Somewhere along the way I heard it said that the Good News is often bad before its good. I like that because in living life I have found it to be true more often than not. Yesterday, some of the big news, even making it on network headlines, was the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, by the Pew Research Center, which revealed that fewer people in the US now claim Christianity, and even more are claiming no affiliation. It was reported as if this was yet another sad day in the demise of Christianity in our country. I am certain many of those who call themselves Christian will go right along with that sentiment. But I would say, not so fast. Surely this news should not have come as a big surprise. We in the Pacific Northwest have been living in the reality for quite a while. In reading the highlights of the study I find it all to be incredibly good news indeed.
Take the April 30th Washington Post Opinion piece entitled Want Millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool”. by Rachel Held Evans, author of “Searching for Sunday” , where she states
“Recent research from Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” While we have yet to warm to the word “traditional” (only 40 percent favor it over “modern”), millennials exhibit an increasing aversion to exclusive, closed-minded religious communities masquerading as the hip new places in town.
We, the church, have spent the last 3o years on a “modernization” project, trying to make the message of Jesus Christ, and therefore the Church, fit into our world, and our worldview, so that it all might be more comfortable. We have changed words, reworked the liturgy, moved the Bible farther and farther into sublimity, and worked mightily to, if not outwardly, at least in theory, prove just how much smarter we are than those who went before us in the Faith.
Now, we are encountering a generation that is not swayed by any of that, and in fact, for those in the generation who do seek faith, are searching for much of what we have tried so hard to leave behind. When I was first a priest I found just about everyone who had any grasp at all on the future of the church telling me that Rite 1 would be dead within a decade. Now, I see many younger people attending the few that still exist, and many longing for such language, a more mysterious presentation than what we have created.
But the real “good news” I find in all of this is that those that still long for church, or a faith community of any kind, long for it to be authentic, to be who we are, whatever that is. They are not willing to buy it simply because the Church, the Bible, or the ordained leader says so.
Those who find themselves searching are not drawn to the flashy, or the “show.” They are drawn to an authentic faith, of people that truly believe, and whose lives reveal that belief, people who, because of faith, live transformed and yet imperfect lives. I look at the churches I visit weekly, and especially those which are growing and vibrant, and have come to see it doesn’t matter nearly as much what the style of liturgy, or the architecture, or even the style of music. What matters is how well it is done, whatever it is, and how much meaning and purpose is absorbed through the worship by those engaged with it. It also matters how much depth is in the congregation in study, ministry, service, challenge, and compassion, and how that stems from, and is bolstered by, what happens in worship. Does the worship move and change the people? If so, then it draws others. If not, it is death, without the funeral.
The “Modernization” Project was the attempt to make it easy, more accessible, some would say watered down. I think this might have been our greatest mistake. In the process, we have made it irrelevant. What the millennials are saying, and quite frankly what the Pew Research Study reveals is that Church and faith is no longer a social norm, and is becoming just the opposite. Now we have to show how faith makes a difference, instead of resting on it being a given. In many ways, Christianity was at its best when it was a minority. Being in the majority domesticated it, took away its edge. We became part of the culture, when its genesis came out of being counter cultural.
It is not enough just to claim Christianity, we have to know it, deeply. Jesus called us to give our life to this “Way.” Those that come calling want to know why they would do that. I think this study is f
ar more about those that call themselves Christian, not those who don’t. I find the “call” within it not to be the loss of Christianity, but the aching need for the rediscovery of it. I think that is good
news, even if it might seem bad. What truly matters is what we, those who still call ourselves Christian, decide to do with it.