by Melanie Springer Mock
(with responses by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Kendra Weddle)
This month I turned 45. I celebrated by getting up really early, leaving my kids with a babysitter, and attending an all-day work meeting—optimistically called a “retreat”—followed by a potluck for faculty and their families. What better way to acknowledge becoming solidly middle age than by doing something I’d rather not do?
I’ve been actively resisting middle age for quite awhile now, a resistance I wrote about earlier this spring. It’s just that I don’t feel 45, at all. Surely people who are middle aged have their crap together. They don’t laugh at their kids’ poop jokes or turn goofy when meeting people who intimidate them.
Middle-aged people also don’t have a box of Everlasting Gobstoppers in their computer bag, do they? Right. Just checking. I don’t either.
Judging from recent online conversation, once folks hit middle age, their contributions to the church no longer matter is much. I might as well begin slinking away into my dotage, because soon I’ll be asked to give up my prominent spot in the church for someone younger, hipper, and more inked than am I. (My seat in the balcony is all warm for you, tattooed one. I know you can stay awake during the quiet times better than can I, in my old-aged weariness.)
Even though others have been writing for a long time about generational responses to the church, Rachel Held Evans’s recent article on CNN, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church,” cracked the discussion wide open. Evans argues that the millennials are abandoning church in larger numbers because they are seeking a worship experience more “authentic,” and that what they want is “not a change in style but in substance.”
Evans’s post launched a thousand responses (more or less), some saying the millennials are selfish twits who need to contribute more to the church, and some saying that Evans was right on, and that the church itself is becoming irrelevant. Perhaps the best response came from Meghan Florian, on the Religion Dispatches site, and I’m not just saying it’s the best because the writer is a Mennonite and a feminist (with an awesome blog, femmonite.com). Florian writes, in part, about why she has chosen to stay in the church as a millennial, and challenges us to consider why other millennials like her aren’t leaving.
As I witness all this hand-wringing about the millennials and their place in the church, the explanations and apologies and deconstructions, I can’t help but wonder why we assume that middle-aged folks attend church for the inauthentic worship experiences, seeking only an artifice to carry them through Sunday morning. And that the elderly are more intrigued by style than by substance.
This, of course, is balderdash.
I get that there are some differences between generations. I’m married to a man twelve years older than me, after all, and I’m always reminded of those differences when a Duran Duran song comes on, and Ron has never heard its awesomeness. But to claim that millennials want an authentic relationship with Jesus, thereby suggesting that someone a few decades older probably does not, rings of a kind of ageism I resist—and resist more fiercely, now that I’m becoming aged.
Maybe these younger evangelical writers are right: Their concerns about the church have long been ignored by those in power. They have been broken by events that happened in the church, by abusers who were protected, by theologies that served to demean and silence them. They are politically savvy, interested in social justice, longing to save the world.
To that I would say not only, “Me too,” but also “Me too, and a good number of my peers, including folks much older than I am.”
So I wonder why we aren’t as interested in what the older people think. Why don’t we want to know why older generations are leaving the church—and why they are staying? Do all older people slip into anonymity in the church, putting on that cloak of invisibility that our culture seems to give anyone entering middle age? Can we really assume that “older generations” are automatically in power within the church, even though many of us, whether because of our gender, our race, or our socioeconomic position, feel like we have no power—despite our age?
Jesus Feminist author Sarah Bessey addresses this to some extent in her recent Her.menuetics article, “The Invisible Generation.” She acknowledges that the middle-aged and older women feel invisible in the church, and that “once a woman reaches a certain age or if a woman is not considered beautiful or outgoing or charming, she often disappears in the eyes of her community.”
Often, articles about older women in the church settle into a Titus 2 cliché, telling younger people that they should look up to older women for wisdom, seeing them as mentors; and that the older people should be looking out for young women to guide and instruct. To be honest, I resist this idea, if only because I don’t feel old enough or wise enough to guide someone (see: laughing at my kids’ inappropriate jokes). I’d rather just hang out with folks younger—and older—than me. I’d rather just be friends, sharing stories about our lives, going out for coffee, laughing at movies, maybe even sharing my Gobstoppers (maybe).
