The First Millennials

The First Millennials August 3, 2013

The conversation about millennials and church decline continues – see for instance posts by Richard Beck, Bob Cornwall (and another), Tripp Fuller, Hollis Phelps, Eddie Kouya, Allan Bevere, Travis Mamone, Caris Adel, Ann Fontaine, David Hayward, Chris Attaway, and Shannon Barber. Many have suggested that this discussion is one that happens, if not every generation, at least frequently throughout history. Scot McKnight questions whether the evidence indicates that millennials are forsaking church at all. A lot of the posts are responses to an earlier provocative post by Rachel Held Evans, who has since followed up by indicating why millennials need the church.

The earliest evidence is perhaps in a text we looked at in my Sunday school class last Sunday: Hebrews 10:25. It mentions a situation in which some have ceased meeting together as Christians.

This doesn’t mean that they were not meeting in other ways. This seems to have been a Jewish-Christian community, and some were presumably still attending synagogue, and were just not attending the additional meeting on Sunday, after work.

It is interesting to note that the Christian community in question had apparently been more fervent in an earlier period when they faced persecution. Congregations, and a religion on a national level, often finds it hard to cope with its own success, or with the cessation of hardships that confronted them. A community of Christians has a natural role in supporting individuals who are harassed because of their beliefs. But then what does its role become when people are no longer hassled for being Christians in that way?

I think there is a need for a book about church decline. This phenomenon is nothing new, but most churches, denominations, and religions have focused on models for success. But perhaps it is inevitable that decline follows any period of thriving. Learning what that looked like in the past would help provide guidance for those coping with it in the present.

I suspect, given that most of those leaving churches do not consider themselves to be leaving spirituality, religion, or even Christianity behind, that the reason for dwindling numbers is precisely what I suggested earlier: attending church no longer has an obvious purpose related to their faith.

This is unsurprising. Once, gathering people into a single place regularly was the only way to communicate effectively with them, and the only way to have communal interaction. Now that one can be spoken to by a minister on TV or YouTube, and can forge meaningful communities of interaction through digital modes of communication, what is the rationale for gathering regularly in one place? There may be one, but it won’t be the same as it has been in the past, and it needs to be articulated clearly.

The same question faces those involved in education, and in other activities. And so churches would do well to look at the discussions about flipping the classroom, and to ask whether it would make sense to “flip the church” in similar ways.

Also of interest in relation to this topic, see Sanderson Jones’ post on building an atheist church. That is a fascinating topic to look at, since it is a group essentially trying to reinvent from scratch an institution that closely parallels (albeit with important differences!) the one that Christians are struggling to find ways to continue. And consider as well some of the ways that some Christians today are voices of joyless hate. Has there ever been a time when Christianity has not had its reputation harmed by the immature, the hot-headed, and the hateful who’ve ended up in our mix? Also of interest is Steve McSwain’s article about no longer being a fundamentalist Christian.

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  • Very interesting and important topic… I do follow it on blogs and books (not a lot of either, in limited time); comment on it a bit on my own blog as well.

    One thing you don’t say much about here but I know is featured heavily on several blogs, whether Evangelical, “Emerging”, Progressive (i.e., mainly Mainline), etc. is theology itself, and theological “systems” or paradigms. To me, educated in family systems theory and other related systems stuff, “system” says more than just “paradigm” tho I use and like both terms.

    I do think that many, many people from Boomers (I’m one) to Millennials (and below… whatever goes down to late teens) are dealing with “systems/paradigms” issues, whether they’ve every heard of Virginia Satir et al, and Thomas Kuhn or not. That is perhaps not a first-time, but presently-strong factor that hasn’t always been there as much (before or after the peak of the “modernist” controversy around a century ago).

    I can’t say for sure just why, but one guess is that “historical-critical” scholarship has finally percolated down to the lay level and out to broader culture, tho this seemed well under way at least by the 60s or so (when I was “coming of age” and starting serious study of the Bible and theology) … but things move s-l-o-w-l-y in academic and church circles.

    I presume that also the broadening of psychology out of strict behaviorism and religiously skeptical psychoanalysis into “human potential” or “humanistic” and then “transpersonal,” underway heavily by the 60s, played some (maybe large) part…. Witness the strong and fairly long influence of the secular/Buddhist, become some-kind-of Christian, M. Scott Peck, for example.

    All this to say that more sophistication in understanding our highly subjective standpoints and experiences and the effects of “postmodern” views on objectivity and truth HAS influenced how we evaluate our beliefs. Although we are perhaps not as “enslaved” to them as once, we do take them seriously… maybe more than ever. I believe people allow some latitude to not be in full agreement with their church or pastor, but if their limits are crossed (as they so often are, on social mores as well as theological matters), they will jump churches. (And may not get counted in any, except in weekly attendance numbers.)

  • arcseconds

    One thing that has to be borne in mind, which I don’t tend to see mentioned a lot is that in Western society today, Christianity is not nearly as socially obligatory as it was in the past, and being a ‘none’ is much more of an option.

    Even just a couple of decades ago it was still possible for people embedded in a culture rich in traditional Christianity to continue to believe that Western society was Christian society, even if that wasn’t really true. Now, with numerous high-profile atheists, same-sex marriage, numerous examples of ‘partners’ rather than spouses, increased multiculturalism and increased profile of the multiculturalism that was already there, it’s no longer possible to pretend that society is by default Christian of any sort, let alone traditional Christian.

    To the extent that being Christian is socially obligatory, you can expect that there will be many people who are Christian merely because there are no other viable options. That may mean that they have to at least keep up the pretence of being Christian to avoid upsetting their family or being able to continue to do business in the community, or it may mean that there’s never been anything else on the menu.

    To the extent that being Christian is optional, you can expect that such people just won’t bother any more (they may well continue to say they’re Christian, but they won’t turn up to church. Their children, though, probably won’t see any point in saying they’re Christian).

    So I would expect that over the next few decades all Churches will lose people for this reason. An enthusiastic Christian might even take this as a good thing, as the ‘neither cold nor hot’ have been spewed out, and just a committed remnant is left.

    This has really nothing to do with some special mindset of the millennials, except that like every generation for the last 50 years (at least) they’ve been exposed to a more secular/multi-religious society than the one before them.