There is nothing new under the sun.
Sparked by Rachel Held Evans’ very popular and quite excellent “Why millennials are leaving the church” post on CNN’s “belief blog,” the Christian blogosphere has lit up with discussions of millennials and Christianity. Evans’ thesis is quite powerful: evangelicals (and I’d extend it to Christians more broadly) are leaving the church behind because they are weary of the over-marketing, over-politicization, anti-LGBT rhetoric, and general apathy about social justice that ground many of their religious communities.
Christian critics and supporters from the left and right have responded to Evans’ post by 1) modifying or adding further reasons for the millennial flight; 2) disagreeing with her assessment and providing alternate reasons; 3) building upon her argument by suggesting how churches must change to rectify the situation.
Wherever they fall in the debate, every post I have read on the topic assumes that the millennial flight from churches is not only lamentable, it is bad—Christianity, millennials, and even American society as a whole will suffer from this result. Behind this common assumption is an even more troubling idea : millennials should be Christian regardless of who is to blame for the truth that less and less are.
At first glance, it might appear odd for me to criticize Christians for wanting people to be Christian. After all, isn’t evangelism the heart of Christianity? Aren’t even the most liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic Christians passionate enough about their religious narratives that they hope others become attracted to those stories as well? Isn’t there something about “making disciples of all nations” in the Great Commission?
My point is not to challenge this spirit of evangelism. I firmly believe that good stories should be shared. However, American Christians of all stripes have generally been blind to the sense of total entitlement that is wedded to this evangelical spirit. Even if many Christians aren’t brazen enough to say it out loud, they assume that Americans should be Christian—Americans are naturally Christian.
Entitlement always comes from a place of power. Lost in all of the conversation about millennials leaving Christianity behind is the fact that roughly 70-75% of Americans continue to identify as Christian. This is somewhat lower than at any other point in United States history, but it is not dramatically so. Christians continue to be the undisputed and unchallenged majority in the United States—all other religions combined amount to less than 10%, and the “unaffiliated” (by definition difficult to categorize) amount to roughly 20%. The cultural power of Christianity in the United States remains immense. Would American Christians only be satisfied if all Americans were Christian?
One aspect of this entitlement is the understanding that clearly non-Christians just have Christianity wrong. Perhaps they encountered the wrong kind of Christianity (you know, the “intolerant” kind) or perhaps they left Christianity because it wasn’t “hip” enough. If Christians could just fix the message—make sure that non-Christians heard the right, “true” kind of Christianity—they might return. Of course, many millennials were never Christian in the first place. Even putting this aside, insisting your church is not like Westboro will not lead to a sudden influx of newcomers.
The truth is, Christianity holds so much cultural power in American society that non-Christians (including non-Christian millennials) must become familiar with Christianity whether they like it or not. As a child, I had to know about Bible stories that had nothing to do with my Buddhist religious life, because otherwise I would be teased and ostracized. I had to be able to “pass” as Christian even though I wasn’t. Luckily, given the ways religion is racialized, since I was white I had the ability to “pass.” Often people of color are treated as religious others whether or not they are Christian.
The problem is not that those that practice non-Christian religions like me are ignorant of “true” Christianity. The problem is that we have to be familiar with Christianity, when Christians have the choice to learn about other religions. Further, our every religious difference is a mark that we are somehow deficient, somehow less American. Christians, when you have the instinct to instruct non-Christians about what “true” Christianity really means, know this: they probably already know every word you will say.
Christian privilege and religious oppression within the United States are generally not topics American Christians even notice, let alone discuss. Like all other privileged groups within the interlocking forms of marginalization, Christians are often made uncomfortable by this issue. Instead, they wish to hold onto the dream-world construction of the United States as a land of complete and absolute religious freedom, a land where everyone can choose their religion (albeit with the implicit understanding that everyone should choose the “right” one). Of course, only Christians can think this way—this is a crucial aspect of privilege. All other groups are intimately aware of the effects and pressures of Christian privilege in our society. They experience it every day.
When you are tempted to lament the millennial flight from churches, remember this: these people are not going nowhere—there is no such thing. These millennials are converting to other religions as well as becoming agnostics, atheists and humanists. Even those that become self-identified “nones” are not blank slates for you to draw your elaborate power-tinged fantasies upon. They have their own (often collective) spiritualities, stories, and meaningful lives. The so-called “nones” often have religious connections that we do not recognize because they do not conform to societal norms of what it means to be “religious.” None of us are a vacuum—an “ex nihilo”—for you to put a world in our place.
