I hesitate to write this because –
Caveat one: I’m sick of the topic of Millennials and the church. And so much has been written on it lately. Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply about the topic. I wish there were more people in my peer group at my church. And more than that, I wish that more people in my peer group were coming to find the life-sustaining knowledge of God in his son, Jesus Christ, that I have at church. But I’m still sick of the topic.
For one thing, i’m sick of it because Millennials aren’t that big of a deal. God is big enough to take care of himself. Christ’s church is going to survive a generational exodus. For another thing, many of the conversations are panic-inducing in a way that betrays a faith in the living God. Neither of these reasons means that the church can turn a blind eye to the exodus of part of a generation, but I often hear the conversation riddled with anxiety.
Caveat two: There is no answer. Well, there is no one answer. I’m not proposing the answer. So there.
But, I’ve been wanting to write about one facet of the problem for a while, a facet that I think matters in a particular way in my context as a priest of the Episcopal Church. Also, I taught a class on this last week, and this is the central argument I made in the class. Since I’m not preaching this week, I thought it’d be a good time to do something different with the blog.
What I’ve been thinking about in the topic has to do with the shift of attitudes between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials (sorry Generation X – really, though, I think most of y’all can kinda get rolled in with the Millennials for the purposes of this blog). Please note, the characterizations that follow are broad-brush-stroke painting. There are tons of people in both generations who wouldn’t find themselves in my descriptions. But in aggregate, I think I’m presenting a fairly accurate picture.
When I think of Baby Boomers, I think of loyalty, particularly loyalty to institutions. They are a generation that believed in, trusted in, and worked for institutions. They stayed with the same company through their career. They thought the Republicans or the Democrats were going to save America. They identified with their denomination.
In my opinion none of that is bad, and none of it is necessarily good. It’s just the way the Boomers operated.
In churches like the Episcopal Church, the rise of the Boomers coincided with the rise of various moves in theology. During the time that the Boomers were coming into leadership in the church you had very positive moves in the role of women in the leadership of the church, including the ordained ministry of the church, ecumenism, the incorporation of the Liturgical Movement, the baptismal ecclesiology of the 1979 prayer book, and the list could go on. At the same time, you had an (in my estimation) significantly less positive, radical theological movement in the church. Perhaps Bishop John Shelby Spong is the most well known figure in the movement I’m talking about. I’m not trying to invoke him as some kind of a boogeyman, but he is the first person that jumps to mind when I think of the sort of radical theology popular in the Episcopal Church when the Boomers came to be leaders in the church.
Central aspects of the Christian faith were under an increasing scrutiny, and many priests and bishops were fine with the jettisoning of these doctrines – things like the virgin birth, the resurrection, the future coming of Christ, etc. They brought the skepticism about and sometimes the rejection of these doctrines into their churches. The Boomers, loyal to the institution said, more or less, “ok,” and went on going to church, giving to the church, and working in the church.
20-30 years later, enter the Millennials. They are not loyal to institutions. They will not work for the same company for their entire career. They do not primarily identify with a denomination. And, among my peers, anyway, even those who consider themselves to be a Democrat or a Republican do so in a way that leaves them open to criticizing their own party. So, when Millennials started having a chance to make decisions about whether or not they’d be going to church on Sunday, having found in the mainline churches an organization sometimes hollowed of doctrine that could help them make meaning in their lives, they didn’t say “ok,” and go on participating in church. They said, “sleeping in sounds nice,” and stayed cozy on Sunday mornings.
If we expect people in their 20s and 30s to wake up on Sunday mornings, we have to give them a reason to. I’m not advocating for a retreat to an unthinking dogmatism, and I think ostracizing people from our communities if they don’t “believe” x, y, and z would be awful. But I really believe that for most mainline churches to have a hope of attracting younger members, we absolutely have to be seen as places that connect people with the core of the Christian faith. We can do this while being socially progressive (or not). We can do this while welcoming our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into the life and leadership of the church. We can do this in a different way than our more evangelical brothers and sisters. But we cannot do this without Jesus.