If you’ve been with me from the beginning, you’ll recall that I owe a couple of entries to the Barna Group (read them here and here). David Kinnamen’s at it again—on Friday he spoke with Michel Martin on NPR. You can listen to the clip and read the transcript here; thanks to the Episcopal Café for pointing me to it.
It’s a short interview, but Kinnamen said some interesting stuff. A big point he makes is that young adults leave because churches don’t address their complicated life issues. Describing the study findings Kinnamen says, “…in a nutshell, what we learned is that churches aren’t really giving [young adults] an answer to these complicated questions that they’re facing, these lifestyle issues and challenges that they’re facing. And it’s not really a deep or thoughtful or challenging response that most churches are providing to them.”
This is the same across denominations, he says. While there are obviously differences, and the interview-style responses that make up the bulk of the Barna Group’s study are necessarily very individual and subjective, Kinnamen expressed surprise at how similar many of the responses were. “I think the overriding theme,” he said, “was that this generation, in so many ways, is post-institutional, regardless of their traditions.”
I’ve heard this opinion/generalization about my generation before, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. This is why “house church” models are seeing a resurgence, why “spiritual but not religious” is such a common claim. In many respects, I think this has merit—institutions have problems, and sometimes those problems are too much. (Shout out to the Bohemiam Bowmans who’ve been blogging about leaving the institutional church.)
The thing is, though, I like the institutional church. I like denominations, as I admitted last week. I like the communities of practice we build and the ways we find to run them. I like knowing how the church structure works in a given denomination, how it evolved and is ever evolving. I even like the spreadsheets and official communications and annual meetings. Because even the down-and-dirty, boring, painful stuff is part of the church that houses so many people who have important roles in my life. TEC is very much an institution, with all the baggage and benefits attached to that status; it’s a special institution to me, and I’m not ready to leave it behind.
I think Mariann Budde, the recently installed bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, says this well in The Washington Post. When asked why TEC matters, she replied, “The complete answer…is I don’t know if it matters. Does God really care? But then I realize that I really care. And I think of all the people in my world who also really care. I wouldn’t be a Christian without them.”
So I’m troubled by the idea of being a post-institutional generation. It seems like a throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater situation. Yeah, institutions are broken. Including the Church as an institution. But just because something is broken doesn’t mean there’s no value in it, or that it’s not worth trying to fix (I mean, look at me!).
What I like about Kinnamen, though, as I’ve mentioned before, is that he ultimately emphasizes relationships as the way to build healthy churches. He refers to it as “reverse mentoring”—while Millennials are open to learning from their elders, older generations also have something to learn from Millennials. Kinnamen says, “So this idea of reverse mentoring––we need young people to help enliven and invigorate our congregations and we also need older adults to give good life coaching in the midst of these very different and complicated times that young people are facing.”
In a way, valuing and emphasizing meaningful relationships moves toward the post-institutional, but I think relationships are what give life to institutions. So I’m staying in the institutional church. I’m going in deep—joining groups and committees; giving time, talent, and money; learning how the structure works. And down deep there, I’m building. Building relationships and, I’d like to think, building a future.
What do you think? Is the institutional church worth saving? Is the Millennial generation a post-institutional one? Are relationships and institutions compatible?