Quitting Church, coming back, and staying

Andrea Palpan Dilley on her journey away from and back to church. Her suggestions of 6 things to do to help young adults explore their faith and doubts

E.J. Dionne’s response to the Freedom from Religion ad.

My, my. Putting aside the group’s love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shocking to learn that I’m an “enabler” doing “bad” to women’s rights. But Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.

I’m sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. It may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.

And his response to the comments his article generated.

James Martin, SJ on those who, like Dionne, stay in church:

The church is the place into which we were born and out of which we will leave this life. We are called through baptism into a distinctive place in the church. That means that we are called not only to enjoy its fruits, but to labor in its vineyards, even when that vineyard is filled with thorns, the day is late, we are exhausted, the fruit seems scarce, and the sun is beating down on us, seemingly without mercy. It is in our church that we will work out, difficult as it may be, impossible as it may seem at times, our salvation, alongside other sinners—sinners just like us.

“To whom shall we go?” said Peter. The church is not Jesus, but it is his visible body on the earth.  And, like his body after the Resurrection, it has wounds.  So you could also ask: “Where else shall we go?”

And remember that it’s your church, too. God called you into it, by name, on the day of your baptism.  Never forget that Jesus called each of the disciples for a particular reason.  They each had different gifts and talents, and were able to help build the Kingdom of God in different ways.  As Mother Teresa said, “You can do something I cannot do. I can do something you cannot do.  Together let us do something beautiful for God.”  Though the disciples often quarrelled with one another, Jesus wanted them all to be there.  When you’re tempted to leave, or when others say that they don’t want you around, remember who called you.

Ministering among those “crushed” by the Church

Executive Council decides it is disappointed

I’m glad they can agree on something. Full story from Episcopal Cafe here. It includes both the politburo’s official communique and a memo to the committee responsible for creating the budget.

The meeting took place in a week when we learned more about the disaffection of millennials from religion. Among the key results:

While only 11% of Millennials were religiously unaffiliated in childhood, one-quarter (25%) currently identify as unaffiliated, a 14-point increase. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to Millennials’ movement away from their childhood religious affiliation.

  • Today, college-age Millennials are more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated. They are less likely than the general population to identify as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.
  • Millennials also hold less traditional or orthodox religious beliefs. Fewer than one-quarter (23%) believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. About 1-in-4 (26%) believe Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Roughly 4-in-10 (37%) say that the Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.

We know too well by now about the dramatic decline in mainline Protestantism, and the overall decline in institutional affiliation and respect for institutions. An organization like the Episcopal Church has to work very hard to rebuild that trust. When a debacle like this week’s budget debate occurs, we do nothing to regain that trust. Indeed, it undermines our message and has a significant impact on our message. When, as others have pointed out, this disfunction occurs over a long term (apparently the budget debate was even worse leading up to GC 2009), there may be permanent damage to the institution.

More on “Leaving Church:” the “nones,” young adults and the future of Christianity

Skye Jethani weighs in, building on Berger’s essay.

So, we are left with a narrow path. Veer too far to the cultural right and the young will dismiss the church as a puppet of Republican politics. Veer too far to the theological left and the power of the Gospel is lost amid cultural accommodation.

The younger generations, and our culture as a whole, needs evidence of a third way to be Christian. It will require more than individual voices, but an organized and identifiable community of believers that reject Christianism and stands for Christ’s Good News, manifested in good lives, and evident in good works.

So does Jonathan Fitzgerald:

Now, after spending much of my adulthood trying to find a place to belong, I’ve turned into the opposite of a None — I’ve become a proud Joiner. Since college, my own search has found me desperate to join. I have considered Roman Catholic confirmation, Presbyterian church membership and, most recently, Episcopalian identification. To that end, I have been attending confirmation classes at my local Episcopal parish since last month.

As I look around at my fellow Joiners, I see that it is specifically those who have lived the life of the unaffiliated who have decided, Sunday after Sunday, for several hours following Mass, to gather and discuss the rhythm of the liturgical calendar, the purpose of baptism, the history of the church and the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. I’m not sure whether I’ll be confirmed when the class ends in eight weeks, but there is certainly something attractive about the prospect.

It would be foolish to think God requires affiliation as a means of access. We humans however tend to corral into formal groupings, whether it’s organized religion or political parties. In the absence of tried-and-true tradition, we begin to create our own. My guess is that, as the numbers of Nones continue to increase, they will begin to develop traditions, create rules and define their orthodoxy until, ultimately, something like a new denomination will arise. Perhaps in 2022 someone will declare “The Rise of the Joiners” as one of the life-changing ideas of the moment.

He wasn’t really ever a none. He was a Christian, grew up a Christian, but outside of Christian community.

Yesterday was one of those days of grace at Grace, surrounded by the ministry and faith of young (and older) adults. A fine sermon by Lauren Cochran (young adult herself); a presentation on our companion diocese relationship with the Diocese of Newala, in Tanzania.

