Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Millennials and Church: They're just not that into you.

So, Rachel Held Evans and sundry others have been discussing why "Millennials" are leaving the church in droves. (This is the sort of question, by the way, that always makes me wonder whether decent droves are available second-hand, and what sort of gas mileage they get.)

I've mainly been watching this from a distance, because most of the discussion has been off in the Christian corner of the blogosphere, and most of it has been focused on what the church can do help keep the younger generation involved (or at least avoid actively driving them away). That's interesting to watch, but for the most part it isn't something that affects me directly, so I haven't felt compelled to have an opinion about it. The suggested solutions vary widely, mainly based on varied perceptions of how much of a problem this is, and how the people doing the opining perceive the problem. So you have, among other things, suggestions that the church itself needs to change: becoming less homophobic, more open to women in leadership roles, more focused on doing good in the community and the world. (Details, again, vary widely.) Alternatively, the church is doing fine, and this current generation of spoiled consumer-driven young adults needs to quit expecting the Almighty to cater to them, and start listening and learning. (Annnnd again: details vary.)

Meanwhile, over in the unchurched areas of the blogosphere, Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) suggests that us atheists are pulling the young'uns away. So, y'know, yay us - or something.

I'm dubious. So is Vorjack, over at Unreasonable Faith, and he offers one of his intriguing bits of historical perspective on the matter. It helped solidify some of my own thoughts.

One of the reasons that I've stayed out of the conversation is the mostly-unspoken assumption (from Christian commentators) that attending church is a good thing, and not attending church is a bad thing. I'm not so sure that's the case. In fact, I'm fairly sure that such is not the case for everyone. Rachel Held Evans is, I think, not really considering the full ramifications of a fairly obvious factor: church just isn't as important to most millennials as it is her. If it was, they'd still be there. (And then you'd probably have a schism instead of an exodus, but that's a thought for another time.)

Look, I'm not a historian. I'm not even a sociologist. I have a minor in Anthropology, but that was years ago and I've done essentially nothing with it. But one of the things that I picked up from Anthro classes was that essentially anywhere you find people, you find two things: art and religion. What kinds of art, and what kinds of religion, are completely open questions - no two groups come at either topic in precisely the same way. But the general tendency is there, and it seems to be wired in to the species.

But, like a lot of what we call "human nature", the strength of the tendency varies a lot from individual to individual. Some people seem to be extremely religious by nature, while some of us just... aren't. Which leads me to suspect that the big difference between the current generation and their parents and grandparents is that a lot of the things that used to be available (exclusively, or primarily, or most easily) through the church are now fairly easy to find without the church. So the exodus we're currently seeing isn't so much because "millennials" have a compelling disagreement with the church; they're leaving because they don't have any need to be there, and they don't have this sense that attending church is important for its own sake.

Are there things that "the church" (said as if Christianity were some sort of unified, monolithic entity - ha!) could do to be more appealing to the current generation of young adults? Probably. But people want different things, so it's not going to be any one thing; it's going to involve a variety of approaches, and a certain amount of trial and error. Is that going to solve the problem of millenials leaving the church? Probably not. Are atheists responsible for pulling people away from the church? I seriously doubt it. At most, I suspect we've made it more acceptable for people not to go to church; and with the possibility there, people are finding their own reasons not to go.

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