This sentiment is decidedly anti-pluralistic. By holding such a view, you are going beyond the possibility of discovering that some non-Christians might benefit from the Christian mythos; you are assuming that this is true of everyone. You are assuming that millennials that become (or have always been) Buddhist, Muslim or agnostic would be better off as Christians. With this assumption, Evans’ call to listen to millennials isn’t even possible. The terms of religious engagement have already been unilaterally decided.
And that is what being a religion in power means—Christians have the ability to not only articulate but also implement an approach to societal trends without listening. Perhaps many of the millennials that have left the church (you know, even the “good” kind) are better off. Perhaps they left the church not for the “wrong” reasons (that a church could fix with some effort), but rather for the “right” reasons (regardless of what the church did). Stop insinuating that if millennials have left Christianity behind (or did not identify as Christian in the first place) they have done so for selfish or misguided reasons. Given the discussions so far, unless you talk and listen to these non-Christians you will never know why they left. I can assure you, however, that they did not leave Christianity, evangelicalism, or even “religion” behind because of the decay of the moral fabric of society or because they worship at the “cult of individualism.” In short, we don’t like being used for your Christian agenda.
As a child of a counter-cultural Buddhist who left the church behind, I am intimately aware of the fact that Americans have been walking away from Christianity just as long as commentators have been worrying about it. American Christians have agonized about the possibility of their children leaving the faith since the nation’s inception. What millennials are doing is nothing new. Neither are the alarm bells. I understand the fear, I understand the instinct. In a way, the anxiety over whether future generations will continue to carry the torches of the past is both cross-cultural and not unique to American Christianity in the slightest. There is nothing wrong with valuing the passage of tradition, and I am actively involved in uncovering the transforming mechanisms of these faith lineages in my own Buddhism.
What is wrong about this situation is not the desire to evangelize or the hope for the passing of Christian traditions into the future. What is wrong is the sense of entitlement among Christians that they are somehow more deserving of a guarantee for that future and the status quo. What is wrong is the assumption that the United States should be 75% Christian or more. What is wrong is the common reaction among Christians against any threat to that significant majority. How is it reasonable to panic over the fact that some are leaving Christianity when nearly three quarters of Americans remain Christian? It reminds me of the common hair-pulling and hand-wringing over the eventual loss of the white majority. Given the way privilege and societal structures work, even if someday less than 50% of Americans identify as Christian, Christianity will maintain its highly unbalanced social power for the foreseeable future.
To put it in Christian terms, the difficult truth is that American Christianity is the religion of the new Rome. Any perceived threat to this religious empire will be greeted with every tactic necessary to maintain the status quo, including mass mournings for every real or illusionary exodus. The funeral for Caesar is a pretense to marshal the imperial forces and bring others back into the fold.
I know these will be difficult words to read; I am a Buddhist, but I am also Christian (I am religiously hybrid), and the Christian in me pauses after every word. Even the most liberal among us will willingly call the United States an empire, capitalism Satan, and fundamentalism fanatical, but we do not want to acknowledge that Christianity—even in its most liberal forms—might rest upon the assumptions of empire. I know many Christians will read this post and say I’ve missed the point about the discussions of millennials and the church. They will insist that these conversations have nothing to do with other religions; they are about empty churches. As a former youth pastor, I empathize; I know what it is like to run young adult groups where only a handful attend. I know that sadness and worry. But pain and fear does not excuse us from reflecting on the full ramifications of our privilege. Before we continue these conversations about millennials and Christianity, we must ask: why do we feel entitled to think that all or most millennials should be Christian?
The Christian part of me holds onto hope: perhaps we can begin first with humility (a part of our past, our tradition), by listening and see the millennial exodus for what it is, rather than as simply a lamentable harbinger of an apocalypse to come. To reference Evans’ post once more, perhaps the millennial Christians will recognize a lack of authenticity, the wrong kind of political Christianity, and see what justice—what God—calls for.
The Buddhist in me proceeds with more caution. We religious minorities have experienced too much, been ignored too much, been marginalized too much—we know better. I want to believe otherwise. But, even to get this point across, I know: I must quote the Bible. Those are the restraints of Christian hegemony…
There is nothing new under the sun.