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.

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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!

Some links on Newtown

I’ve gathered here some of what I consider to be the most important and thoughtful things I’ve read this week. If you’re still struggling to make sense of it all (and who isn’t) I hope you will find one or more of them helpful.

My friend and colleague Andy Jones points to Episcopal Bishop of Washington Marianne Edgar Budde’s Christmas letter in which she calls for Christians to lead efforts for gun control. The NYTimes has an article about the efforts of religious leaders. Dean Gary Hall of the National Cathedral is taking leadership in this effort. He preached a powerful sermon on Sunday on Newtown.

The article mentions a call for a moment of prayer at 9:30 AM tomorrow and asks churches to ring their bells 28 times. If I can get to Grace tomorrow morning, I’ll do it.

Some other thoughtful reflections on Newtown:

  • From Ian Douglas, Bishop of Connecticut
  • From Stephen Prothero: “Six Things I Don’t Want to Hear after the Sandy Hook Massacre”
  • From Rachel Held Evans (on Advent, Christmas, and Sandy Hook): “God Can’t Be Kept Out”

Katherine Newman offers a fascinating sociological analysis of the roots of school shooting rampages:

There has been only one example of a rampage school shooting in an urban setting since 1970. All the others have taken place in rural towns miles from places like New York or Chicago, or in suburbs in the Western states.

What is it about these towns where no one locks their doors that generates these deadly outbursts? We argued the very thing most Americans celebrate about small-town life—close-knit neighbors, friendly families, adults engaged in the schools and churches—become sources of stultifying depression for marginal boys. We interviewed kids who were attending the same high school as their grandparents, in communities where very few left town for college, preferring to stay home and attend the local community college or state institution. For most people, this is a sign of social solidarity. For Michael Carneal, the shooter in a 1997 attack at Heath High School (outside Paducah), that solidarity felt like a life sentence of exclusion.

Theological reflection in the same vein from Marilyn McCord Adams:

Those of us who have experienced rage or fear, would probably do well not to be confident about what we would have done in Nazi Germany. Maybe we should not overestimate our own mental health or degree of spiritual integration. Still, I venture to say, most of us could not have done what Adam Lanza did on Friday: shot little children, school teachers and staff in cold blood.

For that very reason, we need to heed Jesus’ warning that “otherizing” is spiritually dangerous. Otherizing undermines sympathy, pronounces the perpetrator “beyond the pale,” definitely not one of us. We could not have shot children and school workers in cold blood, because we identify with them: they are us, their children could be our children, their town could be our town. But it is counting killers as not one of us, that tempts us to acquiesce in state-sponsored cruelty, torture, and executions. Who knows? Perceived alienation may have prompted Judas to betray Jesus, permitted Adam Lanza to “otherize” the children and adults he was shooting at the school. Our instinct to “otherize” should make us shudder with the realization that we are more like traitors and socio-paths than we would like to admit.

Jesus’ injunction to love enemies is a hedge against otherization. My point is not that parents and citizens of Newtown, Connecticut should forgive the killer, today, tomorrow, next month, or next year. That would be another “quick fix.” Grief and trauma have their seasons. I would not say any of these things to them. I am speaking to us, who the dubious luxury of standing back and assessing, to remind that otherizing is part of, sometimes lies close to the roots of our problem.

Kottke.org links to “Portraits of gun owners in their homes.”

The photos seem to prove Garry Wills’ point in his powerful essay “Our Moloch.” He begins with some lines from Paradise Lost:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

And then comments:

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

On becoming ammunition in the culture wars

The Episcopal Church has been fighting the culture wars since before the concept was invented. Now, we are experiencing something new, becoming ammunition, or a battleground for other culture warriors. When Ross Douthat, the Wall Street Journal, et al, try to place the decline of the Episcopal Church in the culture war context, you know we’ve arrived. And of course there’s been a sharp reaction from those of us in the Church. I’ve posted links to many of them already.

The problem, of course, is that the critics are right, at least insofar as numerical decline and the decline of the cultural power of the Episcopal Church point to TEC’s waning influence. The Episcopal Church is not what it was forty or fifty years ago.

So what? What does that mean for the work God has given us to do? How do we reach out to offer hope, and the taste of God’s grace to those who seek it? Rachel Held Evans should give us pause. She writes about the split between progressive and conservative Christianity and the toll it takes on those who don’t quite fit in with either group:

But the reason I struggle to go to church on Sunday mornings is because I generally feel like I have to choose between two non-negotiable “packages.” There are things I really love about evangelicalism and there are things I really love about progressive Protestantism, but because these two groups tend to forge their identities in reaction to one another— by the degree to which they are not like those “other Christians”—Sunday morning can feel an awful lot like an exercise in picking sides.  And often, when I find myself actually sitting in the pew, the pastor  or priest will at some point in the service, either subtly or overtly, speak of the “other side” as an enemy.

