On church and millennials: a belated response to Rachel Held Evans

As a millennial minister ordained in the United Church of Christ, I often feel as if the future of the church has been dropped squarely on my shoulders. Like Rachel Held Evans, who addressed this question on CNN’s Belief Blog, I sometimes am asked to explain my generation’s absence in the church on Sunday mornings, or their lack of interest in religion, or general wishy-washiness in the question of beliefs and values.

I find this difficult. On the one hand, I relate to those asking the questions, because I have a deep and personal commitment to the church and believe it has so much to offer all of us, not just millennials. On the other hand, I can also relate to many of my friends who don’t find resonance in the church’s traditional teachings, who are disgusted by the actions of Christians (often picked up by the media), and for whom Sunday morning worship just isn’t a place where they find meaning or interest.

Since Held Evans’ article, the internet has been reverberating with responses, and it is worth a read for sure. My first thought was Hell Yeah! Girl’s got it figured out! But over the last week or so, little twinges have been picking away at my consciousness. Is it really Jesus that millenials are craving? Is it really a better representation of the Kingdom of God? Is it higher worship rituals that honor the ancient wisdom of our religion? I’m not so sure.

In some ways, perhaps especially for the evangelical Christian community of which she is a part, I do think Held Evans hit the nail on the head. But elsewhere, her ideas don’t hold water. If we are being honest with ourselves, I think we see that many Millennials don’t actually want to belong to the church. And so what the church needs to understand, moving forward, is that it is no longer the only place that people can go to find meaning in their lives.

So why are Millennials leaving the church? I think it is because the church isn’t offering what they’re looking for – and something else is.

A few anecdotal examples. Recently, I began working at a yoga studio one afternoon a weekend. There, I witness a strong community, made up mostly of millenials, who showcase to one another authentic love, abundant affection, and genuine support – all without the dogma and drama of proving one’s belonging to a community.

One friend confided to me that after years of dragging herself to Sunday Mass, she finally admitted to herself that the practice wasn’t giving her life meaning. For her, in fact, it is more meaningful to attend a concert on Saturday night, become lost in the music, and afterward, discuss the meaning of the lyrics with a group of friends over a beer.

My partner confesses that his religion is in discerning the meanings of life through film and conversation with loved ones.

And I myself have often found that in the twelve minutes it takes to listen to a story on The Moth, I can be reduced to a puddle of tears while preparing dinner some weeknight in the kitchen. Meanwhile, moments of crystallization and connection in church can be few and far between.

These examples showcase a few major differences between the practices of the church and the needs of all human beings (not just millenials!). And while I wish the church were the place that these experiences were taking place, it appears that for the most part, it’s just not happening. Below, some ideas about what I think is going on.

It’s not all about belief. Being in a spiritual community is no longer about subscribing to certain set of beliefs and living them out together. Instead, belonging to a spiritual community is about the simple act of being together, of asking questions, exploring new patterns of meaning, and articulating together what is good and right. Instead of stubborn, overused metaphors for meaning, new models for spiritual community share stories about their lives together. They talk with one another and listen to each other. They engage with the world and with meaning-making using their bodies and their senses. They embrace change and resist fear.

Note that this does not mean the church needs to abandon all that it has held dear for centuries. But, it does mean we should open ourselves up to exploring new metaphors, ideas, and methods for expressing our teachings about life, love, hope, change, and death.

Style is only style. High church, low church, red church, blue church – worship and community styles are only passing trends. I believe that successful congregations will be those that authentically address and express the worries, cares, anxieties, and passions of its members. This is a tremendous challenge for an inter-generational, multi-faceted gathering of people, all of whom have strong opinions about the ways in which worship ought to be done and ideas expressed. I myself favor frequent change-ups in worship style and liturgy. While it’s not cohesive, often uncomfortable, and no one will be happy all the time, it is invigorating and challenging, it’s not pandering to trends, and over time, it’s far more inclusive to the needs of all who worship there. Be authenticbe engaging, and be meaningful

Stop talking, start listening. The fastest way you can get me to not want to talk to you anymore is by referring to God exclusively as “He”. Or by inferring that Jesus is the one and only path through which humans experience the divine. Or by assuming that everyone already knows what you mean when you talk about the Gospel or the Cross or Sin or Love. If the church is serious about change, we have to stop talking on and on about all the things we think we know, and instead start listening, asking questions, meditating, and encouraging stories. We just don’t know it all. When we open ourselves and our institutions up to the uncertainty of the world, maybe – just maybe! – we might begin to invite greater participation from folks who are just trying to figure out this life, too.

