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?