ROCHESTER, Minn. — Wednesday and Sunday nights usually mean small group for Beth and Aaron Leppin.
It’s usually a fun time. The host, which changes week to week, provides some snacks. There’s socializing, an hour spent discussing material and then half an hour taking prayer requests and closing in prayer, the Post-Bulletin reported.
They change up the course materials and peruse books and video studies by various Christian authors, such as C.S. Lewis. This year, the group studied Romans — Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome — and Lewis’ devotional "Mere Christianity."
"I think a theme of our group this year has been to focus on making sure we understand the argument for Christianity, the sensibility of it," said Aaron, a 32-year-old Mayo physician researcher. "Making what is true in our hearts compute in our heads. It’s important for the people in our group, at least, to know that we don’t have to check our brains to believe in the Gospel."
Studies, including a 2011 study from Barna Group, a private research company, show a majority of people in the so-called millennial generation, such as Beth and Aaron, are turning away from religious faith.
The Barna study revealed three out of five young Christians who attended church frequently as children eventually either disconnect themselves from their faith after they turn 15 or take an extended period of leave from the church.
In Beth and Aaron’s case, after they moved to Rochester from Missouri, they felt the immediate need to seek out fellow young Christians practicing their faith. They eventually joined a group that transitioned into them leading through Christ Community Church.
"I mean, small groups aren’t just about studying the Bible," he said. "They’re also about making friends and sharing life with people."
There actually was quite a demand for having small groups specifically for young adults, Aaron said. What started off as one small group ended up turning into two. On a typical night, there’d be eight people, some couples and some singles, in their 20s or 30s.
It’s in these groups that Beth and Aaron found hope and security. They were part of a lot of life events. They saw at least five marriages, a few home purchases and many moves. The group often tries to hang out socially and do some service projects every year.
"I suppose my fondest memories are just the little signs that what we’re doing is working," Aaron said. "That people are growing closer to God, that their faith is becoming real to them."
Having small groups proved to be a godsend to the Leppins who connected with others practicing their faith. They’re able to have people in their lives who they can "have fun with but also be sad with and share secrets with."
"The groups strengthen our relationships to each other and to God," Aaron said. "It is, in fact, the model of the early church. Christianity is not supposed to be a religion of Sunday morning church attendance, and I think when people start coming to a small group for the first time, they start to realize that."
Aaron also observed that individuals begin to characterize their faith as something to do in "isolation." The church service becomes disconnected interaction while sitting with people you don’t know, and hearing a sermon from a pastor you don’t know is "a hard thing for anyone to stay committed to," especially with podcast sermons online to suit one’s tastes.
"That’s not what church is supposed to be," he said. "It’s supposed to be a weekly get-together and a celebration of family. I think that’s part of what small groups do. Maybe that’s why in Hebrews it says we should not give up meeting together."
The Barna study, which came from eight national studies, including interviews with young adults, teens, parents, youth pastors and senior pastors, identified no single, dominant reason for millennials’ trend away from religion. But the study did note multiple common reasons — themes including exclusivity, unfriendliness to those who doubt, going against science and priority.
Church leaders, including Pastor Paul Brushaber, of Christ Community Church in Rochester, also recognize the trend, but Brushaber notes that while the growing gap in millennial attendance is "troubling," the issue itself has long existed before now.
"The church always has to appeal to the next generation," he said. "It’s a little more alarming now. . The churches have to deal with it in their own contexts or else they’ll become irrelevant."
Kate Stapleton was raised by her Irish Catholic father and a mother who converted to Catholicism when they married. The 26-year-old Eyota woman explained, in her household, religion wasn’t necessarily prevalent, but it was "always there." Her father’s side of the family was very religious and still is.
She recalled her first memories of her paternal grandfather from visits during the summers on his Iowa farm, and in the evenings after dinner — over which, grace always was said — he’d sit and watch television with a rosary in his hands.
