Coming Clean on Bringing Millennials Back to Church
Can you hear it? It’s the sound of Mainline ministry leaders around the country breathing deep sighs of relief, patting themselves on the back, and smiling in self-congratulation in response to the recent news that what Millennials—that generation woefully absent from their churches—really want from the church is . . . the sacraments.
In her new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans chronicles her journey from the evangelicalism of her youth and young adulthood to The Episcopal Church. That shift is grounded in, and the book is organized around, the seven historic sacraments recognized by Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians: baptism, confession, holy orders (ordination), communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage.
In a recent and widely shared opinion piece for The Washington Post, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool,’” Held Evans writes that, like her, Millennials are not looking to churches for light shows and lattes. Rather, they are longing for the sacraments.
Judging from the comments I’ve seen in the days since Held Evans’s article was posted, I’m afraid that her assertion has had the unintended consequence of reinforcing the tendency toward inertia exhibited by some Mainline ministry leaders. “See, we’re fine. We don’t need to change,” I can hear them saying. “We can keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s put on some coffee, order some new communion wafers, and wait for the young evangelicals to come pouring in.”
Good luck with that.
Such interpretations of Held Evans’s post are problematic because they reinforce our maddening fixation on matters of worship, to the detriment of extending ministry beyond our church buildings, deepening faith formation, serving the poor, and helping our neighbors.
There is no doubt that the sacraments are beautiful, mysterious, and life giving. As a Lutheran, sacraments are central to my faith and practice of ministry. It is incredibly powerful to encounter, depending on your sacramental theology, the “real presence” of God or the “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace” in Christian rituals. The sacraments root us in a tradition of faith practice much longer and deeper than our transient human lives.
And yet, much of the worship and even sacramental practice in Mainline churches lacks the heart-breaking beauty, authenticity, and inclusivity that Held Evans describes. The sacraments and our worship have been papered over with the cultural trappings of the late 20th century and often can be more about going through the motions than being broken open—undone, even—by an encounter with the divine. The mystery of the sacraments now seems to have been reduced to the uber-earnest, over-articulated hushed spiritual intonations of the presiding minister’s voice.
Sure, we hear all the time about ecclesial outliers: House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, with its unaccompanied singing around the altar; St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn where worship and Eucharist are part of an agape meal; or “Laundry Love” as practiced by Thad’s Episcopal community in Santa Monica, in which their deacon was ordained in the very laundromat where the church shares coins and companionship with people experiencing homelessness. Such “new expressions” of Christianity do show us ways of breaking open the power and meaning of the sacraments once again.
But we know about them because they are standouts and exceptions . . . because they are not what usually happens in our churches. The overall practice in our congregations is rarely so daring, so inclusive, or so conscious of breaking us open to experience again for ourselves the death and resurrection of Christ.
In truth, our worship often reinforces a broadcast media-era model of professional leaders preaching to passive receivers; all too often, it fails to reflect the authentic, networked, and relational character of our lives and our world. We have domesticated the sacraments. We have made worship safe—most of all for the clergy. So, let’s just be honest about that.
Touting the sacraments can be as much an oversimplification and lowest-common-denominator marketing ploy as the other gimmicks Held Evans calls out in her book. Unfortunately, the Mainline has a long history of commoditizing its own religious practices, of turning worship and religion into products to be consumed.
I was reminded the other day of the prophetic words of Amos. They rang in my ears as people on Twitter and Facebook crowed over Held Evans’s affirmation of sacramental liturgies as the magic pill for a Millennial revival:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream . . . ” (Amos 5:21, 23-24)
Held Evans writes, “When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.” She’s right: Worship and church in general don’t need to be “cool.” But at least they shouldn’t be so damn boring.
Still, there’s more at stake here than whether or not the 10:00 Sunday service is a snoozefest. The God who spoke through Amos wasn’t talking about finding a worship service that “feels more authentic” because it helps you to sort through your doubts and feelings of spiritual alienation. Those are the “nice to dos” on God’s list, as Amos tells it. The “need to dos” are found outside the temple door, in the sufferings, sorrows, and injustices of the world.
Against this prophetic call, Held Evans’s embrace of the sacraments can ring like an invitation to complacency and self-congratulation, rather than a cry to confront the ways in which we have tamed the sacraments, our worship, and our ministries. If sacramental liturgy in and of itself is the answer, I’m not sure I really know what the question is for Christians today as they serve God’s people in the world around them.
I’m happy Held Evans has found a church that spiritually enriches rather than drains her after years of public, painful religious rancor. But I’m dubious that a flood of other post-evangelical Millennials will suddenly arrive at our doors—particularly those who, unlike Held Evans, don’t even have so much as a love-hate relationship with the church. They have none at all.
Deepening and enriching sacramental liturgies is surely a good thing. But even if it were possible for every congregation to achieve that goal, liturgies alone won’t save the church. If we view worship merely as an “if we build it, they will come” strategy for church revitalization, we are bound for disappointment, because most of the time, “they” won’t come. They’ve made that pretty clear.
The true challenge for us to figure out is not how to spruce up the altar dressings, but how to walk with grace out the church door, into the world where Nones of every generation—Millennials and their Boomer parents; GenXers and their Gen Z kids—are often pursuing spiritual lives of great depth and complexity. Lives of sacramental richness that are not often understood in Mainline congregations.
Walking out our doors to be where people are, to minister to them and with them in the world, is to break ourselves open, to be present to God’s grace in new and potentially revitalizing ways.
Will that bring the Nones back to Mainline churches? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the question we ought to be obsessing over.