In the Fourth Nocturn

Evangelizing to millennials

The Guardian: Church in crisis as only 2% of young adults identify as C of E

In terms of the survival of the Church as an active force in society as a whole, this statistic could hardly be more alarming. I argued in my last essay that panicking about declining numbers does the church no good, and that point stands — but the signs are clear that the younger generation are particularly disengaged from the church. If, as I mentioned, we are to ‘continue to ensure that our parishes appeal to newcomers and regular churchgoers alike, and that our pastoral care, our communal worship, and the theology we have which underlies them both accommodate the practical needs of modern parishioners’, the millennial generation is one particularly important to appeal to.

The first challenge facing the Church in evangelizing to millennials is their general disinterest in engaging with religious and philosophical ideas. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the first generation for a century to be poorer than their parents are more interested in the more practical aspects of making ends meet than in dealing with questions of the nature and ultimate purpose of existence; but, as I wrote in my last essay, this very quality — ‘just about managing’ materially — makes millennials one of the demographic groups who most need the spiritual care of the Church, even though they seem not at all to realize it.

Philosophers speak of the modern zeitgeist requiring a ‘presumption of atheism’ when approaching philosophical questions. I am, to some extent, more optimistic. Among millennials, I would speak rather of a presumption of agnosticism — a default disinterest in the whole question of God. The number of millennials who have considered the question in detail and actively concluded that there is no God is relatively small: we do not have to save people from the hands of the New Atheists; we just have to convince them that the question is worth taking seriously.

Once we have done that, we are bound to encounter all sorts of problems in getting millennials round to the ideas central to Christianity — problems that would have been unthinkable when catechizing earlier generations who had a much stronger background of Christianity in their lives. One which I think is bound to arise is when discussing the theme of sin.

A church which does not bring its members to confront their sin is not a church of Jesus Christ, but millennials seem abnormally uncomfortable doing this. It is a generation that easily sees itself as having been sinned against — undoubtedly, we have been and continue to be sinned against — but is very uncomfortable seeing itself as sinful. In popular understanding the idea of ‘sin’ is often understood as implying an outdated and rigid moral system of biblical commandments, and not as part of an evolving and dynamic understanding of ethics intended to move one to improve one’s relationship with others, with the world, with oneself, and with God.

I speak from personal experience and a growing sense of self-knowledge that shirking blame becomes an ugly habit and a personality flaw. Naïve blundering into this subject will result in alienation, not conversion. Attempts to draw millennials back into the church must approach the issue of sin with great sensitivity and care. The Church of England has never been a church of the fire-and-brimstone preaching style, but we must do more than merely avoiding such things. There is no one-size-fits-all method, but it may help to start talking about what sin itself actually is. Millennials like Buddhism which has a very similar idea of wrongdoing to Christianity, but does not and has never cloaked it in the popularly poisonous word ‘sin’, nor made the mistake of presenting its definition as coming directly from a hard-and-fast set of scriptural commandments.

Then there is an issue of politics and demographic optics. Millennials tend to lean left on most economic issues. Thanks to the Church’s work with food banks and the Archbishop of Canterbury appearing at the Trades Union Congress, the general public is starting to become aware that the Church institutionally is now on the political left, at least so far as economics are concerned.

But that is not the impression one gets ‘on the ground’ at a Church of England parish: the Church of England is Guardian readers preaching to Daily Mail readers; an aging congregation brings with it a tendency for the political view of the average congregation to reflect the political views of the older generations.

In an increasingly politically-active society, with a highly politically-interested generation of young people, there has been a tendency to the political segregation of social groups — witness families being torn apart over Brexit, for example. A politically segregated church would be anathema to the very notion of the Church as communion of all the faithful — so this is also an issue where parishes and ministers must tread carefully, neither alienating older current parishioners (by the number of them that seem to be sticking around, the Church seems to be pretty good at that already) nor younger newcomers who need to hear about the Kingdom of God’s egalitarian economic policies.