Steve Pankey has this to say:

In the days that followed General Convention, two opinion pieces, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in the New York Times, have attempted to build those walls back up.  They have written half-truths sprinkled with inflamatory rhetoric, and, in many ways, Episcopalians of all stripes have taken the bait.  We’ve gotten defensive.  We’ve honed our snark.  We’ve begun to define ourselves around social issues instead of the Gospel.

We are in the process of rebuilding the walls that Jesus has long since torn down.

Let’s not go there.  Let’s draw on the hard experience of being together, and not fall back into the old model of anonymous comments and blind rage.  Instead, how about we embrace our disagreement, talk openly with one another, listen carefully, and, above all else, love.  We did it in real life, let’s keep it up online.

Ya’know, for the sake of the gospel and all.

A. K. M. Adam also weighs in:

Fourth, neither ‘we have to update doctrine’ nor ‘we mustn’t change anything’ bears a demonstrable causal relation to attendance numbers. You can sell people bottled tap water, my friends; you could fill a church with fiery social activists, or you could fill a church with entrenched doctrinaires, but neither proves anything about what the gospel is or should be — any more than the popularity of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted shows that it’s a better film than Moonrise Kingdom. You can’t prove church teaching with attendance numbers, can’t, can’t, can’t. (I will offer a tip: the New Testament, if one still regards that as relevant, offers several lists of characteristics by which to identify the presence and effects of the Spirit. ‘Big attendance numbers’ doesn’t appear on any of those lists.)

And he reminds us all:

On strictly secular grounds, though, I can assure people who laud shallow theology and deprecate reasonable criticism that they’re selling sackcloth as silk, and that’s not a recipe for long-term viability. It’s not a family trade you want to hand down to your children. Cheerleading and finger-wagging help you sort out who’s on your side and who’s not, they make for great pep rallies, but they don’t obviate the need to do something wisely and well.

All this points to one of the important realities of our faith. Christianity was forged in an era dominated by apocalyptic, when many saw the world and human beings a battleground between good and evil. It’s easy for such imagery and language to creep into our discourse at every level. Politicians paint the world in black and white; culture warriors do; and many Christians, left and right, do as well. And there’s plenty of biblical precedent for it (remember the Laodiceans?)

Rachel Held Evans points out that life is much more complicated than simple black and white, that many of us experience the world differently, more nuanced; that we can see truth in the positions of those with whom we disagree. To succumb to the narrative of the culture wars is to succumb to a view of the world that is two-dimensional. To engage the culture wars is to divert one’s energies away from what really matters.

So, if folks want use the Episcopal Church as ammunition in the culture wars, I say let them do it. But I’m not going to play along. I’m going to preach the gospel, love God and my neighbor, share the good news of Jesus Christ, and invite people to know Jesus Christ around the altar of Grace Church. If Douthat or anyone else wants to use me as ammunition, I’m not sure who, or what, the target might be.

 

Radical Welcome: Why would people want to attend church?

I took a break last night from reading tweets about General Convention and went to a dinner party with neighbors. None of them are churchgoers. There was a young couple, a gay couple, a divorced woman. Some were “recovering” Roman Catholics. I asked at one point if any of them wanted to participate in church. Only one said yes, and he was primarily interested in the community created by a church. That got me thinking about evangelism, hospitality and the like. Of course, my mind turned back to what’s taking place at General Convention. Is any of it relevant, even potentially relevant, to the neighbors with whom I dined last night?

There’s a lively and passionate debate taking place about communion without baptism. I’ve blogged about it before and made my position quite clear. Supporters often put the practice in terms of hospitality and welcome. There’s an important theological conversation that is taking place. But radical hospitality and welcome is not just about what we do in our liturgy. It begins with our buildings and with our attitudes. What messages do we convey with our physical space?

What visitors see first (ranked in order of priority). #1 is women’s restrooms.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you, if you can find your way in. This is an excellent discussion about how our architecture deceives and misleads. What looks like the main entrance into the church is often unused or blocked.

Of course, there are other questions we should be asking about welcoming and hospitality. Often, the question is, “Why don’t people come to church?” And we ask it, not of those who don’t attend, but of those in our congregations. A better question might be, Why would you attend church?

The same is likely true for the unchurched. If you want to attract groups in your community, don’t immediately wave a survey in front of your congregation about what you believe will draw the unchurched into your community.  And don’t begin by investing in a program that tells you what people want and how to get them.  Instead, start by asking your neighbors, “Why don’t you attend?” Or, positively expressed, “Why would you attend church?”

By shifting from how to why, you will garner a more-honest assessment of what prevents people from attending. The answers may surprise you. They may not. But in either case, you will be able to design your outreach on solid information about the people you are trying to reach.

