Like many of you, especially those who grew up in the “Bible Belt,” I was born in the pew — a conservative, evangelical pew. Since I can remember, every Sunday was spent in worship service, Sunday school and evening worship service. Then, we’d go to church for Bible study on Wednesday, too, for good measure. And like many of you, I am currently a churchless millennial.
In 2012, 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. were religiously unaffiliated, while only 21 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 15 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 9 percent of those 65 years old or older were. From 2007 to 2012, the U.S. Christian population declined by 5 percent while the religiously unaffiliated population grew by 4.3 percent. Because of this, many churches have tried to attract millennials and Gen Zers back into their pews. At the same time, movements like #Exvangelical and #EmptyThePews have arisen to encourage young people to leave the church.
When I think about the church, I think about the important impact my youth group had on my life. I had a super-tight-knit group of friends who were on fire about our faith. Unlike my high school friendships, the bonds made in youth group were so much more intimate and open. We shared our hurts and our pain, and we knew each other’s stories. I mean, we actually knew each other. And the faith we shared wasn’t a Sunday morning social club’s “code of conduct to not go to hell.” It was real passionate faith focused on the radical love demonstrated by the gospel of Christ. Then I entered college ministry, which built on this even more as I developed new deep, personal bonds with fellow seekers and attempted to walk together with them to figure out what this Christianity thing even is. And after all that hard work, congrats! I was welcomed to “adult church.”
Instead of building deep relationships, adult church is a place to wake up early, put on your polo shirt and khakis, worship and listen to someone preach and then engage in a few minutes of small talk about how the team looks this season and your lunch plans. Then it’s “see you next Sunday,” rinse and repeat. After a few years of “church shopping” in Oxford, my friends and I now share our stories and the sacrament of Holy Communion at our home every Sunday, creating an open space where all are welcome and known.
You see, our generation doesn’t care about listening to a rocking Hillsong cover band with a light show and a pastor in skinny jeans and Vans who Justin Bieber followed back on Instagram. Those things are great, but what we really want is real, genuine community. We live in a lonely society where, outside of romantic relationships, there are almost no spaces to share our stories or spaces in which we can be known and get to know others. This is what church leadership doesn’t seem to understand. We don’t want to share your packed-out auditorium; we want to sit on your couch and share your table. We don’t want to listen to your band; we want to listen to your story and have a safe space to share our own. We all need authentic sources of spiritual community, and if we can’t get them at the church, we’ll look elsewhere.
Jacob Gambrell is a senior international studies major from Chattanooga, Tennessee.