30 Something’s View of Church
by Kathryn Mary Lohre
Today the majority of people in the United States self-identify as Christian. Yet the statistics are changing as rapidly as the landscape. In 2012 the Pew Forum released a study titled “The Rise of the ‘Nones.’” The central finding was that fully one-fifth of the US public—and a third of adults under the age of thirty—are religiously unaffiliated. Many of our churches have understandably become fixated on this data because it points to an impending reality: that within a relatively short period of time, perhaps a single generation, the role of Christianity as the majority religion in the United States will slip if not fall completely. The threat to the churches, it seems, is not religious plurality as it is often claimed, but a waning interest in institutional religion itself.
Discerning Our Common Future
This is the world in which I have come of age—at least in my most formative years. But more importantly, it is the only world in which Millennials—young adults born after 1980—have ever known. Generational studies have given the churches a window into the unknown future, to be sure, but they have also served to strengthen the generational divide. In 2012 the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches published a study titled “Can the Church Log In with the ‘Connected Generation’?” The link was made all too directly between the urgent need to reverse the churches’ membership decline and the untapped potential of young adults. The strategy offered was for the church to “recalibrate its ministry and mission to meet the needs, and quicken the commitment of Millennials to religious institutions.”
I couldn’t agree more with the first part of this strategy, but I reject the second. The supersized church institutions of a bygone era have become impossible for any generation to sustain. Why? In short, the role of the churches in American public life simply isn’t what it used to be. As a result, the very assumptions on which such institutions were built must now be called into question. The challenge before us, I believe, is not to create new assumptions about our context for Christian witness but to change our posture toward that context. The churches will need to learn new roles as conveners and bridge builders in an era marked by the free exchange of ideas and information through local, national, and global networks.
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