Does Church need to change to keep young people interested? I hesitate to answer this question hastily. In fact, it very well may be the wrong question to ask. Several months ago, popular Episcopalian blogger Rachel Held Evans sparked a fire in the blogosphere when she published an op-ed on CNN entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She laments the lack of authenticity that millennials experience in the Church, driving young people out its doors. The blog clearly struck a chord and was shared 228k times on Facebook alone.
Recently, Diana Butler Bass delivered a lecture called “Leaving Church?” Inspired and challenged by Held Evan’s blog, Butler Bass moves the argument a little further, saying, “Millennials have inherited three significant sets of questions that weave throughout American religious history with some regularity. These are questions related to doubt, disestablishment, and diversity.” She argues that these questions are not unique to millennials, but that millennials are heirs to a tradition of questioning.
I’m reminded of the Shreddies marketing campaign that turned the blessed square Shreddie on its point. You remember “NEW Diamond Shreddies,” right? This brilliant campaign is a bit of a parallel to millennials and the Church.The cheeky brilliance was, nothing had changed! It was the same “Good, good, whole-wheat Shreddies,” that it always was. It just looked a little different, reinterpreted for a new audience.
I think this is what Butler Bass was getting at. The questions young people are struggling with are the same questions previous generations struggled with; they just look a little different. So why are young people leaving our Church? Does our Church need to change?
I believe the answer to these questions lies in the questions that Butler Bass highlights: questions of doubt, disestablishment, and diversity. The Church must be a safe space for everyone, but especially growing people. Children are people too, with their own faith journeys. They need to be encouraged to ask questions about God. Their doubts cannot be shamed.
For various reasons, many people are leaving institutional Churches, but not necessarily their faith. Building a community of belonging for children to grow up in is important. When young people leave the Church, the best thing we can do is keep the door open and encourage them in their faith.
Our Church cannot simply be welcoming; it must actively welcome and engage the other. Butler Bass points out that young people are working out their faith in a world where majorities don’t exist. Difference and acceptance are paramount.
Just because it doesn’t look the same doesn’t mean it’s not related. When you inherit a tradition, it is possible to rearrange it while still retaining its integrity. Young people need the freedom to re-ask the same old questions on their own terms. Don’t be afraid when the Church doesn’t look the same – it could just be a Shreddie on its side.
Rachel Courey attends st. benedict’s table, a community in Winnipeg, and is passionate about creating inclusive communities.