Not so long ago, one of the first questions you’d typically get when you met someone in Charlotte was where you went to church.
It used to be a standard Charlotte conversation starter. But as young professionals flood the city, it feels almost antiquated.
“If you think about, probably 20 years, ago, it was a cultural norm to just say, ‘Oh, you go to church?’ and then if you don’t, it was weird,” Amber Brown, a millennial who worships at Mecklenburg Community Church, said. “But now there’s been a shift to where it doesn’t seem as necessary as it used to.”
Indeed, research over the past few years has shown that millennials are the least religious generation yet, with 35% referring to themselves as “religious nones.”
Religious nones, by definition, are people that consider themselves to be atheists, agnostics or, well, “nothing in particular.” They’re on the rise – that 35% is twice the amount of nones seen in the Baby Boomer generation and more than twice present in the Silent generation (born in the 1920s through 1940s).
The decline is particularly apparent in Charlotte, despite the city sitting comfortably in the middle of the Bible Belt – that informal region of the South and Midwest in which religion plays a strong role in society and politics – and being home to such a large number of churches that Charlotte used to literally be known as the “City of Churches“.
This question — and potential responses to it — has become one of the primary problems local churches are trying to figure out.
Some clergy say they’ve found the idea of organized religion has left a bad taste in the mouths of the younger generation.
Often times, the church as an institution finds itself stuck in a box that makes it seem as though it’s just got a list of things it hates and finds wrong, pastors say. It seems “loud and angry,” and that’s what makes it so easy for younger individuals to back away.
“The church stands for what we’re against, not what we’re for,” said RJ Caswell, senior pastor at Church at Charlotte. “And that’s, I think, what the millennial generation has seen from a young age. I think it’s easy to steer away from something that you think is institutional and is against a lot of things instead of a community that’s for things.”
Jason Smith, campus pastor at Forest Hill’s Uptown location, agrees with that idea, saying that post-modernism has created a difficulty in accepting an institution that tries to exert authority just because it can.
“The church is one of the institutions for a lot of them, because of scandal, but also because of a feeling of disconnect between the institutional authority of the church and their everyday reality,” he said.
It doesn’t help that Charlotte is a city of transplants adding 109 people to its roster every day. A large percentage of them are in the millennial generation.
“Visually, we see the millennial surge, and the research is there. A majority of them certainly are the nones,” Caswell explained. “But people want that community. That I’m convinced of. How they get it, where they go for it, whether it’s a restaurant where they know your name, or a brewery to see to friends, or a coffee shop, people want community. I think church has been a place in the past where that naturally happens, it just isn’t that right now.”
There is no shortage of options today to find that community. Millennials seem to be turning toward apps like Meetup, brewery fitness clubs and community classes like those offered through Skillpop to find that sense of belonging instead of church.
So how are churches trying to bring millennials back?
Non-denominational, hyper-contemporary churches like Elevation, with loud, upbeat music that helps forge a connection the God and worldwide syndication, have seen a surge in millennial attendance that doesn’t match with the research.
In 2016, Elevation’s weekly attendance grew by 18% to just over 22,000 people, a sizable portion of which are millennials. Is it thanks to the loud, rock-n-roll concert feel of each service – that’s even caught the attention of publications like Pitchfork – that draws them in? Or is it Pastor Steven Furtick himself, with his laid-back appearance and his ability to craft messages that fit so well with the music?
Officials from Elevation were not immediately available for comment, but whatever it is, it seems to be working.
Other pastors say they stay away from the show and focus solely on creating connections in hopes of drawing younger people back in.
In an effort to speak to the desire for community and connection, churches are having to find new ways to show that those values are what a relationship with the church, and therefore God, is about, they said.
Forest Hill’s Uptown campus, nestled between the skyline and First Ward neighborhoods that are quickly being gentrified, doesn’t have “the bells and whistles.” It’s about focusing on helping its congregation bridge the gap and right the wrongs that it sees and it comes in the form of working directly with struggling schools, the homeless population and more.
“We’re saying, ‘How can we help bridge the gap?'” Smith explained. “‘How do we help people that have achieved or found success realize that their life – they can’t shrink their life to the size of just their life? As a part of the community in Charlotte, they have a role to play in justice. And so does the person that hasn’t achieved that level. We’re all on the same playing field.”
They’ve found that millennials desire that authentic connection without the feeling of institutionalization or a lifestyle that comes with a set of rules. So they show them that no matter who they are, what they do or what they want, there’s a place for them there.
And it’s working. Forest Hill’s Uptown campus, established in January of this year, sees around 300 people attend services every weekend – and 80% of them are 30 or under and young professionals.
But that’s not to say that millennials will never find their way back to – or, for the first time, to – the church.
Though percentages are still decreasing, many churches see attendance pick back up when people start to have children of their own and their values change.
But until officials figure out what makes it click, though, it looks like they’ll just have to wait it out.