Stained-Glass Stories, or Why a Generation Runs Away from Organized Religion

Being Facebook friends with so many pastors, it’s not uncommon for me to see an article they’ve posted about the “state of the church.” Something from Pew or some other study about how millennials are abandoning religion. Some articles will then try to explain that the church’s stance on homosexuality is usually the chief reason millennials have forgone religion.

I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt for one second that the media has done a good job of portraying churches and religious institutions, especially in politics, as being incredibly bigoted (and a lot of them are). So too, I’m sure some millennials have walked away for those reasons. But I think there’s something embedded into the ethos of my generation that’s the real reason they’re walking away, and I think it has to do with integrity and accountability. I mean, think about the culture as a whole. Agree with him or not, it’s no surprise someone like Edward Snowden is a millennial. Or that movements like Occupy Wall Street demanding money out of politics would be driven largely by college kids. There’s something about our cultural identity that screams, “We want people to be real with us.” Is it any surprise we’d ask that much out of our religious institutions as well?

Some bloggers have noted that a lot of millennials, instead of leaving the church entirely, are actually turning away from contemporary services (that were, ironically, supposed to “save the dying church”) to instead choose higher church traditions like Catholic or Anglican or Episcopal churches. You could point to Pope Francis shifting the conversation as one reason for that, but I think millennials were moving toward higher church traditions before Bergoglio became “Francis.” Why?

While I can’t answer that for the whole generation, I can tell you why I would prefer high church over contemporary Christianity: steeped in history and having stood the test of time, despite its flaws, it’s more genuine. It isn’t flash-and-bang with a praise band that, as Hank Hill puts it, isn’t “making Christianity any better; [it’s] just making rock-and-roll worse.” The ironic thing is, a lot of those praise songs, I really loved singing at church camps. But I think that’s because I was singing them by the fire with many people who were usually ready to get to the heart of matters. When you transfer a song like “Unashamed Love” from an acoustic setting in the woods where people go to spend a week earnestly trying to get to know one another to a stuffy sanctuary where people are bickering over the color of the carpet or the music they’re going to sing, it starts to feel a little more like the whole “show” of worship is at least a little staged. High church may be “staged,” as well, but the way it aims to connect people to the past brings an authenticity to it very lacking in praise worships. And that’s just one guy’s personal tangent, but it goes right back to our cultural identity screaming for something real.

In my personal search for something real in the church, one of the things I’ve always loved about churches is the stained-glass in them. Stained-glass tells stories and I love stories; I love the truth in the metaphor, which is bigger than history or facts to me. The story stained-glass tells best is a story of grace soldering something shattered into something lasting and beautiful. What better way to tell a story of crucifixion-gone-resurrection than to tell it in the form of sharp shards of many-colored glass made into a window? The art itself fits so nicely with the Christian story. But over the years, a lot of what I’ve seen in the church from both leaders and lay members alike doesn’t really depict that story.

If religious people were honest, our stained-glass windows would come with gaping, empty holes, and some of those sharp shards would be lying around on the floor while other pieces would be soldered onto the window with its sharper edges still exposed. The greatest problem facing today’s church – and perhaps the reason my generation runs away from religion – is that too many people pretend (channeling Dear Abby here) that because of resurrection the church is a museum for saints rather than a hospital for sinners. And in reality, that hospital is one where some of the sickest folks are the doctors and the nurses. Maybe when my generation flocks to higher church traditions, they’re doing so because those traditions feel more like hospitals than museums. Or to put that another way, the story of crucifixion-gone-resurrection doesn’t end with resurrection; there’s still large shards of glass lying around or missing, and we’re charged with the very difficult task of navigating those problems with honesty – a task we’re sure to fail, but maybe the real grace is in learning to admit that’s what’s happening and that that’s okay. In the meantime, instead of figuring out what social issues might be driving people away from religion or trying to mask desires for control in arguments over the type of music people will sing, the harder task before those religious groups is to abandon the need to stage who they are and just come to the table honest that they’re broken instead. Until then, my generation will probably keep leaving.

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