mercredi, juillet 31, 2013

When it comes to leaving church, we're not just "talking about my generation"

Over the past week, there's been a ton of "water-cooler" conversation  over why Millennials (read: twentysomethings with a bit of thirty tossed in) are leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans got it started this time around (as she often does) with analysis: young people are sick of their parents culture wars, and don't want to be in a church that peddles a bunch of predetermined answers. In addition, they are tired of discrimination against LGBT people, tired of exclusivity and tired of the same old same old, even if it's the same old worship music.

It's not about the hip worship, she admonishes pastors -- it's not about the new new thing covering up the old thing.

Then Derek Rishmawy, who is even more of a Millennial than  Held Evans,  (he's 27, she's 32) came out with his own reflections (after hers went viral.)

i’ll be honest, my initial instinct when I come to pieces like these is to balk a bit. I worry that we can tend to come off as whiny, demanding, or entitled. Even worse, there’s a sort of myopia involved in thinking Christianity must change or die every 30 years or so

Part of the reason young people are leaving the church,  he suggests, is that they don't get the whole idea of the Church, the Bride of Christ, the Body.  Evangelicals have "dropped the ball:" in this regard, he asserts.

While I'm happy to hear what Held Evans and Rishmawy have to say, and I'm paying attention,  it seems to me that a larger point is getting lost here.

Every generation is leaving the church.  Millennials are simply leaving it faster -- or never signing up at all.

Here's a quote from Pew's  Research on Religion and Public Life Project "Nones On The Rise." That came out last fall, and caused some consternation among those who run religious institutions. The quote below suggests a steady erosion in religiosity among Americans in their forties, fifties and sixties:

 Generation Xers and Baby Boomers also have become more religiously unaffiliated in recent years. In 2012, 21% of Gen Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up slightly (but by statistically significant margins) from 18% and 12%, respectively, since 2007.

And we're not even talking about people who claim to be a part of a faith, but never, or almost attend a house of worship.

So what's going on?

I don't pretend to have the answers, any more than Held Evans or Rishmawy do (they might be slightly more confident, but youth does that for  you). 

I do have a few notions. And before you get curious,  I'm not targeting any church in particular. including my own. I happen to love my congregation simply because it is, often, so imperfect. We let our rough edges show. 

But I'm weird that way -- a lot of people want smooth and shiny, a nice rose that goes down easy instead of a biting red.

So - a few ideas.

First of all, we may be trying too hard to get potential attendants  in.  People aren't attracted by showy programs and clever marketing.  They can see right through that.  That includes mass evangelism programs ( not at all my aesthetic, though they do have their appeal to some, I confess.)

Secondly, it might be useful for churches to examine what drove some members of older generations out in the first place. As a member of a tiny, tiny, and shrinking denomination (at least here in America),  I find the wars of the past two or three decades an utter disgrace.  They reflect poorly on liberals and conservatives alike.

I'm a convert -- and a priest, and I considered leaving. When we divide and seek to conquer, we aren't following Jesus. Episcopalians complacent about the way things have turned out might want to look a those empty pews and inner city churches turned into chic condos. Conservatives might want to check out the ongoing splintering among their own, and ask themselves if the "prize" of a sanctuary "untainted" by female and gay clergy was worth the battle. 

I'm not at all sure that, many times, we offer people what they really want.  I'm not saying here that people always want what is good for them, or what the Gospel demands of them.  But those who are broken (aren't we all?) need to be met where they are.  Yes, they are often grimy, and yes, a lot of what they've done ain't purty -- but plenty of times I take a look in the mirror myself and see smudges.

Churches need more transparent and even more transient leadership -- in many congregations, leadership seems to recycle itself, with the same people in the same positions year after year.

Finally, I long for a church where we can be truly honest with one another. I WANT to hear about internet porn on Sundays. I want to hear about people who struggle with their sexual identities.  I want to hear about alcoholism and mental illness and marriages in trouble. Not necessarily from the pulpit, mind -- that's a lot of  stress to put on a pastor.

But he or she ought to feel comfortable or holy uncomfortable, speaking up and out when the Holy Spirit calls. 

Then I want to hear about Jesus, and what He's doing in people's lives.  But our tendency is to start with the good stuff -- and never get to what's really bugging us. 

What if vestry members and deacons, pastors and choir section heads could be open about their fears and doubts and know that they would be accepted and encouraged in love? What if we weren't so darned clubby about who we welcome into such confidences?

There's no guarantee that such profound honesty will bring people of any generation back, encourage them to remain -- or to begin.

But perhaps it's time we took a tough look at ourselves,  instead of wondering "what's wrong with them"? 

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