By Jeff Gill
Millennials, those born after 1980 who are coming into maturity and leadership roles in society, survey as non-religious, or “Nones” in higher numbers than has ever been seen in modern polling.
Depending on whose data you consult (Pew, Gallup, Barna) they come out anywhere from 16% to 29% irreligious. The “Nones” are an even higher number in Great Britain, closer to half. However you read the results, the “Nones” are on the rise among thirty-somethings and late-twentys folk, even as a majority of them are still traditionally religious in many ways.
Indications from most denominations are that the rise of the Nones are making a dent in an already battered demographic category, putting a hole in the middle of the generations sitting in pews, gathered in worship centers, or playing roles in leadership development.
Questions are being asked about how the new significance of Nones will impact denominational bodies, change faith-based institutions, or if their preferences will increase the active resistance in society to organized religion in public life.
In 1804, a group of thirty-somethings gathered west of the Appalachian Mountains to unmake a decision, an attempt they had made less than a year before to find a liberating accommodation with the religious structures of their day.
They wrote and published a “Last Will and Testament” that began like this:
The Presbytery of Springfield sitting at Caneridge, in the county of Bourbon, being, through a gracious Providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die; and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and form following, viz.:
Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.
Barton Stone, David Purviance, Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, John Thompson, and Richard McNemar were all relatively young clergy (or aspiring preachers and congregational leaders) who had reached an end of their ability to make compromises between their own quest to make sense of divine purposes as revealed in Scripture, the needs of the people around them (to which they felt called to minister in seeking a sense of redemption and forgiveness amidst the harshness of frontier life), and the demands of formal religious tradition mediated through creeds and confessions and catechisms and synods and minute-books and agreed-upon meeting-day agendas.
They decided to throw it all out, except the Bible, and start anew from where their gathered congregations stood, seeking not even a better reading of the Holy Scriptures as to church government, but simply to use their reading of the texts and their common life together to show them . . . “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.”
And as for the church bodies that had up to that point defined the religious landscape of Frontier America, they said “Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less…”
Contrary to the usual assumptions about “the good old days,” around the year 1800 something less than 20% of the US population were members of a church. Obviously, we don’t have nationwide polling data on religiosity back then, and membership was structurally something much more rigorous than what we know today in mainline traditions (although it’s those traditions that are the heirs of those stringently restrictive bodies; more on that later). But these Cane-Ridge-convened preachers were raised up within those traditions, yet out of the broader intellectual traditions of the era, they found themselves chafing at the network of boundaries that restricted their fellowship, and started tugging at the tightness of leashes on their questing inquiries on the nature and manner of God’s work with humankind.
Exact parallels between distant historical eras are always illusory. What’s dangerously tempting here is that we are talking about what a proper historian would call “a mere two hundred years” and within essentially the same cultural framework.
If anything can be said by way of comparison here, it’s that one should be careful about overstating how much “None” is becoming a central force in society, let alone among Millennials; likewise, it’s simply not true that all our pioneer forbearers were faithful practicing Christians. In the episode so beloved in our Stone-Campbell Movement history called “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” a group of young believers in 1804 saw an opening to a de-structured, open to doctrinal innovation, non-hierarchical faith community, in a context of general un-belief, or at least un-practice.
Today, young adults are asking questions like “why buildings?” or “why residential seminary training?” And definitely “why denominational structures that act as filters and reinforcers of social norms?” They are not all abandoning belief in God, or even casting the Bible aside as irrelevant, but the social context today is adding urgency to their choices about what presumptions they will or must accept. Millennials, and not a few others who are older demographically, as well as those younger are finding presumptions and preconditions rather beside the point in their religious journeys, within or without formal structures.
On the other hand, after the dissolution of the Springfield Presbytery, those young reformers who wanted to base their church structures entirely on individual experience relating the Bible to personal choices – they ran into some problems. Of those first six leaders named above, four of them ended up in the Shaker movement, a millennial communitarian fellowship with some, shall we say, idiosyncratic views on the relations of men and women. Barton Stone did not make that particular journey, but seeing so many of his one-time colleagues make such a shift based on nothing more than their personal reactions of the moment led Stone to become much more accepting of a certain amount of church structure, even though he never quite made up his mind on how much there should be.
Likewise, today’s decentralized, deconstructed, non-doctrinal Christians know it isn’t just an evangelical talking point to acknowledge that experience alone is not a sufficient guide for faith and practice. We all get our context from the culture, and the intervening two centuries since Cane Ridge have shown that culture’s ebb and flow of norms can suddenly take populations into frightening places of belief and action.
If Nones are ascendant today (and I believe the evidence is that while they are growing in number, they’re still far from dominant in society), the role they play is primarily as a counterweight to received wisdoms of all sorts. The example of Cane Ridge and the Springfield Presbytery’s self-dissolution suggests that where large numbers of a community are actively disengaged from sectarian conflicts, space is opened up for new reconciliations and innovative community forms that are not closely linked to what had gone before. You see developments that are more revolutionary than evolutionary.
Those revolutions can go astray (ask Robespierre, or Kerensky). And we’re still trying to sort out if the Occupy movement’s radical unstructuredness was a bug or a feature. But a religious revolution does have a tendency to look like heresy or un-belief to most of the believers being revolted against, let alone to the authority structures being subverted. Unless we’re heading for an atomistic, purely individualistic form of faith and practice (“keep it to yourself, new-style Christians or old-school”), whenever groups of believers come together they will have to find a model for guiding their common life without letting individual enthusiasms or passing fads tug them to and fro.
The early Stone-influenced “Christian churches”, and the Campbell-guided “Disciples of Christ” out of their own comparable journey, ended up falling back on their historic Reformed traditions of congregational life, and left the revolutionary moment as only having empowered them to shut down the authority of synods and presbyteries. Their revolution decapitated some figures from their past, and ended up promoting a relatively un-reformed Reformed model (and only a part of that model) into authority beyond what it was ready to handle . . . not dissimilar from the way Napoleon went from Little Corporal to First Consul after the French Revolution.
Which might suggest to Millennials looking to their history, as they begin another “Great Sorting”, that Cane Ridge et alia show us that for every aspect of our traditions we jettison, we should be as intentional as possible about crafting what it will be replaced with. Trading kings for Napoleonic heirs didn’t work out too well for France, and trading bishops and synods for ruling elders and congregational autonomy meant that the vacuum of authority and influence was filled for the Disciples of Christ with priorities that probably were in no way what that earliest generation intended.
If you read the “Last Will and Testament” in full, it is inspiring and bracing from the perspective of today to see how much emphasis on freedom of conscience and of interpretation is built into the reasons Stone and his associates decided to shut down even the authority structure that they themselves had created. They closed down a process that still, in their opinion, had the potential to close off sincere inquiry and potential outreach by their frontier faith communities. What they did not create was a new covenant, a clarifying consensus that would protect and defend such individual inquiry beyond their immediate context, while also securing and defining the boundaries of a healthy, functioning community.
The Millennial generation is in a key position relating to today’s “Great Sorting” that most denominational bodies and institutions are experiencing. They are coming into leadership just as decisions are being made about what to discard, what to keep. Equally important are the decisions reached for the replacements for that which we set aside, because history suggests that the best answer is rarely “None.”
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you think the church’s role should focus at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.