Recently there was an interesting article in the Washington Post by Rachel Held Evans with the title: “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” Here is the link to it:
So she is addressing the church problem of her generation, the so-called “Millennials,” people who came of age around 2000 or born in the early 1980s–when I was in the seminary!! They came after Gen X and of course my big generation, the Baby Boomers. Am I missing a generation here somewhere?! Anyway, I find myself in what she writes about–but it was from experiences in the early 1970s and in seminary in the 1980s! So the problem is not just with what the millennials are discovering; and neither is it with just the Evangelical Protestant churches–I experienced something similar in the “Catholic pew.”
Rachel hits us with a lot of numbers–church attendance and affiliation by millennials is dropping as badly as the water table in California! A lot of the Christian churches are responding by dressing up their religious services with “youth culture,” “pop culture,” “consumer culture.” Make it a seamless experience, your everyday consumer culture life and your worship life, yes even your whole religious experience. Guess what? The young people by and large reject that approach. Many of them are not going to join any slick and shallow expressions of religion. The marketing of Jesus ain’t gonna work! But as I was reading all this and nodding my head in agreement at everything she was pointing out, I realized that I had had similar experiences as a Catholic way back when! I remember very well right after Vatican II how all of us youngsters were supposedly enticed into church with new, “relevant” liturgies. The old formalisms were dropped, Latin was dropped, the old symbols eviscerated–recall that most emblematic icon of modern liberal Catholic sensibility in the late 1960s: the Eucharist celebrated with twinkies and coke!
Speaking of Latin, I recall the jarring sounds of English at the first Liturgy in that language. Having learned Latin at an early age, I of course had the advantage of being very familiar with the language; it was not a mysterious opaque curtain to what was being said. So, yes, bringing the liturgy into the vernacular was important and needed for many people, but it was done in such a superficial way, as if a language were merely like a bookcover, take one off, put on another. Thomas Merton wrote how much he missed the Latin also, and to his dying day he prayed his priestly breviary in Latin. The language had a beauty and flow and peacefulness about it in spirituality that was not easy to replace. Think of the comparison of Gregorian chant and a lot of modern hymnody. Of course there was a certain element in the church which latched on to Latin and used it for purposes to conceal their true agenda which had to do with power in the church and with a kind of fossilization of doctrine, but that’s another story to tell. In any case, trying to make the church relevant is perhaps an older experience than Rachel realizes.
And if you think this was done only by poorly informed religious people, you would be mistaken. When I went to the seminary to study for the priesthood, I was sent to the Catholic complex of seminaries in Berkeley, California. The two dominant houses there were the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and they “put on the Liturgy” there every Sunday. And I use the words advisedly because that seemed exactly what they were doing every Sunday. These theologically well- trained people would put on a show, literally speaking, every Sunday, that was supposedly a Catholic Eucharist. I am sure it was, but it was very painful to experience that after you have been in monastic life for a few years. And the whole rationale for that was a kind of espousal of creativity and contemporary culture. Repeating the same words and symbols of the Eucharist was a big no-no there! The goal was to make liturgy relevant for the modern American. I’ll never forget my very first Sunday there–it was a “Rocky Liturgy.” Yup, you got it….recall that movie from 1980 or so, “Rocky,” well, the liturgy was built on the storyline of that movie.
But enough grousing about the good old days! Getting back to what Rachel was writing, it is quite evident that this kind of approach is doomed to failure–and it was even way back then. Any real changes to religious expression has to come from deep religious experience, not just an espousal of the going culture, much less a culture that even if not rotten to the core is very, very problematic. The political underpinnings of a lot of these cultural tie-ins with religion are also very alarming–the radical right has co-opted some of the religious language, religious sentiments and anxieties and are exploiting them to the full. And not just young people are willing to question the whole thing. Rachel sticks to her own experience, but there is plenty of evidence that all the Christian churches in the U.S. are experiencing a remarkable shrinkage in all demographic groups. She ends on a positive, upbeat note; but the statistics that have been coming out in recent years show all the churches shrinking in the U.S. As an example, consider this little piece:
Two remarkable things here: 1. It is women who are leaving–these used to be the stalwart upholders of religion and church even when men began to leave. 2. They are not only leaving church, but religion and in some cases even spirituality as well. Now, that is amazing. There have been all kinds of studies in recent years tracking the disengagement of people from the institutional churches but also their connection to various forms of spirituality. This new study shows a more radical trend. This is not just people escaping rigid, fundamentalist, sect-like groups, but thoughtful, educated women making do without any religious affiliation.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of it all: nothing that exudes an infantile religion, a superficial religion, a hypocritical religion, an authoritarian religion is going to work in the long run. It may fool some of the people some of the time, but it will crumble eventually. And Karl Rahner said so a long time ago–in the ‘60s I believe–when he said that the only Christianity that will survive in the future will be a mystic Christianity. The meaning and significance of this grows daily for me. In her article Rachel points toward a more serious and deeper Christianity that she and her fellow believers yearn for, but it is not yet the “mystic Christianity” that is really needed. Nor are the few gatherings of contemplative Christians gaining any traction; it is not only that the numbers are actually extremely small–just one of the Protestant mega-churches has more members in it than all the contemplative groups in the country put together—but also so many of these groups develop their own institutional images and problems and become “marketers” of spirituality or really of themselves. For a long time now I have been pondering this “silence of God” in our culture, if you will, when all words about God become suspect. I think it is a silence that is meant to cleanse us of our false images and idols, our delusions and illusions, our infatuations with our own creations–a Silence that is not easy to abide with because it can be scary, but a Silence that is like a cleansing fire. We are living within this “Silence” surrounded by a lot of chatter about God, about religion, about spirituality even….but so much of it is empty, dust and ashes. We live in Andy Warhol’s world, where everyone wants to be famous for 15 minutes, where religion and spirituality become commodities with the soup can and Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga. But if you stay with this “Silence” and not panic and not introduce “false gods” to supplement that Nothingness, you may begin to hear in your heart something that is beyond all words and all this noise, religious or secular. And then, and only then, will we be able to speak truly about God.