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Church-leaving by millennials in the GKv and NGK in the Netherlands

Churches in The Netherlands are facing declining membership. This is also the case in the Reformed Churches liberated (Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt – GKv) and the Netherlands Reformed Churches (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken – NGK). They both experience declining membership, especially under young people. This research focuses on the so-called “millennials” among the church-leavers from these two denominations and how congregations can respond to this trend.

The research question is formulated as follows: ‘Why’ and ‘how’ are millennials from the GKv and NGK leaving the church in which they grew up, and what can congregations do to counteract this trend of church leaving?

Millennials

“Millennials” is used as a term to describe the demographic cohort born in the early 1980s till the early 2000s. They were raised in a time of secularisation; an age that is labelled by keywords like authenticity, individualism  and experience. Regarding the relation with a church it has as a consequence that millennials choose a church  which meets their needs. This regularly means leaving the church and church-community in which they grew  up. In this research we explore whether there is a connection between the millennial needs and the way the church was able to meet those needs. Also, we explore how the process of leaving took place. For instance, was this a reaction to a specific event, or was it a process of fading-away? As millennials are parents of a new generation, what does it mean for the future of the church in the western world?

Two denominations

The Reformed Churches liberated (GKv) and the Netherlands Reformed Churches (NGK) are two highly related denominations of reformed churches in the Netherlands. They were originally one church but following a conflict in 1967 they separated into two denominations. In 2018 the membership of the GKv was 115.000 and of the NGK 33.000. Recently, they reconciled and officially expressed the intention to reunite as one church. The GKv was known for being very strict and closed to society, until a decade ago; the NGK was less strict and more open to society, from their start in 1967.

Approach and method

This research is a qualitative multiple case study with an open design, in which different data collection methods are used. It consists of two studies. Study 1 explores the “why” and “how” of the church-leavers via a survey, focus group meetings with parents and in-depth interviews with church-leavers. Study 2 is an action research in cooperation with the councils of two GKv- and two NGK congregations; it is a research of the implications of Study 1 and an exploration of interventions that can be developed and implemented.

Practical theology, religious education and sociology

The study is embedded in practical theology, religious education and sociology (of religion). These disciplines touch themes like the experiences of and relations between people, church and society, perspective of faith formation in the core family and the church, the possible influence of generations on faith formation and faith practice, and the influences of the changing society.

Valorization

This study will be relevant for the church-councils, congregations and family members of church-leavers. Already some research has been done in this field, but still there is no adequate answer from church-leavers themselves and their parents regarding the question of church leaving. For church-councils and congregations this research will be helpful, as it will give insight in motivations and reasons of millennial church-leavers. We trust that this will study will result in opening up the conversation and raising understanding for church-leavers and their families who remain.

Planning and supervision

Anja A. Moesker is the researcher. The project is supervised by dr. Bram de Muynck and dr. Ronelle Sonnenberg. Study 1 is scheduled to be completed in December 2020, Study 2 in June 2022. Articles will be written and published in spring 2021 and autumn 2022. Completing the PhD-thesis is scheduled for June 2023.