 

Rachel Held Evans tells us why she didn’t go to church last Sunday:

What I feel these days is not guilt, but something far more nefarious:  dull resignation. There are nearly 200 churches near my small, Southern town, and hundreds more if we make the long drive to Chattanooga, so the fact that I can’t seem to make it through a single service without questioning the existence of God says a lot more about me than it does about church, now doesn’t it?

Do I want a church that fits me, or a me that fits the church?

God makes sense to me under the trees, and God makes sense to me in poetry and prayer, and God makes sense to me in Eucharist and Baptism and community and even creeds…but not in the offering plate, not in the building campaign, not in the pastor-who-shall-not-be-questioned, not in the politics, not in the assumptions about what a good Christian girl ought to be.

What can we do to reach out to her, and to all those others who have given up in “dull resignation”?

Obama, Gay Marriage, and Christianity

Obama had this to say about the role his faith played in his decision:

you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.

CNN asked black pastors from across the country to weigh in.

Rachel Held Evans asks whether the short-term political victory of the Religious Right in North Carolina this week means the defection of a generation: “How to win a culture war and lose a generation.” Her blog, rachelheldevans.com, is worth following:

When I speak at Christian colleges, I often take time to chat with students in the cafeteria.  When I ask them what issues are most important to them, they consistently report that they are frustrated by how the Church has treated their gay and lesbian friends.  Some of these students would say they most identify with what groups like the Gay Christian Network term “Side A” (they believe homosexual relationships have the same value as heterosexual relations in the sight of God). Others better identify with “Side B” (they believe only male/female relationship in marriage is God’s intent for sexuality).  But every single student I have spoken with believes that the Church has mishandled its response to homosexuality.

Jonathan Fitzgerald reminds us that at base, gay marriage is a political issue, not a religious one.

I’ll be curious to see the effect of President Obama’s statement on debates within The Episcopal Church on same-gender blessings. President Obama was referring to “civil marriage.” Part of the issue for us is that clergy act as agents of the state when we sign marriage certificates. I don’t know why the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other advocates for strict church-state separation don’t go after that. I’m uncomfortable with that role and would be happy to be rid of the responsibility.

Young adults, older adults, and leaving church

Roman Catholics are asking the question, too.

We may acknowledge some of their criticisms, but we are quicker to point out that they don’t understand. “Kids these days!” we exclaim in so many ways, throwing up our hands—while millennials walk out the door. “Will we continue to preach to the (aging) choir?” Fullam asked.

Answering that question may mean the difference between a vibrant religious community 20 or 30 years from now and a truly post-religious society like that of Western Europe. Every sociological measure is showing that the youngest members of the church aren’t staying, and it would be foolish to hope that they will return when they get married or have kids.

We can either keep repeating the same lines or we can zip it for a while and listen to what they are really saying. Maybe if we are quiet long enough, they might ask us why we stay. If they do, we better have a good answer.

Rachel Held Evans gives fifteen reasons why she left the church, and fifteen why she returned. Both posts should be read by everyone interested in young adults and the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s a story behind each of those thirty reasons, stories that play themselves out in the lives of young people every day.

The great American sociologist of religion Peter Berger reflects on the article by Putnam and Campbell to which I’ve previously alluded. He points out that many of the “nones” may be believers without belonging (certainly Held Evans, to the extent that she left church, belonged to that group). About the “nones,” he posits two groups, one consisting of those who have been convinced by the “new atheists;” the other made up of descendants of the counter culture of the 60s. I doubt there are very many in this latter group. Berger is intrigued by the socio-economic status of the nones cited in the Pew survey. They are not, mostly, members of the elite, but of the lower class, often lacking high school education. This suggests something else, that they are profoundly alienated from institutional religion, and probably profoundly alienated from other institutions of American life. I wonder whether we are not reverting to the state of affairs that existed in the nineteenth century.

To see the alienation from institutional religion in action, from someone who is perhaps moving away, unlike Rachel Held Evans who has made her way back, apparently; read the piece by Michael O’Loughlin: a flickering light:

I’m no longer surprised when a close female friend, successful and well educated, looks askew at a male-dominated church and cringes before she walks away. When those charged with teaching the faith tell their flock to believe or act a certain way because their authority gives them the right to do so, it becomes easier to see why many chuckle as they interpret this as a parent scolding a toddler: do this because I said so. Gay men and women rightly refuse to succumb to bullying in their professional and familial lives, so it’s not a surprise when they leave a church that calls them disordered. And though we are over a decade removed from the revelation of clergy sex abuse of minors, many in my generation will never again give the benefit of the doubt to the Catholic hierarchy on matters of faith, morals, or much else.

The question is, given the profound distrust of institutions among millennials, a distrust much deeper than anything we’ve seen before, how can those of us who are clergy, representatives of the institution, speak authentic good news?