Are millennials really all that different from the rest of us (at least when it comes to church)?

In part 2 of her blog posts at CNN, Rachel Held Evans tells us (and millennials) why they still need the church. Guess what! It’s all about community and the sacraments! She links to some other responses to her earlier piece here.

Yesterday, Richard Beck asked, “What does Rachel Held Evans want?” His answer:

So what does she want? Let me try to put it this way, and I’m just guessing with this. I think what Rachel wants is what a lot of us want. We want a mainline theological and social sensibility combined with an evangelical church expression.

In short, a progressive vision of the evangelical church.

That got me thinking back to my own experience as a baby boomer (and a Mennonite, which did not quite fit the Evangelical camp back in those days). My disaffection with the church began when I was a teenager. In college, there was a term I took a shift in the dining hall on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t submit to the temptation of going to church (where I would inevitably be disappointed by everything except the hymns).

In Divinity School, my friends and I joked that the Mennonite congregation in town was more like Mennonites Anonymous than the Body of Christ (but we still sang with gusto and emotion). Reading Beck reminded me of why I left the Mennonite Church, and why it took so long for me to make the final break. I was formed by that community, its worship, theology, and ethics, but there came a point where I could no longer find a home in it. I had changed theologically, having discovered the great treasure of Christian theology and spirituality from across the whole of the Christian tradition.

I recently was asked by an old Mennonite friend as we were talking about the decline of Christianity in the US and the struggles in the Episcopal Church, if I regretted having become Episcopalian and become a priest. I’m not sure what precisely I said in response, perhaps that I had no choice in the matter. I should have said that I find God’s grace in the sacraments, that the Book of Common Prayer has shaped my experience of Jesus Christ, and that in the local parish, and in the institutional church, I can still discern God’s grace at work.

Still, I hold my commitment to the institution of the Episcopal Church very lightly. I’m not interested in its long-term survival (except for the Church Pension Fund, of course). What I am committed to is the vision of Christianity expressed by Anglicanism. I believe that vision will survive and can thrive in other institutional forms than those that currently exist. I also believe that we can provide a place where people encounter the love of Jesus Christ and the grace of God in life-changing ways. That’s why I’m a priest.

We have certainly seen a transformation in the way individuals relate to institutions in the last fifty years. It began with baby boomers but has accelerated in subsequent generations. Still, most humans will always seek community of some sort as well as a deeper purpose or meaning in life. What’s changed is that churches are no longer assumed to be the primary places where individuals might seek or find those things. There are other places to go, other ways of connecting with people. As an essay I pointed to earlier this week argues, with more and more people raised as non-religious by religiously unaffiliated parents, many might not imagine that the church, any church, is relevant to their lives and their journeys.

It’s likely that young adults today in and the immediate future will be as lightly committed to local congregations or religious communities as I am to the institutional church beyond my parish. I’m already seeing that to some degree at Grace with many young adults attending regularly or semi-regularly but developing no relationships with others in the congregation. That’s not always the case, not even the majority. And I don’t mean this by way of criticism. Young adults may connect with the sacred and with God at Grace. Some of them may be searching for community elsewhere; perhaps they’ll be surprised by God’s grace and find it among us.

Sometimes the rest of us do too; and sometimes we’re as surprised to find God’s grace here as we are to find connection with other humans.

Handwringing (or not) over Millennials and “the church”

Rachel Held Evans has started another conversation about millennials and “the church” (whatever “the church” may be).

The debate interests me because of the participants. There are progressive Christians (Episcopalians) who read stories like Rachel Held Evans and see an opening for us to gain new members. Then there are the Evangelicals (who are largely her audience). And finally, there are the atheists, or permanently unaffiliated. Held Evans has written eloquently about the pain caused her by evangelical Christianity, and that pain is expressed by many of the comments in this piece: Why we left the Church:

We are an entire generation with the broken pieces of our religion scattered on the floor around us.

We are the children who learned fake smiles too early, who found all the right answers dissatisfying, who know what it’s like to sit in a pew with our hearts a thousand miles away. For us, Sunday morning is the loneliest hour of the week.

When I think of “Millennials leaving the church”, these are the voices I hear. If you haven’t left the church, please just listen. Listen closely.

Cole Carnesacca sees a problem in how Held Evans frames her argument:

This statement is at once true and not true. It’s true in that there is obviously much that churches can do to better engage with Christ, with the fullness of who he was and what his message required. But it also reflects the astounding arrogance of individualism. The assumption underlying that statement is that the individual is the arbiter of truth in the world. It implies that millennials would know Jesus when they saw him, and the church needs to change itself until they can see him there.  What it leaves out is the idea that millennials need to conform themselves to the church to find Christ there—which is, after all, the point of the very liturgies RHE references.

Millennials, we are reminded, have children, too.

Meghan Florian has this to say:

The thing I find difficult in the slew of articles published recently is that they seem to be trying to talk quantitatively about something deeply personal: a human being’s relationship to the divine. Talking about an entire generation, the infamous “millennials,” holds people at an arm’s length by relying on broad generalizations, and while some of what has been written lately is useful, none of it will ever tell me why a particular someone left the church, just as it can never tell you fully why I stayed. Even my own reasons are barely the tip of the iceberg—a few tangible details that hint at a longer story.

But it may beyond the expertise and power of religious institutions to reach millennials (and later generations. More and more Americans are being raised in religiously unaffiliated households, and remain unaffiliated as they age.

Along that line, Hollis Phelps suggests:

Rather, it seems to me that “authenticity” itself is the problem; the assumption that the churches know and can provide what millennials really want and need. That’s what I’ve observed among my students, many of whom aren’t criticizing an inauthentic faith set against an authentic faith but the notion of faith itself and its Christian articulation.

