It is hardly news that many folks are skipping church. Mainline Protestant and Catholic Church membership continues to dwindle, as many Americans, especially younger ones, pursue other activities. The Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project and other survey outlets indicate that more than one-fifth of Americans now have no religious affiliation, and more than one-third of young adults under 30 are not active in a faith community.
Many reports on this decline are quick to qualify these numbers with the fact that more than two-thirds of the so-called NONES maintain a belief in God, but simply have little or no interest in organized religion. So the issue is not one of a sudden upsurge in atheists, but disenchantment with church.
Analysis of this trend has frequently gone in the direction of stereotyping millennials. The criticism often proceeds that this is the entitled generation, the narcissists who would rather be posting "selfies" at Starbucks than showing up for 11:00 a.m. worship. Because church requires communal participation in something larger than oneself, it is by definition boring to most millennials, who would rather be texting or promoting themselves through social media.
As a seminary professor who teaches millennials on a regular basis, I find this a false and patronizing characterization. Millennials have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, two wars and a crippling recession, and now they face a precarious job market. Perhaps younger Americans are registering their impatience with pointless bureaucracy, judgmental theologies and a perception that their perspectives are often of little value to their elders.
For those interested in growing the church, the message should not be one of analysis, but recruitment. Millennials, the church needs you! The reasons are numerous. We need your colorblind perspective, since the worship hour continues to be the most segregated time of the week. Many churches are perpetually mired in process, worrying far more about protocol for committee meetings than how to become a welcoming body. With your wariness about the glacial pace at which institutions change, you can help the church become more dynamic.
As our society becomes more tolerant of equality, many millennials perceive churches as homophobic and dismissive of leadership roles for LGBTQ persons and marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Yet the clamor for "conversion therapy" and the like among extremist groups like Focus on the Family does not represent a majority of church-going Christians. Mainline denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ have taken concrete steps to become far more inclusive in this regard. Millennials can join the exciting task of thoughtful reflection on equality issues, as churches seek to understand and interpret difficult biblical passages in a changing landscape.
In our increasingly pluralistic context, many believers are asking questions about the best response to people of other faiths. Millennials can help the church think through the fact that our suburban streets are now a microcosm of the world's great religions. They can help the rest of us find the balance between being faithful believers and non-judgmental towards our neighbors.
Millennials can teach the rest of us how to utilize technology more effectively for worship, outreach to those in need, and for advocacy on pressing issues. They can help churches innovate with technology and reach more into the public square, reclaiming a place where churches are pillars in the community, and those with contrary perspectives welcome one another as brothers and sisters.
Now for those millennials reading this, you may be thinking,
Why should I become active in a church? My life is already busy enough, and there are far better ways for me to spend my precious free time. I can develop my own spiritual life without the burden of organized religion.
The response to such a query is that the church is and can be a place for essential interchange across generations. I have learned more about the amazing faith of the Greatest Generation through my involvement in church than anywhere else. These intergenerational relationships are sorely lacking in our current context, especially among millennials.
Another core reason for millennials to become active is that you will find many churches to be places for exciting theological reflection, where topics like human suffering, the beauty of God's creation and the divinity of Jesus receive careful attention. Mainline denominations in particular take seriously the idea that we can draw closer to God through serious intellectual engagement with difficult questions. With millennials' interest in probing hard issues, church can be an important venue for growth, especially in congregations that care about social witness.
As a proud member of Generation X, my message to millennials is that the church needs you, and perhaps you need the church. Here is why: seminaries are stocked with some of the best and brightest of your generation, who want to travel the road with you in the coming decades and grow together in the faith. They want to reflect with you on the Bible, your lives, and where we are headed as a society. They want the church to be a place of fellowship for you, where you can develop meaningful friendships and a sense of belonging in our hyper-individualized culture. Yet they and I recognize that the church is in serious peril without your participation. It is high time that we quit caricaturing your generation and seek your involvement. You are not the future of the church, but the necessary present.