Recently, a friend encouraged me to read a blog post written by a millennial reflecting on his generation’s discontent with the church experience. Sam Eaton is the author. He quoted a statistic that 59% of those raised in a church, have left. And 35% of his generation believes the church does more harm than good. You can find it on faithit.com if you are interested in reading it for yourself.
I am an Xer, and I don’t think that 35% of my generation would agree, but over the years I have certainly met more than a few of my generational peers who could probably make the same argument. So the thought that the group is growing is disappointing but not surprising.
Shortly after reading his thought provoking article, my boss asked me to read a book about the younger iGen written by Jean M Twenge. She is a social psychologist and has analyzed longitudinal data on the attitudes of young people, uncovering some even more alarming trends emanating from the 18-22 year old cohort today. At work, we are having increasing difficulty recruiting and retaining younger employees and my boss shared that trying to understand the younger generation might help us address some of our personnel challenges.
According to her research, these younger people are also very concerned with justice issues but don’t want to be sucked up in the vitriol of a growing polarization. They are very cynical of organized religion and critical of the mis-appropriation of assets and the structures of secrecy which hide multiple social evils, sexual and also financial sins. They are very connected to the 24 hour news cycle and have been conditioned to be hyper-alert to what is going on all around them.
But, because they are the internet generation, they are extremely reliant on electronic means of communication which can isolate. Because of their proximity to 9/11/2001, they are very concerned with safety and expect that the adults in their lives will keep them safe. This also means that they are less able to deal with conflict and opposing points of view. Social media has a way of connecting people virtually, but this mode of communication, being so public, discourages sharing anything that might be interpreted in a negative way. These young people do not have the same opportunities to grieve losses or heartaches, and because they don’t see anyone else doing that either, they assume that they are alone in their pain. Yet they see terrible things streaming on the news constantly about refugees, mass violence and threats of nuclear war.
Because this iGen is so physically disconnected from other people and even their own friends, and also the community, with the combination of all of these other factors, the incidence of mental illness is on the rise, and not just by a few percentage points. “Neuroscientists have found that when people are left out of a game by other players, the brain region involved in physical pain is activated… With our brains-perhaps especially teen brains- so attuned to social rejection, texting and social media are fertile grounds for negative emotions.”
This is all very scary to me. Society is falling apart, mental illness is spiking and the church is perceived by more and more people as not only irrelevant, but part of the problem.
In years past, I have not felt the need, or at least not considered that I had any standing to reverse the trend. But recently, I have reconsidered my role in the diminishing significance or even relevance of our church. Granted I am only one estranged lay person, and a woman at that. My opinion is likely to be ignored and dismissed. Many other people who attempt to reform or improve the church have met with the same fate of worse.
But I read the daily readings today, and I am impressed that the kingdom of God is supposed to be different. It is supposed to be inclusive. All of the birds of the sky should be able to find shade and safety under the tall cedars. Not just some of the birds, all of the birds. For as much as the bishops condemn our county’s immigration policies and border control injustices, the church leadership often behaves much the same way. Some of the baptized are welcome at the one table, and some are not. Some people are encouraged to participate in catholic worship and other are encouraged to worship elsewhere. Some people are encouraged to be in loving marriages and others are condemned for recognizing their need for companionship. Young people see the hypocrisy and don’t want to have anything to do with the church. How sad that the church is failing to create the community we deserve.
The Psalm 92:3 suggested that we should go to bed at night thankful to God for all of the blessings in our lives. But given the social exclusion and prejudice that results in mental illness, violence and increasing suicide rates, I sometimes go to bed praying that my young nephews will not fall victim to a school shooting. Other times I pray earnestly that our church will welcome their protestant father’s at the one Eucharistic table. I wish our church were part of the solution and not part of the problem. Is my faith the size of a mustard seed? Is it possible that our church could grow into being something even greater than it is today?
Pope Francis said earlier this week that the key to bringing back those who have left is in listening to the reasons that motivated their leave in the first place. If our ecclesial leaders are listening, this would be good news indeed. Maybe there is still hope for us even on this earth.