"The television was on for background noise, and the prayers his main focus," Stapleton said.
Then there are her maternal grandparents, who were heavily involved in the Lutheran church. Both grandparents were church council members — her grandfather was an usher and her grandmother a member of the altar guild.
Yet for Stapleton herself, faith and religion never took center stage in her life. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten until eighth grade. She went to Mass on Wednesdays and even joined the choir at her church. Practicing Catholicism became more of a routine and a facade. She didn’t have a genuine love for it.
"I think my family just went along with it to please them and because it was what was expected of us," she said. "Faith wasn’t really something that ruled our lives to the point that we planned our lives around church events, like going to Mass every Sunday, or anything like that. I think we were more involved because it looked good to the outside world, but we didn’t really connect with it or have that deep affection for it like some people do."
When Stapleton was in fifth grade, her parents were on the verge of going through a divorce, and the priest ended up becoming a counselor for her. While her father believed God and the church could save the marriage, it was met with skepticism.
"I was disillusioned by that thought immediately because I knew it was something my parents had to work on themselves, not pray to fix," Stapleton said. "I think that’s my biggest thing with religions, that prayer and this higher being will help them with all their needs. Sick or injured? Pray, and you will be healed. Poor, homeless or suffering? Pray, and God and his son will answer all your problems. I was eventually taught in the school of hard knocks that it was up to me to change my current situation, no one but me could help myself."
Soon, the family stopped going to church. It wasn’t out of the blue. There wasn’t one specific life-altering event. Stapleton was participating in weekend sports, and her family attended only on the important days, such as Christmas or Easter. Life happened, and eventually, Stapleton stopped going altogether.
Her family understood and respected her choice. It doesn’t mean, though, that Stapleton is oblivious to how others may view her decision.
"I think the one person who has a hard time with it is my mom because she goes and still looks to the church for guidance during the difficult times in her life sometimes," Stapleton said. "For her, I think the routine and support that provides are important, but I just can’t justify it. For me, I don’t really miss going to church or being part of that community. I have been able to find my own communities and create relationships without a religion being the base."
Sometimes, there’d be longings of returning to a routine and performing rituals of Mass, but Stapleton no longer identifies with her previous faith. She now considers herself agnostic. She believes in a higher power, but whether that’s Allah, God, Yahweh or Buddha, Stapleton doesn’t stick to one deity or teaching.
After a while it didn’t really cross her mind to go back to the religious life she lived before.
"The church isn’t for me at this time," she said. "I have thought about it, but to me, it’s just a very fine line. My beliefs and life have changed so much that I can’t justify going. For me, it just isn’t a part of my life anymore, and finding the right fit and making the time for it would be incredibly difficult.
"Maybe someday I may return to the church, but I would have to think long and hard about it with myself before that occurs."
Experts have identified a variety of reasons why people who practiced religion as teens no longer attend church as adults.
As society is continually shaped by cultural and philosophical diversity, it also might contribute to the dwindling number of young adults who attend church beyond age 15. With more emphasis on these changing views, there also is a shift in theology.
Barna Group’s study indicated that while young Americans are "shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance" three in 10 young Christians stated "churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths," and about half of this group believe they are forced to "choose between faith and friends."
One-fifth of the young adults who identified as Christian stated the church felt "exclusive."
"People in this generation grew up on a higher emphasis on diversity than others, and that’s great," said Pastor Paul Brushaber, of Christ Community Church in Rochester. "It turned into a philosophical pluralism, that no one has a superior view than another, which is dangerous theologically when the celebration of diversity means no one has the truth. … You’ve lost your motivation you would have if you have the truth."
Many churches are continuing to try to appeal to the general public, some by excluding their denomination from their church’s name. Brushaber noted Christ Community Church changed its name in 1993 to reflect a nondenominational affiliation.
