Judging by the word on the street (or in the church), it seems we have some “identity issues.” These issues seem to stem from the anxiety caused by lower attendance and decreased membership in the local and national church alike. We have been talking about our identity as a parish at St. Alban’s lately and at last year’s Diocesan Convention the keynote speaker, Dwight J. Zscheile, presented thoughts from his latest book, People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. In just the last few days our seminarian Mary Bea Sullivan added a blog post titled Why millennials are leaving the church to the St. Alban’s Facebook page: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church
Interestingly enough, the blog about millennials gives the Episcopal Church high ranking (if not by all millennials at least by the author herself) for liturgy and worship that is “unpretentious, unconcerned with being ‘cool’ and refreshingly authentic.” The author, Rachel Held Evans, lists six things millennials “want” (demand?) from the church, from openness about sex and gender to getting real about the relationship between God and science and for the ‘challenge to holiness’ that the church should be issuing to its members. Each and every one of these wants, it seems to me, are things that many Episcopal Churches (and St. Alban’s in particular) has in spades.
And yet, are millennials flocking to our wonderful church? How is it that we seem to embody all that a millennial would “want” from a church and yet still see lower rates of attendance and the need to question our identity? Do we need a bigger sign? Better advertising?
On the other hand, could the millennials be kidding themselves about really wanting church? Might all of us be (Jesus might ask)?
Or could it be that we are in fact doing everything right (from liturgy to challenge) but just haven’t had the time to give birth to a new generation of Episcopalians?
In her posting, Rachel Held Evans writes that the church can’t just hand millennials a cup of latte, go about business as usual and expect them to stick around. I guess this means that the church had the millennials and then lost them, or that they came and went when all they were offered was a lame version of Starbucks. She also writes that “we are not leaving church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving church because we don’t find Jesus there.” Although her comments seem to be pointed primarily toward the evangelical traditions, ouch! This hurts. No pain no gain?
She also writes that responses to her writing about the church include all-caps replies (ME TOO!) from other generations; from grandmothers and forty-somethings, Generation Xers and retirees. Evidently the church is failing everyone. Evans maintains that winning millennials back (it’s unclear if she is speaking for the ME-TOO’s here as well) amounts to this: that church leaders “sit down and really talk with them about what they are looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.” She says that the answers might surprise us.
With all due respect to Evan’s work, which, according to Mary Bea, is popular among seminarians, I wish it were that simple. For those of us who are leaders in the church, the last time I checked (was it yesterday or the day before?), we were more than willing to sit down and talk with anyone willing to contribute to the faith community. Speaking on behalf of all church leaders, I repeat: WE ARE WILLING TO SIT DOWN AND TALK.
It is true that Jesus himself asked his early followers, “What are you looking for?” But Jesus’ questions were more a matter of weeding out the uncommitted rather than including the masses. He started with twelve, ended with, um, none, and the rest just wanted bread. More, the Jesus that Evans mentions as missing from the church is the same Jesus who, if the responses to his expectations came via e-mail, would have read this: YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?
Admittedly, I feel a little like Shakespeare’s lady here… As in, “thou doth protest too much.” But only because I’m baffled. I believe that we are doing our very best as the church and yet I wonder if we have yet to ask ourselves the hardest (or perhaps the right) questions. Or maybe there’s only one real question… “Peter, do you love me?”
I’ll also admit some skepticism about the future of a renewed church being a matter of asking millennials what they want. If the future of the church is in fact that simple, and if one generation holds the keys to the kingdom, I hope I’m wrong. And maybe I’m overstating the implications of Evan’s argument. If not, I also hope I’m underestimating the power of their commitment (no matter how many of them are out out there) to live lives of radical holiness that can trump the devices of that wily devil at work in the world.
There’s one thing I do know: If the millennial generation is to bring new life to the church they won’t do so by asking “the church leaders to sit down and really talk” but rather by becoming the church’s leaders themselves.
The want ad has been issued. All that’s left is the surprise. I hope it’s a birthday party…