In part 2 of her blog posts at CNN, Rachel Held Evans tells us (and millennials) why they still need the church. Guess what! It’s all about community and the sacraments! She links to some other responses to her earlier piece here.
Yesterday, Richard Beck asked, “What does Rachel Held Evans want?” His answer:
So what does she want? Let me try to put it this way, and I’m just guessing with this. I think what Rachel wants is what a lot of us want. We want a mainline theological and social sensibility combined with an evangelical church expression.
In short, a progressive vision of the evangelical church.
That got me thinking back to my own experience as a baby boomer (and a Mennonite, which did not quite fit the Evangelical camp back in those days). My disaffection with the church began when I was a teenager. In college, there was a term I took a shift in the dining hall on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t submit to the temptation of going to church (where I would inevitably be disappointed by everything except the hymns).
In Divinity School, my friends and I joked that the Mennonite congregation in town was more like Mennonites Anonymous than the Body of Christ (but we still sang with gusto and emotion). Reading Beck reminded me of why I left the Mennonite Church, and why it took so long for me to make the final break. I was formed by that community, its worship, theology, and ethics, but there came a point where I could no longer find a home in it. I had changed theologically, having discovered the great treasure of Christian theology and spirituality from across the whole of the Christian tradition.
I recently was asked by an old Mennonite friend as we were talking about the decline of Christianity in the US and the struggles in the Episcopal Church, if I regretted having become Episcopalian and become a priest. I’m not sure what precisely I said in response, perhaps that I had no choice in the matter. I should have said that I find God’s grace in the sacraments, that the Book of Common Prayer has shaped my experience of Jesus Christ, and that in the local parish, and in the institutional church, I can still discern God’s grace at work.
Still, I hold my commitment to the institution of the Episcopal Church very lightly. I’m not interested in its long-term survival (except for the Church Pension Fund, of course). What I am committed to is the vision of Christianity expressed by Anglicanism. I believe that vision will survive and can thrive in other institutional forms than those that currently exist. I also believe that we can provide a place where people encounter the love of Jesus Christ and the grace of God in life-changing ways. That’s why I’m a priest.
We have certainly seen a transformation in the way individuals relate to institutions in the last fifty years. It began with baby boomers but has accelerated in subsequent generations. Still, most humans will always seek community of some sort as well as a deeper purpose or meaning in life. What’s changed is that churches are no longer assumed to be the primary places where individuals might seek or find those things. There are other places to go, other ways of connecting with people. As an essay I pointed to earlier this week argues, with more and more people raised as non-religious by religiously unaffiliated parents, many might not imagine that the church, any church, is relevant to their lives and their journeys.
It’s likely that young adults today in and the immediate future will be as lightly committed to local congregations or religious communities as I am to the institutional church beyond my parish. I’m already seeing that to some degree at Grace with many young adults attending regularly or semi-regularly but developing no relationships with others in the congregation. That’s not always the case, not even the majority. And I don’t mean this by way of criticism. Young adults may connect with the sacred and with God at Grace. Some of them may be searching for community elsewhere; perhaps they’ll be surprised by God’s grace and find it among us.
Sometimes the rest of us do too; and sometimes we’re as surprised to find God’s grace here as we are to find connection with other humans.