But it’s not just millennials leaving the church! Empty nesters are doing it, too!

The rose-colored glasses of progressive Christians

Earlier this week, my twitter and facebook feeds were awash with likes, shares, and retweets of an article in which the author urged mainline churches (especially, presumably, Episcopalians) not to abandon traditional forms of worship to accommodate young adults. She urged us to change wisely.

Towards the end of the week, there was a similar response to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that claims there are more religious progressives (23%) among the millennial generation than religious conservatives (17%, with 22% unaffiliated). Of those aged 67-88, only 12% are progressive while 47% are conservative.

In the midst of a dominant narrative of long-term decline among mainline Christianity, such stories reassure us that we’re on the right track. We don’t have to do anything about our liturgy or worship to adapt to the tastes of a changing culture. In fact, the culture is changing in our direction–if the trend continues, in a few decades there will be more progressive Christians than conservative Christians!

But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Among those classified in the survey as “religious progressives” are people “who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition but claim religion is at least somewhat important in their lives” (18% of the overall total) as well as non-Christians (13%). Both of the latter are no doubt going to continue to grow in the coming decades as the number of affiliated Christians continues to drop. If the designers of the survey had divided things up a little differently and defined the religiously unaffiliated as non-religious, the percentages would have been quite different.

And the same is true of the lovely piece proclaiming the appeal of traditional liturgy to young adults. For every article that makes such claims, there are probably a thousand or ten thousand stories of young people who find our liturgy and institutional life stultifying and meaningless. And Dilley herself pointed to what is a distinct possibility:

Even so, your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.

Grasping at straws isn’t the answer. Facing the future and creatively responding to its possibilities and challenges, is.

Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials

from the Barna Group

David Kinnaman has this to say:

one of the key insights emerging from the tour was that “nomads, prodigals and exiles share something in common: being somewhere other than home. One of the characteristics of Millennial life has become the image of the traveller. They want to wander the world, both in real life and in digital ways. They want to feel untethered. There is a trend among young adults of delaying the pressures of adult life as long as possible; they want to embrace a lifestyle of risk, exploration and unscripted moments. At the same time, they want to be loyal to their peers. The generation has come to appreciate and take identity from a spiritual version of life on the road. In other words, it is a generation that is spiritually homeless.

“This transience stands in contrast to the staid, predictable, and often overprotective experience that most churches seem to offer. The gap is simple: Millennials are a generation that craves spontaneity, participation, adventure and clan-like relationships, but what they often find in churches are featureless programs and moralistic content. Leaders who hope to alter the spiritual journeys of today’s Millennials need to embrace something of a ‘reverse mentoring’ mindset, allowing the next generation to help lead alongside established leaders. Millennials need to find spiritual rootedness, but that’s not simply to preserve old ways of doing church.

How to spend your Sunday mornings

Tripp Hudgins muses on his own experience growing up not going to church. He points out that there are other ways to spend Sunday mornings.

If I pine for anything it is fishing and sleeping in. I pine for breakfast with my family and wonder if life-long Christians recognize that going to church on Sunday mornings is to sacrifice all the other possible nurturing and beautiful human interactions that avail themselves on Sunday morning. As radical as this might seem to many ecclesial pundits, going to church is to give up community. It is to sacrifice family and relationships. It is to lose time with your spouse.

Anglicanism for Millennials–Update

A couple of days ago, I posted a query on this blog and to facebook asking about resources designed specifically to introduce Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church to young adults.

I expressed my own frustration with reaching for books that were written twenty or thirty years ago. While volumes like Holmes What is Anglicanism and Sykes and Booty, A Study of Anglicanism are valuable, and I’ve offered them to inquirers, I was hoping to hear about books written in the last few years that reflected the current transformation in culture and religion. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations I received were for classics–C. S. Lewis, Evelyn Underhill, et al, that are wonderful books, accessible, transformational, but I wonder whether they speak to a post-Christian, or “spiritual but not religious” seeker.

The best recommendation came from Susan Brown Snook, who offered Chris Yaw’s Jesus was an Episcopalian (And You Can Be One Too)I’ve ordered multiple copies to give out.

A couple of other recommendations also seem promising, including Full Homely Divinity, which although focused on England and although focused on rural parishes has a great deal of useful info for newcomers and seekers. The blog roll of ratherfondoftheepiscopalchurch.blogspot.com also includes a lot of useful perspectives on Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church.

And then there’s Fr. Matthew presents which I should have thought of immediately.

Any others?

Anglicanism for Millennials–Any recommendations?

Over the past few months, I’ve had conversations with several millennials about the Episcopal Church. They found their way to our red doors through various means, find our liturgy attractive, and what to engage the tradition more deeply. I do regular newcomers’ classes, meet with them individually to answer questions and learn about their spiritual journeys, and inevitably the question comes, “Is there something I can read?”

I can answer their questions about scripture, tradition, and reason; I can talk about liturgy, the Elizabethan Settlement. If they’re really interested we talk about General Convention, diocesan and parish structure, well you get the picture. What I can’t do is answer that question, “Is there something I can read?”

My first thought is always Urban Holmes, What is Anglicanism? Unfortunately, I lent several copies over the years, and they seem not to have returned to my bookshelves. And frankly, I wonder whether after 30 years, Holmes speaks to the concerns and lives of young adult seekers. So…

For thoughtful, well-educated, young adults coming from Christian traditions left or right, what would you recommend? They want meat, not fluff, and very often they are dealing with significant baggage from their pasts.