From the Psalms:
He gave his decrees to Jacob
and established a law for Israel, *
which he commanded them to teach their children;
That the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; *
that they in their turn might tell it to their children;
So that they might put their trust in God, *
and not forget the deeds of God,
but keep his commandments.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalms 78:5-7 (1979 BCP Version) – August 7, 2012)
Just a few days ago the Public Religion Research Institute issued a new report entitled A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials. A “millennial” is somone currently 18 to 24 years of age, the youngest cohort of adults. (From my point of view at nearly 60 years of age these are children; my son and daughter are both older than this group!) According to the report, these young adults are more likely then the general population to be religiously unaffiliated; one-quarter of them so identify themselves. Interestingly, most of those who do so were reared in religiously affiliated households. The greatest movement away from religious affiliation was seen among those raised in Catholic and white mainline Protestant families. It would appear that we have not been doing a very good job of teaching our children “that they in their turn might tell it to their children”!
Exactly what the causes of this movement are is anyone’s guess. A lot of author’s have made suggestions. Ross Douthat in his recent book Bad Religion blames it on the churches’ movement away from conservative dogma toward a liberal agenda. Diana Butler Bass in Christianity After Religion, on the other hand, suggests a failure of religious institutions to continue an awakening begun in the mid-20th century, falling instead into a reactive fundamentalism reinforcing conservative dogma in the last quarter of the century. Local pastors give anecdotal evidence of parishioners drifting away from Sunday church services to other alternatives including youth soccer and little league, major league sports offerings, Sunday morning TV programs, or spending the morning with the New York Times; they say American families have become “over programmed” and have relegated religion to the hopper of optional activities. Everybody has a different story to tell about what’s gone wrong with American religion; everybody has a different story to tell about how someone else has gotten it wrong.
I don’t know which of these and many other suggestions is most accurate, which story truly tells the tale of the American church. I suspect that to some extent they are all correct and that for every person, millennial or older, who has left “organized religion” behind there is a mix of stories reinforcing one another. And what this means for the church is that the answer to attracting the millennials is not going to be a single program, a single style of worship, a single ministry style, a single outreach, a single anything. There is no silver bullet, no quick and easy answer.
I nearly wrote “attracting the millennials back” in that last paragraph and then stopped myself, because a lot them were never here in the church to begin with. They represent a new mission field, not a lost membership group. They claim to be “spiritual but not religious” because, truly, they’ve never been a part of religion. They may be spiritual; all human beings are if St. Augustine of Hippo was right that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in” God. If we in the church are to attract them to a religious expression of that spirituality, it is going to take hard work, time, and most of all its going to take integrity.
The past half-century has seen the church lose its integrity. Various parts of the church have taken up competing political and societal positions, so that the church has fractured even beyond the denominational divides of the Reformation. Instead of focusing upon the core values and teachings of the undivided church, we have taken up social causes that, though important, have divided us. Each faction seems to be telling a different story, so that the church can no longer claim (as it once could despite denominational differences) to be one. Because of the differing stories, the church can no longer lay claim to a unity based on shared moral and ethical principles. The church needs to recover that, to stop fighting with itself, to stop telling these contradictory stories.
If we could just do that, we’d be a much more attractive venue where the millennials (and everyone) could explore the spirituality they claim and clearly have. Just that . . . if we could just stop the internal bickering and fighting, stop telling stories about each other and, instead, tell stories of God. Wouldn’t that be novel?
Well, no . . . as the psalm suggests, it’s an idea that’s been around for a few years. “He commanded them to teach their children, so that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God.”
Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.