Pastor’s Friday Comments (11.01.19)

Something that many of us have suspected has now been documented. Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) have left organized religion, especially Christianity, and they’re not coming back. Religious leaders had hoped that, once they started families they would return to church, but it’s not happening.

The Pew Research Center, probably the foremost research group in organized religion, has found that although religious belief and practice have been declining at a rapid pace for people of all ages, the drop-off has been most pronounced among people ages 23 to 38. In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services “a few times a year” or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. 

I have to say, I get it. When churches are perceived as self-absorbed centers of judgment against the rest of the world, when popular leaders are willing to swallow obnoxious political practices as long as their agenda is protected, when worship has been reduced to attendance at rock-style events in arena settings, it’s no wonder they find other things to do with the precious little time they have left after working long hours and trying to maintain relationships. 

Nevertheless, this trend matters both to the churches and to those that we have conveniently grouped into a demographic that we can name. In a recent Washington Post article, Christine Emba asked the rhetorical question, so what? “Will it matter to anyone other than the Sunday ushers whose collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?”
I was moved by her answer:

Yes, actually. Religious and other civic organizations will atrophy — and not just from lack of funds. Faith and practice can’t persevere through our generation without attendance, and neither can the hope they tend to bring. And while that may not seem like a problem now, it will soon. We still want relationships and transcendence, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Our drive for those things isn’t likely to wane, despite how ambivalent we might feel about ancient liturgies or interminable coffee hours or even pastors whose politics have taken a sharp turn MAGA-wards.

She takes note of the fact that many millennials are turning to what she calls “convenient, low-commitment substitutes for faith and fellowship.” These include astrology, yoga, self-care, posting on Twitter, and even playing games. But then she says, 

Here’s what really worries me: Few of these activities are as geared toward building deep relationships and communal support as the religious traditions the millennials are leaving behind. Actively participating in a congregation means embedding oneself in a community. This involves you in the lives of others and the other way around — their joys and sadnesses, connections and expectations. By leaving religion, we’re shrugging off the ties that bind, not just loosening them temporarily.

Emba has described exactly the concerns that bring sadness to my heart. Millennials, and anyone else who has left the church behind, are cutting the ties that bind, and they are often left to drift without the connections that help to bring meaning and purpose to life.

As a person of faith, I move immediately to the assertion that the relationship they are leaving behind that is most important is their relationship with their Creator. But that almost always comes through connections with people who have already found that relationship and want to share it with others. 

I’m personally not impressed with the argument that what we need if we are to reach these young adults are more professionally produced, “exciting” worship services, or more “relevant” programming. We need to show them that we care, that they matter to us and that they matter to God. I happen to believe that, given the genuine, caring nature of our family of faith, Parkway is in an outstanding position to demonstrate that. But it will begin with one of “us” and one of “them” – a person of faith caring for and relating to someone who has a need for relationship, even if he or she doesn’t know it. You could be the one for one.