The first session of a spontaneous confirmation class which bears out some of the discussion I’ve been linking to here. Four of the five who attended are young adults who have come from more conservative religious backgrounds; the fifth an older adult who was baptized and confirmed Roman Catholic. During our conversation, I pointed out that these demographics were pretty typical for Episcopal gatherings in that a majority (in our case all, including the two clergy in attendance) were not “cradle” Episcopalian.

Later in the day, I celebrated the Eucharist and shared dinner with the Episcopal Campus Ministry. We had planned on getting home by 7, but lively conversation and fellowship kept us lingering until almost 8. As we chatted, I noted to myself the rather different dynamics: of the six or eight who stayed till the end to help with cleanup, it was half and half–half had grown up Episcopalian, the other half not. The importance of that community to those who were there was palpable. Gathered together around the altar, gathered together to share a meal and working together to clean up; all the while talking to one another, asking questions about matters Episcopalian and theological, and checking in on how each other was doing.

That’s the work of Christian community, important work, and evangelistic work, as among those in attendance were people who had been coming every week, and some who had come for the first time; experiencing hospitality, welcome, and the love of Christ. When we do that, and do it well, we don’t have to worry about the future–and our work this semester is building a solid foundation for the chaplain we will call to that ministry.

Millennials and GM: What can we learn?

There’s an article in the NYT about GM’s outreach to young adults. They’ve got a problem almost as big as Christianity:

In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.

That’s a 25% decline in a decade, even worse than the decline in the Episcopal Church. The article presents some of the problems with adapting to contemporary culture: the proposed colors (techno-pink, lemonade, denim) will take at least a year before they’re in production, and cars themselves take three years from design to production. So the problems with dashboards will be around for awhile:

“They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

Kevin Drum comments: “I dunno. I’m 53 years old, and even I’m not feeling the hipness. More like the stink of fear.”

There have been earlier comparisons between corporations like GM and Kodak and the church, but perhaps this comparison is even more instructive. To put it in marketing terms, the “nones” just don’t want our product, and changing liturgical colors (or style, or music) won’t make any difference.

On the other hand, the Episcopal Church never had GM’s market share. We’re something of a niche product, and perhaps, by doing better at communicating what we are about might bring positive results.


Young adults, older adults, and leaving church

Roman Catholics are asking the question, too.

We may acknowledge some of their criticisms, but we are quicker to point out that they don’t understand. “Kids these days!” we exclaim in so many ways, throwing up our hands—while millennials walk out the door. “Will we continue to preach to the (aging) choir?” Fullam asked.

Answering that question may mean the difference between a vibrant religious community 20 or 30 years from now and a truly post-religious society like that of Western Europe. Every sociological measure is showing that the youngest members of the church aren’t staying, and it would be foolish to hope that they will return when they get married or have kids.

We can either keep repeating the same lines or we can zip it for a while and listen to what they are really saying. Maybe if we are quiet long enough, they might ask us why we stay. If they do, we better have a good answer.

Rachel Held Evans gives fifteen reasons why she left the church, and fifteen why she returned. Both posts should be read by everyone interested in young adults and the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s a story behind each of those thirty reasons, stories that play themselves out in the lives of young people every day.

The great American sociologist of religion Peter Berger reflects on the article by Putnam and Campbell to which I’ve previously alluded. He points out that many of the “nones” may be believers without belonging (certainly Held Evans, to the extent that she left church, belonged to that group). About the “nones,” he posits two groups, one consisting of those who have been convinced by the “new atheists;” the other made up of descendants of the counter culture of the 60s. I doubt there are very many in this latter group. Berger is intrigued by the socio-economic status of the nones cited in the Pew survey. They are not, mostly, members of the elite, but of the lower class, often lacking high school education. This suggests something else, that they are profoundly alienated from institutional religion, and probably profoundly alienated from other institutions of American life. I wonder whether we are not reverting to the state of affairs that existed in the nineteenth century.

To see the alienation from institutional religion in action, from someone who is perhaps moving away, unlike Rachel Held Evans who has made her way back, apparently; read the piece by Michael O’Loughlin: a flickering light:

I’m no longer surprised when a close female friend, successful and well educated, looks askew at a male-dominated church and cringes before she walks away. When those charged with teaching the faith tell their flock to believe or act a certain way because their authority gives them the right to do so, it becomes easier to see why many chuckle as they interpret this as a parent scolding a toddler: do this because I said so. Gay men and women rightly refuse to succumb to bullying in their professional and familial lives, so it’s not a surprise when they leave a church that calls them disordered. And though we are over a decade removed from the revelation of clergy sex abuse of minors, many in my generation will never again give the benefit of the doubt to the Catholic hierarchy on matters of faith, morals, or much else.

The question is, given the profound distrust of institutions among millennials, a distrust much deeper than anything we’ve seen before, how can those of us who are clergy, representatives of the institution, speak authentic good news?