Bessey doesn’t fall for the Titus 2 trap, suggesting that women of all ages should seek each other out for friendship and community, rather than letting the older generations slip into anonymity, or the younger slip away from the church all together.
And Florian, in her Religion Dispatches article mentioned earlier, strikes a similar chord. Florian’s post reminds me of the reasons I have stayed in my church for almost sixteen years now: because of the community I find there, both young and old. I may not agree theologically on some things—even on some things that really matter to me—but, as Florian suggests,
“we stick around when we realize that we need each other, when we experience the support of the community in hard times, and when we are called upon to support others, as well. If we stay—all of us, young, old, and in between—we do have to learn that Jesus doesn’t look like us. He looks like all these other women and men around us, the ones who are sometimes harder to love, the ones who don’t always understand us, the ones who are going to mess this thing up just like we do. And he looks like the other churches down the road from us, too, worshipping separately on the most segregated morning of the week—a reality that is as much our fault as anyone else’s.”
For someone now solidly middle-aged who feels twenty years younger and longs to be twenty years wiser, I appreciate these thoughts from Bessey and Florian, both who recognize that older people are not so different, that their needs in the church are not so foreign, and that being in right relationship with folks both young and old is what Jesus calls us to.
Of course we should be concerned about why younger people are leaving the church—they are the future of the church, after all. But is it possible to have discussions about the millennial religious experience without making generalizations about other generations, or even about millennials themselves? Is it enough to acknowledge that the church needs to meet our deepest human longing—to be in relationship with others and with the Divine—no matter how old or young we are?
Response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni: We’re All in This Together
Melanie, take it from me (the oldest, by far, of the three of us): You will never feel you are the age you are—no matter what that age happens to be at a particular time. That’s because we build stereotypes about what each age is supposed to feel like. And then, when we reach a particular age ourselves and we know we’re quite different from the stereotype, we question ourselves, not the stereotype!
Remember Gloria Steinem’s famous quip when she turned forty and a reporter said she didn’t “look forty”? She replied that this was what 40 looks like, but that no one was likely to know that, because women had been lying about their ages for so long! The attention her remark received gave Steinem a new awareness women’s worries over aging and appearance in this youth-oriented culture So she determined to make the same point when she turned 50. And 60. And 70. And next year, I’m sure she’ll say it again, “This is what 80 looks like.”
It’s all about one’s spirit, how we feel about ourselves, how involved we are with life— not whether our outward appearance measures up to some ideal image that is stuck in time. If we keep our minds active (and our bodies, too, as much as they allow us to over the years), we can just keep on being who we are—our unique selves—at any age. It’s a waste of time and energy to worry about getting older when there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. Rather, we could be using that time and energy to do what really matters.
On the matter of online discussions about the millennials’ dissatisfaction with churches that refuse to listen to their questions, yearnings, and critiques and so are leaving churches (and Christianity as it has been presented to them) or else they’re rejecting older models of Christianity and attempting to form new ones, I don’t think it’s anything to be alarmed about. It doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of the Christian faith (although, of course, sometimes it does), nor does it mean these young adults don’t value a sense of community (although it’s hard to feel a sense of community when you don’t feel understood or valued and your creative input and talents aren’t wanted or respected). Many have been hurt by the judgmentalism, and legalism, and intolerance, and mean-spirited political stances that have been presented to them as “Christianity.” They are seeking something different, authentic—“new wineskins” for an ever fresh, ever renewing gospel message about what it really means to be followers of Jesus in a rapidly changing world.
