Maybe you heard about or read about the study that came out. We are becoming a less religious nation. Or at least we are by certain definitions. According to the Pew Forum, some 1/3 of persons under the age of 30 (A category into which I no longer fit, which is weird. I digress.) no longer self-report with any religious affiliation. This category is alternatively called the “Nones.” (Which can also get tricky in spoken language. Nones. Nuns. Very different meaning. Very similar sound.)
There seems to be a panicked response on the part of religious persons and institutions to “fix” the problem. This panic is nothing new, but does seem to resurface with quick and intense fervor with each new study and statistic.
If you are invested at all or connected to religious institutions you are likely familiar with this tone of panic. The chorus is that everything must change or we all die. Okay, maybe not quite so cataclysmic. But close, yes?
As someone who often feels much closer to the margins of traditional religious life than my job title would suggest, it can be quite uncomfortable to sit and listen to the verse and chorus of Panic-Change-Panic-Change. I have read the reports, and I know that I am, statistically an outlier, but I also feel a deep streak of empathy of those who articulate disillusionment with institutions, infighting, judgment and exclusion. I get the disenchantment with religious structures and systems, which purport to love God and love Jesus, but are fixated on questions of gender, race and sexual equality. Particularly when the conversation dwells on the first two categories, the rest of culture rightfully dismisses religious institutions as antiquated, old-fashioned and irrelevant.
Part of the frustration I face when I hear people speak about the decline of “religiosity” (and I’ll refrain from dissecting that as an imperfect and insufficient adjective), is that it often is a grand exercise in missing the point. The gut-level reaction of “Okay, let’s change!” is often more about providing something different in style, rather than a willingness to evaluate thoughtfully and intentionally our substance to spend time listening, wondering, and opening ourselves to deep critique. Why is it that institutions are failing to meet and understand contemporary forms of spiritual questions and expression?
I don’t have all the answers. I do have sensitivities that resonate often times more with feelings of alienation than with belonging; and I’m part of the institution. I’m ordained clergy, on a church staff of an evangelical/mainline (depending on who’s doing the labeling) denomination. Here are some thoughts:
- Stop moving forward cloaked in nostalgia. Often when we talk about the past, we talk about the by-gone days of old when everything was amazing, shading the present in dimness, and the future even bleaker. The problem with nostalgia is that it never tells the full story. Carol Howard Merritt once tweeted something to the effect of “The power of nostalgia is so great that even the Hebrew people longed to return to slavery under Pharaoh.” In addition to our rose-colored remembrances, the other problem with dwelling so much in the past is that so many of us were not there. Often these kinds of stories draw lines – if you weren’t there in the good old days, if you didn’t participate, then you can’t possibly understand; then maybe you aren’t really part of us. Personally speaking, this can be especially difficult to lead when you can’t participate in such a formative narrative.
- That said, we should not stop telling stories. We can live in the present, and dream of the future, while remembering and telling stories of our past. I love sitting with members of my church, of all ages, and hearing how they found the congregation, where they grew up, the things they love about church, the things that they have problems with. We can share the stories of the past, to remind us of who we are. We can be honest about the rough parts, the scary parts, as much as we rejoice in the treasured memories.
- We need to include our target demographics. And, please, let’s stop referring to real people as target demographics. As I so often find myself straddling two statistical worlds – the world of church belonging in the traditional sense, and the world of my own generation, with its accessory of skepticism and seeming ‘worldliness’ – I feel invested in the institution, but ignored by many of its constituent parts. I realize this is a dangerous blanket generalization to make, but it is frustrating to attend meetings, conferences, roundtables, and hear airtime given to wanting to be inclusive, welcoming, wanting to change to represent and invite a greater diversity of participation – but then not to see anyone my age, anyone who represents much theological diversity, and even sometimes to not really hear, with much equity, from women. Instead of talking at or talking about your target demographic, include them – listen to them, let them lead. If you are really interested in including a diversity of voices, then do so.
- When you talk of change, ask yourself if you really mean it. Nothing is more frustrating or feels more antiquated than to hear institutional voices talk about needing to change to keep young people interested, and then realize that translates, almost exclusively, to electric guitars, drum sets, and praise choruses. I love – and I know I am not alone – hymns, piano, organ, choir. I don’t love all the hymns in our hymnal, but simply changing style does not translate to thoughtful, intentional change in substance. If I may dare speak for other people around my age, what strikes me as much more significant is worship, conversation, preaching, music, church that feels authentic, welcoming, and affirming. Instead of asking, “How do we entertain?” We should be asking question like, “How do we invite the full and total reality of what it means to be human into our worship and the life of the church?” “How are we responding to the questions of the world with the fullness of the hope and peace of Christ?” “Are we truly being welcoming to our neighbors? Do we know our neighbors?” “If we want new members, are we going to be willing to bring them so fully into our fold that they may shape and guide our very identity?”
- Focus on building relationships of inclusion, not just building numbers. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
These are just some thoughts as I’ve reflected on my own vocation, my age and gender, and where I fit in in the reality of what the statistics represent. I am not a church planter (sometimes – okay a lot of the time – I question if what we need are new churches at all), but I am a minister, a person of faith, and a person with lots and lots of questions. I have a heart to see the church remain not just relevant but a vital source of life and hope for a changing world.