This is the second conversation excerpting from an upcoming book, Just Hear Me Out: Conversations in the Generation Gap, a conversation between Baby Boomers and Millennials regarding church, faith, and all that complicated stuff. Again, we’re talking about church, and what we fear it may look like in the future. Feel free to offer your thoughts. (Click here to read the first installment.)

Jill: Boomers aren’t getting the message that your generation is not just taking a holiday from church; you’re retreating. Leaving it to us, since we so eagerly defend it. Building something quite different down the road in which we have abdicated the right to have a say. We’re stuck in our mindset that you’ll behave as we did because what we did was, obviously, normal.

See, while we discuss fears, I think this is one thing our generation does not fear that we need to. We need a healthy fear of death. It’s good for all of us, as individuals and as the church. It makes you take stock of what is worth the fight.

Yes, people do tend to return to core values as they get older and less experimental in figuring out their identity. But there are at least three problems with our assumption that you, like the Terminator, will be back.

One, church is increasingly not a core value. Being a good person and showing love is. But it is divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. “Praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, you have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.

Two, raising a family is not the end all goal anymore. It’s in there as part of the dream of personal fulfillment, but it’s by no means the entire dream. It may happen or it may not, and if it does, it will happen later, when your ways are quite set and church is a distant memory.

Three, you can get your inspiration anytime you want off any YouTube channel or podcast. It’s instant and portable. You feel no urgency for a building filled with people who may or may not judge you before knowing you. Why come back, when Sunday morning sleep-ins are so attractive? As you said, learning your faith is time-consuming, and it’s not something we’re seeing most Millennials want to tackle on someone else’s timetable of Sunday morning/Wednesday night.

So that future dream of seeing you come through the doors with kids in tow ready to accept our rules and knuckle down to our order? Yeah, right up there with our dream of seeing the Beatles reunite. They’ve got other things to do. Besides, they’re half dead. Talk to me—am I right in these three things?

Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School become a thing? And by that I don’t mean the original Sunday School meant to help combat illiteracy and grow spiritually the working kids in the 1800’—-I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on upstairs.

While a lot of this is true, that’s where your “do good” stems from. “Do good for mommy and daddy and Jesus too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots. So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for.

Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel. Needless to say, church wasn’t a value in our family.

According to Christian History, the philanthropic Sunday Schools you mention always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also inculcated moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.1

Given that Rational Theory (human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.

And it has a present. Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:

“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us.

But the Bible isn’t mainly about us, and what we’re supposed to be doing—it’s about God, and what He has done. When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.”2

So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young, not now once we’re losing young adults, to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now. There’s this book by some lady called Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids where she says something like this.

“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point.

What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.”3

I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? This is exactly what you said in the prologue. You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.

Emily: Finally, there’s just something stale about going to church on a Sunday morning. I can’t explain it. It’s just…there. An assumption in society that anyone driving around at 8am on a Sunday is going to church. And it’s dreary. Why would I get up early on one of only two days a week that I get to sleep in? It’s another structured event in a full week of planned schedules when all we want to do is not have to plan anything or show up. So we’ll look elsewhere. The ease of the internet has led us to the belief that most things should take a minimal effort. Our spirituality is definitely one of those things.

Jill: We’re talking about a complete paradigm shift from Sunday mornings as a primary vehicle to . . . something else. From a model that focuses on attracting young families to . . . something else. From even, gasp, perhaps a sermon to . . . something else. Something else is scary. You need a good “why.” I think in the future, everyone is going to need a good why. I’m not sure we’re providing it.

Overall, going back to our opening metaphor, you’re saying that our focus needs to shift from mandating the parameters of the territory to walking out into the burned up no man’s land and declaring it neutral area? A place to build something on which we can live together? I like the imagery.

Emily: Sadly, this is no picture book.

End Notes

  1. www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/whendidsundayschoolstart.html
  2. www.aholyexperience.com/2015/06/2-questions-to-ask-that-might-keep-a-whole-lot-of-us-from-walking-away-from-god-church
  3. Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids: Short-Term Missions for Your Whole Family, Jill Richardson, BeachGlass Press, 2012

If you want to learn more about this project, see our webpage, justhearmeoutbook.wordpress.com. If you’d like to be part of the ongoing research team for the project, find me on Facebook and talk to me. We’d love to have more people on board!

Photo via Flickr