Millennials are the “in” generation. Love us or hate us, every day stories scroll across my newsfeed filled with statistics and anecdotes aimed at dissecting our behavior and assigning it meaning. We are the generation leaving the institutional church at higher rates than any other. We are also, by all accounts, a generation that is economically screwed (to use the technical language of Wall Street and pollsters) and yet are more optimistic about the future than any other generation thinks we should be.
To any reasonable observer, these two defining characteristics of millennials – our desertion of the church and willful blind optimism – probably have nothing to do with each other. It wasn’t until I was standing in the middle of FAO Schwarz that I realized our optimism may be the key to making the church relevant again.
Bear with me.
Just days before the famous toy store closed its iconic Fifth Avenue doors forever, I found myself walking through them one more time. Growing up in DC and Virginia, I only went to FAO Schwarz a handful of times as a child, and I’m not certain I ever owned a toy purchased there. And yet, as I was greeted at the entrance by a toy soldier magically come to life, a wave of nostalgia washed over me.
As one New York Times article noted, for a generation and more of children, this store was about more than toys. It was a land of enchantment and miracles. Even if our parents could never afford the smallest of toys in the store (or a trip to New York), millennials came of age in a world where FAO Schwarz – and all the magic and wonder it represented – existed. Like Terabithia or Narnia or Wonderland, it inspired us to see a tree and believe it could talk – but unlike those mythical lands, this place was real, with doors we could enter, a world of enchantment that existed in the middle of our reality.
Even if – like FAO Schwarz itself – millennials are now faced with the reality of having to close the door on the promise of economic prosperity, our imaginations were formed in a world that inspired awe, not austerity, hopeful belief, not resigned realism.
A friend of mine, a former high school English teacher, once lamented the fact that schools don’t seem to be teaching Don Quixote anymore and expressed concern that kids aren’t being encouraged to look at windmills and see giants. He was afraid they aren’t being taught that even if the world thinks you’re a crazy fool, you can still be heroic. We don’t have to accept the world as it is. We can live as if it is different.
Partly because of this observation, I have hanging in my office a reproduction of one of Picasso’s sketches of Don Quixote – the knight who tilted at windmills drawn by a man who painted geometric shapes and invited us to see people. It’s a small reminder to look at the world as it is and see what could be there instead.
I don’t know if growing up in the economic boom years of the 1990s – an era of FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue and Don Quixote in the classroom – is why millennials are optimistic about our future while everyone else despairs, but I do believe that optimism is grounded in imagination.
Imagination is a powerful catalyst for social change and millennials are primed to use it. We look at predictions of economic stagnation and believe against the odds we’ll be ok. When we can’t afford cars or houses or sometimes even bikes, we create a whole sharing economy based on values of community. The promises we were raised with are proving false again and again and so we are reinventing the rules, rewriting the social contract. That takes imagination, it takes faith, it takes hope.
But that’s not what we’re getting when we go to church.
By most accounts millennials are leaving the church for the same reason we are leaving other institutions – disillusionment and irrelevance. We were raised with promises that if we followed certain rules and believed certain things, they would yield a certain kind of life. As a result of terror, greed, hypocrisy, and fear, those promises have been proven false. And now we don’t want words. We don’t want to be told what to believe. We want to be shown how to live.
And here is the choice we face and the church’s hope. We can either live into despair or into the substance of things hoped for. We can believe in the world that is in front of us or that an alternate world exists. And the church is uniquely equipped to help us with this challenge.
What other institution can look at the valley of dry bones that surrounds us, at a world broken by racism, war, poverty, and neglect, and say those bones will live? What other institution can proclaim that the reality we see is not God’s reality, that beloved community is in our midst? These proclamations can only be spoken from a place of prophetic imagination – an imagination that inspires us to live in such a way that others wonder about the world we see.
In my own quest to articulate why I remain in a “dying institution,” I have read voice after voice in the millennial generation pleading with the church for less social accommodation and more mystery and wonder. Don’t just give us jumbo screens and coffee bars. Don’t give us answers. Inspire us to imagine.
Tell us that a man executed by the state can be raised in 3 days and love will always triumph over hate. Tells us that when we eat bread for his body and drink wine for his blood, we join a mystical communion of saints whose faith we have inherited. Show us that it is a faith that can slow the rise of oceans and choose peaceful resistance over war. Show us that it is a faith that can move mountains and dismantle white supremacy. Tell us we worship a God who can make the lame to walk and the blind to see. Show us that this God loves us just as we are and can heal every part of our broken hearts.
We may not be able to believe in the reality of miracles, but remind us that miracles don’t have to be historically factual to be true. After all, windmills don’t have to be giants for a knight’s quest to be heroic. Don’t tell us what to believe. Give us prophetic frameworks to imagine a new heaven and new earth and the courage to live as if they are here now.
I don’t know if this will bring millennials back to the church, but I do believe it can change our world.
Follow Rachel on Twitter at @rachelnoelj.
Rachel Johnson serves as Director of External Communications at The Riverside Church in the City of New York. She is an ordained Baptist minister who has spent her career working at the intersection of faith and the public sphere. Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a MAR in Theology from Yale Divinity School. For over six year she served as Campaigns Director with Eleison, LLC, the leading faith and values consulting firm for progressives. In this capacity, she oversaw the development and execution of Eleison’s messaging and communications campaigns. Rachel also served as Programs Director for the American Values Network, a non-profit advocacy group that mobilizes religious communities around the most pressing issues of the day. Rachel has worked with churches, non-profits, denominational groups, and political organizations to develop strategic outreach campaigns on a wide range of issues, including creation care and climate change, nuclear security, human rights, international development and peace building, domestic poverty, healthcare, and the intersection of faith in the public sphere. Prior to Eleison, Rachel worked as Mississippi Field Director for Faith Outreach for Common Good Strategies. She is passionate about empowering the prophetic voice of the church to be an effective agent in transforming society and promoting the common good.