Dropping denominational labels also could symbolize a lessening stigma surrounding marriage between people of two different denominations. "Back in the ’40s and ’50s it was considered scandalous if a Lutheran or Catholic married each other," Brushaber said. "Now it’s far less. People’s willingness to marry across denominational lines has significantly increased."
Sometimes, changes include modernizing the church itself, for example incorporating things such as a coffee cafe — which Christ Community has — or using contemporary worship music. Some other churches cling to traditional and historical aspects of singing traditional hymns. It’s a matter of variety and preference.
"Churches all have styles, and it may be a style that a young person walks into," Brushaber said. "But the beliefs are the same. Churches want you to know they follow the Bible and teach the Bible."
Brushaber noted churches have begun to specialize ministries geared to different age levels, and with that comes a pretty big disadvantage for those who were used to attending services where there were only people in their specific age group. There may be ministries for children such as Kingdom Kids, youth group and even a young adult group for college-aged people.
After that, however, there’s no post-college group, or what might be considered a transitional ministry.
"At college, it’s like they’ve never had to be at a regular church service for a while," he said. "Some of these kids are never integrated into a multigenerational congregation. Some might ask, ‘Where’s my post-college group?’ It’s more of a failure to integrate into more of an adult setting. It can be the downside if you’re making it about their generation."
Among the biggest reasons young adults might no longer attend church is that there’s a conflict in views of how "politicized" the church is on controversial topics such as gay marriage and abortion. Brushaber also struggles with his own political views, which sometimes overlap with moral issues he teaches about to his congregation.
"I’ve done enough research that I’m conflicted, and everybody has political views," he said. "There’s no avoiding it in democracy, and that hurts the church’s views."
Having these overlapping, conflicting views gives the church an appearance of being "judgmental" and "hypocritical." To some, this contributes to an exodus of young adults who have come to believe there’s more places of worship could have done to be accepting of a diverse audience — including those who may not necessarily fit the mold of a traditional, ideal Christian.
Some young adults don’t feel that church is a place that allows them to question or to doubt.
"I wish the church would be more accepting and understanding," Stapleton said. "I feel that sometimes many religions are becoming intolerant of each other, and I wish that church leaders would teach tolerance and understanding instead of, ‘This is written in a book from centuries ago, so we must follow it now in 2017.’"
Busy lives challenge the priority of attending church, according to Brushaber. Conflicts include participating in sports on the weekends and second jobs.
Despite having gone to Catholic school for majority of her life, Claire Buss, of Rochester, felt the need to take some time away from the church.
When she was younger, she struggled with anxiety and depression. It was during this time, she felt that it was somehow God’s fault for making her feel negatively. Following her parents’ wishes, Buss still went to church. But she felt confused.
"I was looking for things that made sense to me, like why was I feeling like this?" said Buss, now 27. "Why would (God) make me feel like this?"
So, from the time Buss entered college, she didn’t practice Catholicism at all. She felt the distance was able to give her some time to reflect on what, exactly, she wanted out of a relationship with God. Things, however, grew complicated when her grandfather passed away several years ago.
"I just really struggled with that," Buss said. "Time and time again, looking back, I wish I had a better faith or belief to get through that. I wasn’t really ready to lean on him going through the dark times. I know this is happening for a reason."
From age 19 to 26, Buss took time away from the church. Her family, she said, mostly understood. "I think there was hope for them that I would come back and understand my place with God," she said. "I think my parents really respected me and wanting to find something that worked for me. I never felt forced to come back."
Eventually, a mission trip to Utah was the life-changing moment Buss said she needed to re-establish her claim on her faith. She was able to help others through service projects and was able to work on herself.
Buss now regularly attends St. Pius X Catholic Church in Rochester. She says having a chance to reflect on her own wants from church, and to develop a personal understanding of her faith, drew her closer to God.
"I really started to look at the bigger picture," she said. "I struggled, wondering why would he want me to be his child, and because all the things I haven’t done right, I was considered a failure. It was then I really felt worthy of God’s love. It kind of set it in stone."
Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com