How the Wisdom of Millennial Nones Can Revitalize the Christian Church

Friday, July 7, 2017 - 2:56 pm

How the Wisdom of Millennial Nones Can Revitalize the Christian Church

In the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, churches in the United States are closing before new theses can be posted on their doors. Many within the mainline Protestant church are mourning the foreseen death of the institution that has given shape to their sense of common life, a grounding center in our pluralistic democracy, for generations.

Two commencement speeches last month reminded me why American Christianity is in trouble. In his commencement address to graduates of Liberty University this year, President Trump outlined his vision of America as a Christian “nation of believers,” aligned with his championing of religious liberty for churches. Vice President Pence addressed graduates of Notre Dame University on the imperative of freedom of speech on college campuses while dozens walked out in protest of his policies. The mainline church suffers from its affiliation with the broader cultural trends of Christian exclusivism, threatened by its own lack of integrity and openness to reform.

These findings lead me to wonder: What if the non-religious, the Nones, held the clues for how to revitalize the dying church?

As a young adult activist and interfaith educator, my life doesn’t match the profile of a typical churchgoer in the South. Yet after working with five church-related institutions, I now am part of the shrinking faction in my generation that adopts a denominational label. I also carry grievances with the white-majority church and often feel isolated within it as a millennial. Especially in the wake of the election, I am turning to my non-religious peers for guidance on community and spiritual life. I think the church needs to do the same.

Facing the decline of young-adult participation, the church’s future lies nonetheless in the hands of millennials, more than one third of whom identify as non-religious. According to the Pew Research Center, rises in the category of “Nones” are not limited to any demographic category; people across racial, socioeconomic, and regional lines have shed religious labels or never inherited them. As Courtney Martin articulates, Nones are more than their absence of religious ties. She, like many others, identifies “with the burden and joy of trying to understand how to be a good human.”

For many young adults, the choice to be non-affiliated is an intentional response to an institution that has failed to embody its own values. In Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett describes Nones as “ecumenical, humanist, transreligious. But in their midst are analogs to the original monastics: spiritual rebels and seekers on the margins of established religion point tradition back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.”

As evidenced by the How We Gather and Something More reports issued by On Being fellows Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile at Harvard Divinity School, non-religious leaders are engineering community in less traditional spaces. The need for “soulful community” is clearly present with the sense of isolation reported by young adults, exacerbated by endless mobility and political turmoil in our nation’s engulfing social crisis.

The rising leaders of the millennial generation who often emerge from the margins — the artists, activists, social entrepreneurs, and educators — are building communities across civic and identity lines for the sake of a flourishing, healthy democracy. Religious belief is not a requirement for entry into the doors of millennial sacred spaces.

To be sure, these communities can serve different purposes than the church, and one may claim belonging in both secular and religious spaces. Yet with only two in ten millennials claiming church attendance as important, the institution needs to check its privilege, examine its relevance to “outsiders,” and reconnect with its spiritual practices.

Working in the Chaplain’s Office at Davidson College, I have seen students flock to form spiritual community in non-theistic settings. Our Mindfulness community emerged this year for non-religious and religious students to ask big questions of themselves and the world together, including: How do I relate to religious traditions that leave little space for critique and reform?

Drawing upon the collective wisdom of Nones in my life, I see the need for church to value belonging before orthodoxy, to include people who do not profess faith but who desire intergenerational relationships. Without abandoning its particularity, the church could find its own traditions enriched by those whose values, purpose, and sense of meaning can expand our understandings of faith.

To attract my generation, the church needs to become more actively engaged with social praxis. The Sanctuary Movement is one example of church leaders working in interfaith coalition to protect families and defend the dignity of immigrants. The opportunity to include Nones in the church’s work of social witness could transform uninhabited buildings to become the breeding grounds of courage, love and resistance. As Nathan Schneider describes, young people are calling from the streets, “Church, act like a church.”

What would it look like for the church to ask the people who are leaving, the ones it has silenced, rejected, alienated, or ignored, what they hope to see from the institution? Casper and Angie offer this challenge:

“We invite religious institutions to change so that more of us may become closer to that which never changes.”

To act like the church, it would apologize and repent of its racist and homophobic hypocrisy. It would serve as a community center for spiritual education and social change. The opportunity exists for the church to form collectives of conscience, a hybrid space for neighbors of religious and non-religious values to share life together.

The church’s future is relevant to all of us. In an age when fundamentalism threatens public virtue and receives more airtime for it, moderate and progressive churches are sidelined in the process. These mainline institutions offer perennial wisdom to strengthen our ties to humanity beyond creedal lines; their social histories are complex and evolving. If we seek to reform the institution, from within or without, we can expand our narrow loyalties and form commitments strong enough to fill our social gaps.

