I recently had lunch with a former seminarian who is now a successful young businessman in the City of Fairfax. We talked about why people in his generation and younger are increasingly dropping out of church and what it would take to reengage them. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that more than a third of the millennial generation in the United States is now unaffiliated with any religion. This is an increase of 10% since 2007.
The young businessman is troubled by his generation’s lack of engagement but quickly acknowledged that it’s more than that. The church has clearly failed to be a community that rouses the passion and commitment of young people. He later emailed me a CNN religion blog on the topic: http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/index.html. It quotes L. Gregory Jones, a senior strategist for leadership education at Duke University:
“Christianity in the United States hasn’t done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection with young people, in ways that would be relevant to their lives.” Instead, many Christian denominations have been riven by internal struggles over homosexuality, particularly in the last decade. While most millennials back gay rights, according to separate surveys, they are more interested in working with the wider world than holding endless debates over sexual morality.”
We talked about how congregations can change this equation. My lunch partner told me he’s drawn to more contemplative expressions of faith. He talked about how he had taken young people to visit the Taizé Community in France as a seminarian and how much they appreciated this kind of worship. Churches have failed to connect with the spirituality of his generation.
The answer, however, cannot be what religious writer Rachel Held Evans calls “the last temptation of cool.” Writing in the “Outlook” section of The Washington Post, she notes that “many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way.”
She explains, “In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out.”
What matters most is the quality of our fellowship and our social engagement. In my next blog I will consider how the Anabaptist tradition, with its emphasis on the gathered community of faith as the essential sacrament or window to the divine, is ideally positioned to meet the spiritual and social concerns of the millennial generation. It is Christ in us as we worship, welcome strangers, include all seekers, care for each other, serve our community, and work with others create a just and peaceful world.