But while the Church of England institutionally is already on the cutting-edge of economic politics, it is a lumbering dinosaur on social issues, particularly issues (such as LGBTQ rights) which are hot-button topics for millennials: 20% of us identify as LGBTQ.1 Statistically, that means that just about every single person under the age of 35 either is LGBTQ or has at least one LGBTQ friend. Even for those who are themselves straight, are they supposed to go to a church they would be embarassed to bring their queer friends to? The half-hearted acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians by the Church of England’s establishment is reason for me, personally, to still be cautious about revealing my faith to my queer friends: though they may know abstractly that there are many LGBTQ people in the Church, they don’t really understand why, and as a queer person in the Church I feel constantly obliged to apologize for the party line’s 19th century ideas about sexuality.

And, again, the problem is also on the ground at the parish level: before I began transitioning gender and was presenting as a man partnered with another man, I was even more cautious about outing myself in unfamiliar churches. (Though as of writing I’ve yet to attend any church, even my own, while presenting as female, it’s a lot more difficult to hide one’s transgender status when one doesn’t pass.) Much is made by the right-wing journalistic peanut gallery of the millennial obsession with ‘safe spaces’, but even for me, new churches feel like very unsafe spaces for me to come as a transgender woman.

To appeal to millennials, the Church must become affirming. The shibboleth for affirmingness is still same-sex marriage. I understand all the political reasons why it has not yet come through in the Church of England.2 I even understand the theological objections to it, although I vehemently disagree with them. If schism in the Anglican Communion is the price for saving the Church from ruin outside of the Global South, that is a price I’m willing to pay.3

LGBTQ rights are not the only issue on which the Church of England needs to ‘get with the times’, but they are by far the most prominent to my mind, for the reasons listed above.

Lastly, a word on liturgy and worship. With its ‘Follow the Star’ campaign in 2018 the Church of England has neatly seized on an already popular phenomenon and trend (church attendance at Christmas was already rising). The Bishop of Manchester has wisely suggested a comparable seasonal focus throughout the year: by turning up the emphasis on the liturgical calendar which we already observe, and drawing more distinction between the church seasons than we currently do, to guide people into the life of the church as a whole. To some extent this may be wishful thinking (the popular desire to attend Church at Christmas may well spring from nostalgic memories of nativity plays and carol services during youth, but not many will have memories of excellent Lenten, or even Candlemas or Eastertide, services), but it’s certainly worth a go, and there is plenty of scope for it: the great mystery of the Advent season as distinct from Christmas, and the inwardly reflective nature and self-bettering idea of Lent, are hardly acknowledged in the civil observances of Christmas and Easter.

The other liturgically-based sign of growth in the church is an increase in the popularity of Evensong, even among millennials: I have had friends come with me to Evensong services who would never think of going to Sunday morning communion. It’s hard to see what in particular draws people to this service, but I think it would be excessively cynical to say that it is merely the ‘free concert’ effect: there is something in this style of worship that is continuing to appeal as a religious experience, and which is even beginning to appeal to people more now than in the past. I will deal with this subject again in future posts, so I won’t attempt to analyse Evensong’s attraction to the otherwise unchurched here, but instead merely conclude by inviting churches which themselves experience an uptick in attendance for their evening prayer services compared to others to reflect on what it is about them which draws people in, and if there are any aspects of this growth which they might be able to re-create at their other services.

  1. I am aware that this statistic is based on data from the United States, not England — but I don’t see why the situation in England should be much different in this particular regard. If you know of a more relevant statistic, I would be pleased to hear about it.

  2. Living where I do, the ecclesiological nonsense of only some Anglican provinces allowing same-sex marriage is particularly obvious: same-sex marriage is not available in my own Church of England chapel in Berlin, but Anglicans who want a same-sex marriage can just visit, or employ the services of the clergy of, the US Episcopal Church parishes in Frankfurt and Munich.

  3. Only because I think such a schism would be much smaller than most people seem to predict, and also because however big, it would inevitably be short-lived. To my knowledge, no schism over such a trifling, barely doctrinal issue has ever lasted more than a few decades; and Anglican ecclesiology and our now well-established practice of open communion means that schism is a general’s war, of interest mainly to clergy, and would be hardly noticed by parishioners.