Two cultural realities inform the way many clergy and lay leaders are thinking about church these days. First, it is fairly clear that there has been a decrease in younger people attending church. The Pew Research Center published a report recently detailing the median ages for many Christian denominations in the United States (and for other religions as well); the median age for Episcopalians is 56. Such a decrease has come at a time when millennials have officially surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation.
But is this transition visible in the turnover of leadership in our parishes? While many factors contribute to the decline of younger worshipers, it is symptomatic of a larger failure of the Church to root parishioners in a life of discipleship and a life of mission, which are ultimately funded and fueled by a robust life of worship and prayer — an encounter with the Triune God.
Second, and quite amazingly, millennials have shown greater interest in traditional forms of worship. Many writers have commented on this trend, but an article in The American Conservative highlights these concurrent realities in the following way:
America’s youth are leaving churches in droves. One in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion, according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, and 55 percent of those unaffiliated youth once had a religious identification when they were younger. Yet amidst this exodus, some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox branches of the faith. This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.
One does wonder if hard data will substantiate such claims in the long run, but in the short term, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that many young people are longing for a greater sense of transcendence in their faith and piety than what may be found in services with less vintage than Pixar films. Indeed, I’ve found this to be true in my own interactions with college students. We live in a frenetic age in which much about our daily existence is in constant flux, and therefore I believe many students long for a piety that does not ride the waves of cultural and theological faddism; many long for a piety that transcends the “cultural now,” and thereby provides a place of solace and quiet in a world of noise.
A former college student and parishioner of mine has an amazing leather bomber jacket he received from his grandfather, and I reminded him that Christian traditions are like his jacket: They have substance and history; they ground people in another time, and thereby, they ground people in their own time. To paraphrase Alisdair MacIntyre, we can only know what to do and who we are if we know what story we inhabit.
Everyone is searching for a meaningful story. A designer friend of mine mentioned recently that “heritage” prints are en vogue. Are they trendy because people long for something different or because they offer real substance and rootedness beyond the present? The answer is Yes.
Similarly, we might ask, are hipsters interested in vintage fashions because they are trendy, or because they offer a fashion with the appearance of timelessness, dignity, and class? The answer is Yes. Who wants to perpetuate the fashion of the ’80s?
Here then, is my proposal: The Church needs to seize upon this cultural moment and pull from the riches of our tradition to meet the longings and desires of the so-called unchurched or dechurched. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here; we can trust our traditions to do more of the heavy lifting of discipleship than our newly baked-up methodologies. For Anglicans, I propose one of the greatest gifts we can give is Evensong.
But don’t take my word for it.
Consider this endorsement from an atheist, “Apostates for Evensong,”, or this article from the Telegraph promising that future British leaders are on campus … at Evensong, or this writer in The Guardian who equated traditional with dull, but to her own amazement called Evensong “shattering and utterly gorgeous.” Just last night I spent some time with a parishioner who came to faith at Princeton through, you guessed it, Evensong, which suggests an apologetic of beauty.
But why are so many Evensong services across English cathedrals and parishes nearly empty?
To be clear, I am not suggesting “if you build it, they will come.” One cannot simply start a service and hope to attract millennials with our “shiny new thing.” There must be an intentional commitment to outreach, relationship, and catechesis. It may be possible to trust in the power of the liturgy alone to make disciples, neglecting the essential relational presence that draws people to the liturgy in the first place (ultimately, through the Holy Spirit). This does not mean, however, that we refuse to build up and hand on the best of what we have, especially in a moment when it might be our most effective tool in the toolbox.
This understanding of Evensong as a tool for outreach and for making disciples is somewhat unhelpful, because it instrumentalizes Evensong, making it something other than a gift given to God as worship. And yet the integrity of the “thing itself” and the effect it has on others simply cannot be severed.
Does the painter make art because painting has inherent value and beauty, or does she paint because the painting can become a gift to others? Again, the answer is simply Yes. Regardless of who encounters Evensong, it is worth offering as a gift. But we might be surprised by who ends up loving it, who becomes transfixed by the “beauty of holiness.”
I wonder, what would happen if churches near colleges and universities or in urban centers made an Evensong liturgy part of their outreach plan? Would our present culture — fatigued by polarization, weighed down by conflict, and untethered from the ancient — receive silence, beauty, and transcendence as a welcome gift from the Church, and thereby encounter anew the Triune God?
I think it is worth a shot.