Certainly, there are forces at work in the world around us that are beyond the scope of what the church can change. But the church is also in a vast process of transformation, and I, for one, think it will be healthy and vital and creative and essential.

if the church is willing to be open to change, I believe that it can be one of the rare places in this world where all are encouraged to be their whole, authentic selves. It can be a place of radical belonging, where we encounter unlikely relationships. It can be a place where we investigate the meaning of the world around us. Where we can be vulnerable and uncertain. Where we work together to make the world a better place.

Where we worry less about attendance, and more about sitting down, shutting up, and being present to our neighbors.

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Let the institutions fall

It took me three years to complete my Master’s degree in Divinity. Of those three years in seminary, I attended a Sunday morning church service perhaps five times. It wasn’t a lack of interest, and I certainly wasn’t trying to abandon organized religion. Despite a commitment to my faith community at seminary, and a deep regard for faith-based justice work, something was lacking to compel me to attend a local community church every week.

Today, I usually grumble to myself while getting up on Sunday mornings for church. The community is great, and I adore the ministers. But at the risk of sounding wholly un-pious, I sometimes skip the service for no other reason than that I’d like to sip my coffee in peace, listen to Speaking of Faith on NPR, and do a crossword puzzle.

A Lutheran church in Brazil

In “the Church” (that is, the often mainstream and Protestant church) these days, there seems to be a lot of panic around the topic of young people: Where are they? How can we get them to come here? Why aren’t they interested in Sunday morning worship? Don’t they care about faith; values; community?

I certainly consider myself as a person who cares about community, faith, ethics, social justice, and even The Church. But sometimes—and I say this as someone with a degree specializing in parish ministry—the Sunday morning worship experience seems too creedal, too suffocating; trying to claim me too much as its own. In the midst of the grand pillars, the soft candlelight, the hymnody, my ancestral tradition, the question remains: what if I want to change my mind?

Rather than courting me as one more young-person’s-body in the pews on Sunday morning (as the Church sometimes does), I’d like to be appreciated as an individual whose identity sometimes transgresses traditional religious boundaries. I’m Christian, but I’m definitely not all that concerned with other people’s spiritual salvation. And although I belong to a congregation, my faith life doesn’t abide in a church alone.

One of the most spiritual experiences I had in seminary was outside the seminary walls, on the floor of a yoga studio in New York City. It was in savasana, after a particularly compelling practice, that I realized my seminary education was changing my religious life in an entirely irreversible way. Never again would I approach the Bible with the same sense of awe, assuming that hidden beneath the Hebrew and Greek was a Truth yet to be revealed. The Church became the church. The Bible became the bible. God even took on god’s own flaws – overtly masculine, strangely hierarchical, at times wrathful. As I, a Christian seminarian, opened my heart to a Buddhist practice, I found a space to mourn and accept the changes in my faith.

Instead of believing in something explicit, I now just have faith that there is something to believe in. My faith is that Good exists, and that good is what I call God. It is not that I am not reflective, or that I don’t care, or that I am not committed to what I believe. It is that there are very few religious institutions that are flexible enough to allow me to be constantly changing my own definitions of belief, ethics, social justice, and truth.

It is my experience that many fellow young people I meet also have conflicting feelings about the creedal necessities of religion. Despite caring deeply about theological concepts and ideas, it is sometimes asking too much to identify too closely with hard and fast beliefs. In a world of crossing boundaries, flexible identities, and intermingling concepts, mainstream Protestant churches have unfortunately become institutional fundamentalists. Too afraid to lose their own identities, they have begun to claw and grasp at the last hope for tomorrow: young bodies in the pews. Too busy gnashing their teeth at the absence of young people in their midst, they are not listening to our voices as we say we’re here. We care. We matter.

Change the infrastructure. Give us a voice. Let the institutions fall.