While my peers and I flock to protests, book clubs, and yoga classes, we are forging new paths of spiritual engagement. At the same time, I sense that many of us yearn for tradition: a household of inherited practices and beliefs to inhabit as our full selves. Tradition offers resilience, particularly in the face of tragedy and loss, to hold together our fractured identities. Tradition can gift us with the texture of story and depth of ritual to speak across traditions, to foster self-examination and understanding of the other. I hope today for the traditions of the church to open to outsiders’ interpretation while serving as blueprints for ones that others are creating now.

Here I stand by the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“I am the rest between two notes which are somehow always in discord.”

I carry enduring hope in the Nones of my generation to build integrity and meaning in the church’s voids, to bring alive its forgotten possibilities. I sing with my feet firmly planted between the worlds, trusting harmony to emerge for the church and its reformers that listen.

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is the Interfaith Engagement Fellow at Davidson College, and she writes as an alumna of the Interfaith Youth Core. She identifies as a Presbyterian-Quaker and enjoys spoken word poetry, pilgrimage, and intergenerational dinner parties.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    I absolutely believe that places of religious worship can broaden their appeal as places of congregation and collective life by returning to the values, welcoming community rituals, and collective projects which are fundamental to the faith at hand. There are churches and synagogues well attended by people who value the community even while they don’t believe at all in the religion’s primary tenets.

    But do these religious institutions actually want to grow- or stem their decline- by expanding the participation of those who are there only for the place as a community center? How important to their identities should the religious aspect of place be?

    Regarded from the perspective of the millennial seeking a place to identify and belong, what determines whether she or he chooses to make a religious-based community center her spiritual home or one that does not have a religious theme at all? One of my (millennial) daughters as she moves from place to place finds a religious-type community center out of the appeal of traditions she loves rather than religious belief. She would be highly responsive to the sort of strategy described in the article. My (millennial) son would consider this hypocritical.

    Millennials in particular may be drawn to places of self-betterment, such as yoga studios, Crossfit, or communities of learning or practice (like makerspaces, cooking schools, or Burning Man). Alain de Boton’s School of Life is another example of an institution that brings much of the best of what communities of faith can offer without someone’s needing to believe, or feel he is pretending to believe, in a religion’s story. Can religious institutions put themselves forward as places of a form of self-betterment that is sufficiently significant to millennials that they would choose those opportunities over the ones I have listed, given that people’s recreational time and energy to commit are limited?

  • Amor Fati

    I am struggling with all of this on a personal level. Having grown up in and loved the Lutheran Church most of my life, I noticed now, being in my last quarter of my life, that it can no longer meet all my needs and expectations of my spiritual life. I am officially still a member, contribute monetarily to my declining and struggling congregation, but I expanded my practice and beliefs to other faiths and philosophies, incorporating them into my personal life.
    I have attended and benefited greatly from Vipassana ten day meditation classes, look forward to my biweekly Reiki sessions, enjoy reading about the teachings of great mystics and, in short, integrate everything spiritual, which resonates with me, into my spiritual journey. I now look at the great traditional Christian teachings as preparation to a broader, more inclusive spirituality–they no longer meet all my needs.
    In my advanced age, I have come to look at the path to God as a very individual und personal journey, and believe there are as many paths to God as there are people on this earth. Every human being has to find his/her own way. I still love the old, familiar hymns, the familiar and cherished church service of my Lutheran faith, but they no longer suffice.

  • Gregory

    The author, Amor, & Gabby all make excellent points. As a 55 year old baby boom/gen x cusper I deeply resonate with it all. Personally, as a follower of Jesus, or The Way, I’m more concerned with how the ” Body of Christ” is manifested or revealed in this reality than its various forms & functions. Make no mistake, they’re very important. When I hear the cry of Others heart I hear faith, hope, & love. But The greatest of these is Love. And so as Jesus said; wherever two or more gather in my name….

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  • I ponder and pray about what the 21st Century monastic/marginalized Christian community looks, feels, prays, and acts like these days? I believe that this reformation will happen in some ways as it has before. The Divine will connect with wounded persons, seekers, survivors, and those who feel lost or unknown. Grace will appear closer to the fringes than to Christianity’s Center. The challenge for those of us who are managing, pastoring, and proclaiming Christianity is to do what we can with our resources, our wisdom, and our courage to connect with nones, dones, and don’t want tos. I understand the author to suggest that we must be open to listening and not condescending. We indeed have liturgies, experiences, sacred spaces, and spiritual practices to share. These too may stand the test of time and/or become redacted as they have throughout Christianity’s history. What conversations may we participate in. Perhaps we simply begin with unique and routine encounters to ask someone younger and unknown questions without answers, prayers without solutions, intercessions worthy of communion. I don’t know. My time as College Chaplain taught me to listen attentively, be authentic, and be open to all sorts of opportunities for God to show up in small yet profound ways.

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