A post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” has gone, as they say, viral. There are several posts out there responding to Evans as well, ranging the gambit from she’s absolutely right to completely disagreeing with her reasons of why they are leaving.
However, I think it’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s the right question from her point of view—growing up in the South, coming from an evangelical background—but for those of us coming from the mainline, it’s the wrong question for us to ask. Because Millennials, like many Gen Xers before them, haven’t been in the church to begin with.
I’m one of those stuck-in-the-middle generations, on the late end of Gen X, but if you ask my husband who is five years old than me, especially when we reference music tastes of the 80’s and 90’s he sees me as more Millennial than Gen X, whereas people a few years younger than me see me as Gen X and not Millennial. Us late 70’s babies are caught in the gap, but we have experienced what has happened in both generations to some degree.
Most of us in the gap have parents who are Boomers or late-Boomers. Other Gen Xers parents were from the Silent Generation or early Boomers. While we don’t all stick with our generation typecasting, people who grew up in the Silent Generation and Early Boomers still went to church on a regular basis and raised their kids to do so. During the Depression and WWII, church was the refuge for the poor and the place to pray during the ultimate crisis of war. The church had a prominent role in people’s lives because there was nowhere else to go. People who grew up in those years turned around and raised their children in the church. Church was steadfast. When the world didn’t make sense, the church made sense of the world. Church was the center of hope. The Silent Generation that suffered together during the Depression and sacrificed together during WWII was loyal to the church that had remained.
But the Boomers grew up without that connection to the suffering and sacrifice, without the recognition of the church as a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a time of utter turmoil and hopelessness of the Depression and the War. Church was something they had to do because their parents raised them in it. Church became the place of conformity, of rigidity, of unchanging in a changing world. In fact, many of the reasons shared in Evans’ piece of why Millennial are leaving remind me of what I have heard from those growing up in the 60’s in mainline, mostly white churches in the U.S., perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree. The church of my grandfather that had been a place of hope and encouragement and where people banded together to know they weren’t alone in life’s struggles, was a place of stifling conformity for my mother and her generation.
And what I know of many of my peers, us late-GenXers and into the Millennial, is that our parents decided not to raise us in church (my mother changed her mind when I was nine and brought us back to the church). Our parents decided they didn’t want to force on us what they felt was forced on them. Our parents wanted to give us the freedom to choose, and in doing so, we opted out. But we were never really given the option of staying in because, except for Christmas and Easter and maybe other special occasions, we never went. Or, if our parents had a better relationship with the church when they were growing up, we were given the option upon our baptism or confirmation. So ironically, we would make our statement of faith in the church and then never return. The option of staying was never really taken serious enough by our parents to begin with.
I think the challenge for many of us in mainline church leadership today is not how to keep Millennials from leaving the church, nor how to get Millennials back into the church, but rather, how do we pass on our faith in ways that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past two generations? How do we pass on a faith that allows for questions and exploration while at the same time gives a grounding for hope and assurance?
Thankfully, and hopefully for our future, we won’t have another Great Depression followed by a World War that would cause our country to be in such upheaval that everyone’s daily lives are affected by it. There probably won’t be another scenario in the U.S. in which so many people felt the pressure of the depression and then the war, including the notion of self-sacrifice, in which people felt like they were connected more deeply together in the well-being and survival of the country. The church was a centerpiece of hope, a stronghold in the community for grieving, a place where one another’s burdens were shared in a real and tangible way.
But somehow, after the War, we shifted away from this. Instead of the church being the place everyone turned to for stability, the church became a place of control and conformity, at least among Euro-American white churches (note the very different role of the black church in the Civil Rights movements during the same period of time, and that assumptions made about who is leaving the church are generally speaking about Euro-American churches). And it’s no wonder that our parents didn’t want to bring us up in a church that was conforming and boring, or at least wanted to give us a choice about it because they felt they did not have a choice. The church had lost out being a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a world of change, and instead, to keep that image up, turned to control and conformity within its own structure.
I’m not a church historian. But it seems to me this great shift happened more than a generation ago and is not a Millennial issue. And if we want to know how to reach out to those who have had little or no grounding in the church and do not seem to see any reason at all to attend church, perhaps we need to rethink church (again, a topic of many viral posts, including posts on this site).
When we look back at Acts 2 and 4, we see a model of a church in which people come together and share what they have with each other. Worship was not a separate act of their daily lives, but rather a communal act in which prayers were shared, bread was broken, and possessions shared with those who had need. Perhaps we just need to dream it up again, a way of being community that is beyond what we are doing now but not so far out of reach. And, as I’ve shared in my own thoughts on this matter here before, I hope we don’t make the assumption that those outside of the church have no community, let alone a spiritual community. Let’s not go rush out and offer community without observing the community that may already exist. Instead, perhaps we can come together, insiders and outsiders, church and unchurched, and dream something new together, and find a way to pass down our faith that includes opportunities for change and choice without having to chuck the whole thing. We need to build up that kind of community together that withstands the challenges of the world and offers hope, a sense of belonging, and is steadfast in a world of constant change, without changing steadfastness into conformity. We need to live out our theology in a way that shows hope, faith, and love, that also does not require conformity, rigidity and condemnation of others.