My friend Brandan wrote this beautiful letter to the dying church nearly two years ago.
Written from his perspective as a Millennial, my favorite part is when he pushes back against the narrative that the “church” in America is dying. Instead, according to Brandan, what is dying is the “triumphal age of Christian influence” where Christianity has “dominated the Western world.” He also mentions that, from his perspective, the Millennial demographic–while yes, leaving organized communities of faith–are not necessarily abandoning a spiritual thirst for meaning and purpose in the world. And many are still finding such meaning and purpose in the lived-out ways of Jesus, yet they are finding them in contexts other than where their parents and grandparents found them: the local church.
Then he said this,
“My generation, the millennials, are also not walking away from their faith in Jesus, but are walking away from the modernized, politicized, sterilized, Europeanized version of Christian faith. Organic, grassroots communities of faith are forming all across our nation without buildings, without marketing, without ordained clergy, without 501(c)(3) exemptions, and without the privilege that most institutionalized churches have enjoyed for so many decades. These communities are simple: spiritual seekers, followers of Jesus, coming to express their true questions, thoughts, and experiences, seeking to be encouraged and empowered to live out the radical way of Jesus in their communities, cultures, and world.”
I love Brandan’s optimistic spirit as he suggests that the Church’s best days are ahead. That God is doing a new thing, a “re-revealing of the radical message” of Jesus, as he puts it.
And I think Brandan’s right. I think many people (and mostly young people) are thirsty for an anti-establishment, anti-power, anti-industrialized version of Christianity, and they are struggling to find such new wine amidst the old wineskin of “the local church.” Pushing them to discover other ways of connecting to one another, and expressing their faith. Other ways to be agents of the humble and simple love and grace of Jesus in the world.
But, even though I don’t disagree with Brandan’s letter, after reading it I find myself feeling:
“okay, but then what?”
Last year Brian McLaren, at a Convergence meet-up in San Marcos, FL, taught how there exists a necessary dynamic between Institutions and Movements (I wrote about that in a post titled “What The Walking Dead Can Teach Us About Progressive Christianity,” one of my favorite posts from last year).
In short, Movements happen because there is a critical mass of unrest against an Institution. The Movement makes certain demands of the Institution for change, and if that change comes about then the Movement has succeeded (and subsequently ceases to exist).
However, if the Movement fails to change the Institution, one of two things happen:
1) The Movement dies away, nothing but a faded memory (i.e. Occupy Wallstreet), or
2) The Movement remains detached from the Institution and eventually–and inevitably–creates its own Institution.
Because, as I say in the post I referenced above, Institutions are good and necessary! They preserve the gains made by the Movement. When a Movement becomes an Institution this is not an inherently bad transformation.
So an attitude or posture that outright rejects “the institution” is myopic at best and fatalistic at worst.
The Movement of Millennials has indeed pushed up against (to be specific, and to be more targeted to my own context) the Institution of evangelical Christianity. I need not utilize word count in this post to rehash what most of us have already heard or read elsewhere regarding how young people are not interested in the vision of Christianity presented by most evangelical churches, nor the organized/institutionalized way in which it is produced.
Hence, as Brandan said, their energies being poured in to other types of faith connection and expression.
These grassroots faith communities that Brandan refers to–who, as Brandan said, “don’t see themselves as a church, but as a way of life with a tribe of friends…” with no ordained clergy or church buildings or 501c3 exemptions or other trappings of the “local church” they’ve efforted to shed–if they indeed are Movements, they have only three options ahead of them.
1) They succeed in capturing the attention (and imagination) of established churches, who then begin the arduous process of changing the wineskin. Thus, the Millennials in these movements return to “the church” because it more closely resembles what they need/want/envision.
2) The established churches ignore them and continue moving ahead (and possibly toward their own doom), leaving these “non-church” grassroots faith communities to keep on keeping on. However, more often than not, these sorts of “non-churches” simply don’t have staying power. They capture the wonder of a community of people for a period of time (“we’re doing it differently!” “we’re not a church!” “we have no leaders or overhead!” “we reject the institution of church and all its pagan roots!”) but inevitably they fizzle out. Never to be heard from again, except in woebegone stories as told by nearly-middle-aged folk who no longer attend church.
3) Or–and this is why Convergence and OPEN Network exist–they recognize that in order to preserve the gains they have made (and, my Progressive Millennial Brothers and Sisters, there are many we have made!) they must now take their collective energies and attempt to figure out how to make it last. How to make it stick. How to make it something that people can latch on to, and possibly even replicate or at least be inspired to create something similar. It needs organization, it needs leaders (gasp!), it needs systems and structure. Heck, even the early church–which we tend to idealize–didn’t last long before they recognized the need for systems and organization and so on.
My hope, if I may be so bold, is that all the amazing energies of the Millennials that Brandan speaks about, who are still passionately chasing after a vision of life that is oriented around Jesus and bent on bringing about Kingdom on Earth, that all those energies would not be lost in a vacuum of early 21st century anti-church/institution/organized religion lore.
Instead, I think we (and yes, I include myself) need to transcend the unhealthy, toxic, and debilitating baggage of the power-hungry, greedy, male-dominated, bad-theology, outdated, exclusionary, and homogenous models of church that many of us have been handed, but include some of the historical aspects of the church being (as Brandan quoted Bill) “the hope of the world.”
And this very well may involve things like buildings, ordained clergy, 501c3 exemptions, marketing, and more.
But if the disillusioned class of Millennials throw too many babies out with the bathwater, then I’m worried we’ll have a country full of dying churches (as we do now) coupled with fizzled out faith movements that never figured out how to stick around long enough to truly give our world a captivating new vision for a more just and generous expression of the Christian faith.
p.s. This post represents one of the main reasons why myself and others started Sojourn Grace Collective two years ago. Our efforts to capture the energy of the progressive christian movement and attempt to figure out how to harness it in to something with lasting and transformative power.