I was talking about this recently with my son Dave and he immediately broke in and said, “Mom, that’s exactly what you were doing forty-five years ago!” He was only a little boy then, but he remembers the questioning many of us then-young adults were doing, and the small-group discussions and house-church meetings we were hosting or attending in other locations as we kept finding other like-minded individuals and couples— long before the Internet. We gathered to brainstorm about what the church (in the broadest sense of the “church universal,” Christ’s body of believers) should be and could be.
I’ve never stopped doing that. So yes, Melanie, many of us older folks are just as concerned as are the millennials who want to see a robust Christian faith that is authentic. And I think it can be a healthy sign that each new generation cares enough to raise both recurring questions and distinct new ones, looking for fresh ways to relate their faith to their generation, to the culture around them, and to an ever-changing world.
I also agree with you that many in the new generations and many in the older generations may find they have more in common than they realize. We’re all in this together.
You already know how strongly I feel about forming and supporting cross-generational friendships. One of the great things about our organization, EEWC-Christian Feminism Today—is how such friendships are flourishing there. Have you ever read my article, “Contemporaneity,” which I wrote 10 years ago and that is archived on our website? It addresses this very issue. I hope you’ll take a look at it; it fits so well with an important point you’ve made.
Response by Kendra Weddle: Could Theological Questioning Be Why Many Millennials (and Others) Leave Churches?
A few years ago my father-in-law sang the praises of their new pastor. As he extolled the many skills of this new leader my father-in-law included creativity, youthfulness, and improvisation, evident in their new worship practice: large balls bouncing across the auditorium’s wide expanse, a signal that worship doesn’t have to boring but can even be entertaining.
I suppose hitting large objects around never became a routine part of their church services, and yet as a mainline Protestant my worship experiences more readily revolve around a formalized pattern including spoken liturgy, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and hymns sung and read from an actual book rather than a white screen.
Obviously our preferences—mine and my father-in-law’s—are worlds apart and also represent some of the elements that are at the core of the discontent many feel with churches today: contemporary vs. traditional; blended as a compromise or two distinct services; Sunday School or family worship inclusive of all ages (despite never being very inclusive of singles except to pair them off in hopes of imminent nuptials).
Despite these differences, I appreciate Melanie’s question that perhaps discontent is not specific to one group and just because a fair number of millennials are leaving the church this shouldn’t suggest that other groups of people have not also found the church wanting, even if they remained committed to it. In fact, I imagine people adjust to their frustrations with church communities in a variety of ways: some choosing to stay and work toward change while others leave seeking community and commitment in other places.
When I read articles about millennials and the church, though, I often feel there is something missing in the conversation, especially when the critique is about substance over form. Could it be that what millennials find missing in their experiences of evangelicalism is progressive theology? Is it possible that they are simply beginning to realize theological claims they once believed in no longer seem reasonable or satisfactory? The old answers no longer ring true.
When Rachel Held Evans and others point out that millennials are interested in justice and compassion, in loving their neighbors, especially their homosexual ones, I wonder why they think this is something new. This is the witness of many mainline churches and while they, too, have much to do to be relevant in a new era, it seems to me this has always been the work of the church.
Kendra nailed it (for me, anyway).
I think the emphasis on youth is simple: Church leaders have already got you, and those older than you; youth is the demographic to lose. When church attendance fell to a fraction, in our parents’ generation, it was youth who had stopped attending. The same thing is likely to happen again and again, generation after generation, until church leading is an endangered career.
That is the practical explanation. There may also be an emotional one: American culture glamorizes youth to the point of obsession, and this irrationality may be what keeps fueling the ignoring of your and my age, and older, in this debate. To which your essay is a good rebuke.
Thanks, Melanie. I appreciate your writing and your reflections. I definitely relate to the thoughts and feelings re. aging. It’s strange, to suddenly feel – just as I have a sense of understanding more and knowing more about life than ever before, that suddenly I am slipping “past my prime,” seen as too old, irrelevant, unhirable, or whatever. Parenthetically, I enjoyed visiting Korea twice, where age and experience are greatly respected. I’m thinking I may need to retire there!