Is the Church Dead? A Millennial’s Perspective on Religion with Casper ter Kuile

Episode 07

A dilemma that has gripped the hearts of traditional church leaders and their followers is the trend toward “non-affiliation–” those folks referred to as the “Nones” – who check “none” when asked if they affiliate with any religion or attend any church. Which begs the question–why? Why aren’t people attending church like they used to? And why are people outright leaving the church?  Are people still seeking and finding spiritual community somewhere out there?  Writer, speaker and co-founder of the Sacred Design Lab, Casper ter Kuile–a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who once identified as an atheist–has done some fascinating research on why people–millennials in particular–are leaving religious institutions in droves; what it is they are searching for, and the surpising places they are finding connection and hope. Caspar published a study titled How We Gather, which discusses this millennial exodus from the church, and how they are transitioning into a more spiritual journey instead of a religious one. For those of us who may have been embedded in traditional church culture for years and now find ourselves at a crossroads because of the politicization of religion, or perhaps because of untenable behavior that occurred behind closed doors at churches for years wondering if we can see ourselves in spiritual community ever again, This conversation with Jen and Caspar reveals the darker reasons for the detachment many have from religion and church, but also insight into a transformation on how we might practice a new “religion” that draws from the best of tradition and the new and inspiring ways people are congregating.

Episode Transcript

Hey everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome. Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show. So, right now we are in a series called For the Love of Faith Shakers. This is our third faith series, and the community response, your response to these is always really, really high. And so, I know these are conversations we’re interested in, leaders that we really want to hear from. And so, this one has a different through line than our last two. In faith shakers, we were interested in talking to leaders and innovators who are walking faith out in non-traditional spaces. So, we’re not looking necessarily at pastors, or church leadership, or even institutional authorities. We were like, “Who’s out in completely different zip codes with their faith? Where are they leading? And what does that look like? And what’s the community like?”

And so, it’s been fascinating. I have loved recording the series. I’ve loved these interviews. These people are smart, and intelligent, and interesting, and creative, and curious. And it’s my favorite brand of faith leader. And so, if you have walked with me at all the last few years, you have seen my faith become tested, adjusted, celebrated, questioned. And frankly, I can just give you my own experience here, it held. My faith held through all kinds of life events. It has been, at times, very difficult to grapple with what I was taught in my formative years.

Things that I carried through to young adulthood, and into our early family years, even in my young season of faith leadership. I mean, I could just cringe by some of the stuff I was putting out in the world. I have to choose to have a generous response to that, because it was a mix of earnestness, a mix of immaturity. It was a lack of exposure. And so, I have to give myself grace that I grew, and I learned, and I listened, and I evolved, and ultimately around a ton of things, I changed my mind. I think for the better for a wiser, more complete, richer version of faith than the one I was practicing. And obviously I’m not the only one experiencing a bit of a faith revolution. At least in our community.

I think this is a real standard story. This is something that we have rallied around countless times. The last few years have shown that millions of people are leaving the church behind, and they are finding ways to practice their faith outside of the pews. And so, here’s an interesting stake in the ground. In 1999, almost 70% of U.S. adults said that they belonged to a religious institution. And in 2020, so just essentially 20 years later, that number was down to 47%. It’s a pretty big swing in a short amount of time. And of course, the reasons for this are many and varied. 

And I wanted us, as a podcast community, to look deeper as to the trends. Why are people leaving? Where are they finding community? Is the church experience still relevant? What is its future? And where’s the hope in all this? So, you’re going to love my guest today, you guys. Whoa, I’m not kidding. You’re going to love him. He’s an author. He is a speaker. He is a podcaster. He is fantastic. His name is Casper ter Kuile. He has spent a ton of time looking at this phenomenon. He’s done research on why millennials are leaving religious institutions in droves, and what it is they are searching for, where they are finding connection and hope.

He published a study titled How We Gather, which discusses this millennial exodus from the church, and how they are transitioning into a more spiritual journey instead of a religious one. I can’t wait for you to hear how he talks about religion and religious practices. It’s very generous. I love his definition of it. So, you’re going to love to hear him talk about that. Casper’s the author of The Power of Ritual. He’s the co-founder of the Sacred Design Lab. And he’s the co-creator of several podcasts, including Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. And another one called The Real Question.

He is delightful, and he’s lovely, and he’s smart. And he’s winsome. I loved this conversation. I think you will too. There’s a lot to learn here. There’s a lot to reimagine. Maybe some things to grapple with, but ultimately I feel like this next chapter in the community of faith is going to be beautiful. And that’s what today’s conversation is about. So, I’m delighted to, if you don’t already know him, I’m so happy to introduce him to my community. You guys welcome the absolutely lovely Casper ter Kuile.




The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices
by Casper ter Kuile

Abraham Joshua Heschel – Jewish American rabbi and theologian

“Nones” on the Rise – Pew Research Center Study

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