Have you heard the news? Millennials are leaving the church. The “nones” are on the rise. Your child starting college this fall will almost certainly wander from the fold before reaching graduation four years from now. The end is nigh.
Perhaps the Church should avoid trying to make faith seem culturally hip and instead look to the past.The reasons for this trend are varied and complex, but it’s true: Millennials are the least religiously-minded generation of all time. This rise in agnosticism is creating all sorts of anxiety for Christians—particularly evangelicals, and particularly evangelical parents. During my time working with church youth ministries, parents frequently pulled me aside, a look of hopeless desperation on their faces, wondering what they could do to make sure their child didn’t wander from the faith. As a pastor’s kid, I often have pastors with young children ask what my parents did to avoid scaring me away from Church.
Some churches have invented, um, creative ways to attract this young and restless generation back to the pews. I was speaking at a youth event a few years ago at a mega-mega-church, and when the worship band took to the stage, they replaced the classic hymns with a slightly Christianized version of an Eminem song, smoke machines and light show included. I couldn’t wait to leave.
As a recent college graduate, I often feel like I’m in the thick of it all, and I spend a lot of time contemplating the very real issue of my generation looking other places for meaning and truth. While I continue to hold onto traditional orthodox Christian beliefs, I, too, was on the verge of walking away from religion altogether not so long ago.
But I’m still here each week in the pew, drinking the bad coffee and making awkward small talk. What draws me back has nothing to do with cultural relevance, hip pastors, or a clever sermon series. In college, when I was wrestling the most, my faith was strengthened by one thing: history.
Let me explain. I grew up in a Christian home—the son of two faithful Bible-believing pastors—and sought leadership positions in church throughout middle school and high school. But whereas faith was easy to maintain while attending youth group twice a week, college proved to be a different story. Questions about the nature of evil, the legitimacy of the Bible as an authoritative text, and the benevolence of God haunted me. Even as I attended a thriving campus ministry, slowly, almost without my conscious approval, my faith started giving way to what Ross Douthat would deem bad religion—an Oprah-fied, morally relative, therapeutic, Eat Pray Love, the-only-truth-is-your-own-truth religion.
More often than not, when I talk to twentysomethings who are seriously contemplating walking away from their faith, the main stumbling block is an intellectual one. That was most certainly my story. I grew up with Psalty the Singing Songbook, annual vacation Bible schools, and the Full Armor of God play set, but my faith didn’t have the deep intellectual roots necessary to flourish outside of a youth group setting. For many twentysomethings, the moment the intellectual credibility of faith is challenged and there’s no immediately satisfying answer, they’re out. This is where a robust understanding and deep study of Church history became my lifeboat.
There’s some social science to back up the theory that maybe we need to study Church history more closely. In a March 2013 column for The New York Times, Bruce Feiler theorized that the best way to keep a family together was to “develop a strong family narrative.” With the help of Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush, psychologists from Emory University, Feiler discovered that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” The more a child knew about his or her ancestors, familial failures, successes, and traditions, the more likely that family was to stick together.
Every family has an ongoing narrative—a story they’re telling the world about who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. No family is perfect, but when children recognize that they are part of a larger family—a larger story—they have a higher chance of becoming healthy adults.
The faith of my youth had mainly been informed by emotional altar calls and evangelical clichés; neither of these components are inherently wrong, but this culture alone wasn’t enough for me to face an increasingly secular world. Through their writings, ancient Church fathers became like mentors who helped me see that the doubts we wrestle with today are the same questions those who came before us struggled with too. Reading Augustine’s Confessions felt like reading my own journal at times. By becoming familiar with the Christian historical narrative, one quickly realizes that the “New Atheists” aren’t actually saying anything new at all and that the Biblical canon wasn’t simply decided upon at random. Studying Church history can help us develop a strong sense of what Dr. Duke calls our “intergenerational self.” Or, as Feiler puts it, we begin to understand that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Of course, there are parts of every family’s narrative to be ashamed of. The Christian narrative is no different. Throughout history men and women have used the name of God as justification to do unfathomably evil things. Slavery in the South comes to mind. We should be quick to admit and repent of these horrors. It might be tempting to try to clean up our narrative and wish away the uglier parts of our Church’s history, but perhaps we should pay particularly close attention to those aspects of our faith. Feiler found the healthiest family narrative to expose children to is the “oscillating family narrative”—a narrative that shows the family has had ups and down. By studying the parts of our narrative we aren’t proud of, we can recognize the mistakes made in the past and move forward with new wisdom that can help us avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
While there is no magic answer to the complicated question of why twentysomethings are leaving the Church in droves, perhaps the Church should avoid trying to make faith seem culturally hip and instead look to the past. Almost all of these questions have been answered before. As the Teacher in Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is, after all, nothing new under the sun.
Image of Augustine stained glass, by Louis Comfort Tiffany, at the Lightner Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.