“Is there anyone who ever remembers
Changing their mind from the paint on a sign?
Is there anyone who really recalls
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time?
Oh, everyone believes
And they’re not going easily.”--John Mayer
On Monday, with an exceedingly warm and enthusiastic welcome, I officially joined the staff of First Church. I left feeling a great excitement in the task before me--I would be working among lovely people in a vibrant community, doing work that matters deeply to me. My official job title is Young Adult Outreach Coordinator. Because few churches have been as innovative and forward-thinking as to create such a position, not many people have heard of it, so I find myself frequently explaining to my friends what exactly my new job entails.
Here is what it entails: my job is to attract and retain millennials to First Church, through both external outreach and communication and internal church programming. This is both a great honor and a daunting prospect. For decades now, the average regular church attendee has gotten older and older. In nearly every Christian denomination all over the U.S., young adults' church attendance is in decline. The statistics are telling--something has gone very wrong in the church's connection to and relevance with millennials.
Why is this? The easy answer, and one that has been offered by many progressive Christian figures, particularly in our current political climate, is that the church is out of step with the progressive social concerns of young adults. The church’s traditionally conservative stance on perennial hot-button social issues--particularly LGBTQ liberation and reproductive rights--appears to be at odds with the progressive views held by a majority of millennials. And there’s undoubtedly some truth to that.
But this cannot be the whole story. If it were, we would see a large contingency of millennials moving towards more progressive denominations and congregations. This is not the case. Progressive congregations have seen at least as sharp decline in church attendance by millennials as conservative and evangelical churches. In many cases the decline is more pronounced in progressive congregations.
What if it’s not enough to have progressive beliefs? What if the key to reaching people my age weren’t church doctrine?
In her dense but fascinating book The Case for God, renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong explains that the word “belief” in regards to religion did not always refer to an intellectual certainty in the way we use it today. When the faithful used the word “believe,” they once referred to a precept or credo that they clung to. In other words, rather than asserting an intellectual “belief” in God--something the ancient and medieval world largely took for granted--they meant they clung to and cherished the teachings of their faith and intended to carry them out in their lives.
I do not mean to suggest doctrine doesn’t matter. As someone who was born and raised Methodist, I loved reciting the Apostle’s Creed in church as a child. Few things were the same every Sunday, but the Creed always was, and I eagerly looked forward to standing with the congregation and proudly reciting it from memory. But as I look back on those memories, I find myself realizing that what I most treasured was not the words themselves, but the fact that I spoke them with others. After all, I could recite the words at home. It was the communal nature of the creed that I cherished. It was a shared experience, an agreement that we would cling to these precepts as a whole. Maybe not everyone believed every word of it all the time, but together, we did.
In my own research and inquiries into what I’ve termed the “millennial exodus,” I’ve found that doctrine is rarely the chief reason for someone’s lack of church attendance. Most millennials I’ve spoken to are aware of progressive churches and congregations. A lack of PR on our church teachings is not our biggest issue. (Incidentally, I’ve also noted that a church’s music style is rarely mentioned.) Often, when I ask why someone has stopped attending church, the answer is bracingly simple: “I attended this church for a year, and no one spoke to me.” “We never felt there was any meaningful way for us to get involved in the church’s ministry.” “The church was not involved in the community.” “There was nothing for people my age, or for my children.” “I felt like they made an effort to get me join, but then forgot about me.”
Perhaps we in the church would do well to return to the original meaning of the word “belief.” We needn’t get overly hung up on the certainty of our intellectual knowledge of God. Instead, what if we decided to cling to the service of the poor, the needy, the lonely? What if we made it our mission to simply be present, to listen before we proclaimed? What if the key were paradoxically to not be more hip, but more old-fashioned--simply following the ancient tenets of Jesus in a tangible way to the people who need it most?
It is my sincere prayer that my work in this position will be just that. I ask all of you at First Church for your support, prayers, and accountability in that aim, and I am grateful and honored that I have been given the opportunity to do so.