
Brumfield also said that parents and their lack of genuineness of faith can be to blame. He named media and culture, as well as visibility of a church’s social work and confessional among church leaders as additional issues.
While many ideas have been presented as to the cause of the decline, one is not centrally identified and leaders warn of single-factor analysis.
“It’s hard to describe, and I don’t think it’s easy to find the single factor that is the issue,” McLarty said. “If you sat with a round table of 15 millennials, you might get 16 different responses as to why. I think the increased speed of change in our culture results in larger chasms among generations, and I think that is a key piece of this.”
As the president of a university with more than 6,000 millennials, McLarty said Harding is being proactive about this issue and discussing ways to address it.
“Whatever Harding’s prescription to this problem is, it cannot take away the free will choice of people to decide for themselves,” McLarty said. “But we can do our best to lead people in the right direction.”
McLarty noted Harding’s efforts that encourage cross-generational relationship in the church.
“I think a lot of the things Harding does now, whether it’s mission trips or service projects, encourage generations to work and serve side by side,” McLarty said. “There are people that can provide a bigger picture than the experience base of a 21-year-old.”
Dr. Dan Williams, vice president of church relations, is also looking for solutions to the problem. This summer, Williams held a seminar at Harding with more than 100 church leaders from four different states to discuss millennials and the decline.
“Churches need to focus on connecting with younger adults through relationships,” Williams said. “One of the tried and true methods of connecting people to church is friendship and invitation.”
Many of the possible solutions mentioned by Williams are a direct parallel to the focus of Harding as mentioned by McLarty.
“Another ideal strategy for reaching millennials is a small group, because they can staff that small group and invite their friends,” Williams said. “People can freely discuss spiritual issues. A small group gives you a personal and relational dimension, and that’s ideal for reaching millennials.”
Sophomore Brian Cozart said relationship building and humility are crucial to draw millennials to the church. Cozart, grew up in a churched household and graduated from a private Christian school, but is no longer a Christian, though he still accepts many Christian ideas.
“Don’t come with an agenda, don’t push, accept people as they are and build relationships without conditions,” Cozart said. “Don’t chase them; it is not necessary. Emulate the unconditional love of Jesus and allow people to come with their brokenness and their questions and people will run to you.”