unchurched

The Wrong Question

By Rev. Mindi

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. 

Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?