Christianity in the States is fascinating right now. On one side, we see millennials leaving the Church at a prodigious rate. On the other hand we have Pope Francis, a cagey old Jesuit who, almost unbelievably, is emulating Christ. People who stopped caring about Christianity are taking notice of the 76-year-old Argentinian as his radical style of love which, if I'm reading the Gospels correctly, should be the standard Christian practice.
But it isn't.
Anymore the Christian Church (Catholic and Protestant) seems less a social institution and more of an anachronism that stifles progress. It reminds us that sex is bad and guilt is preferable. Near every traditional, conservative service I've attended in the year has left me feeling that I should lean more toward solipsism than community. I understand that cultivating my spiritual life is important but there's a major difference between guided, personal spiritual growth and selfish, tunneled intent on what my afterlife is going to look like.
Meanwhile, liberal, progressive Christians poke fun at their conservative brothers and sisters for their backward, outdated theology. Yet liberal Christians struggle to get enough people in the pews on Sunday to call themselves a congregation. Sure, they're on the right side of history when it comes to many social issues, but in their efforts to be relevant and impactful, they sacrifice spiritual formation for lofty exegesis and incisive theological criticism. By the time the sermon is over, I'm drowning in despair from constant reminders of how poor off the world is or I'm searching for the nearest theological dictionary to figure out what the preacher was trying to tell me about the historical Jesus.
Then there's Pope Francis, simply loving and living -- or so he's portrayed. Unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis has seemingly said no to the Second Temptation in the desert, choosing an unassuming chair and a simple robe rather than a gilded throne and red Prada shoes (see Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor). He's in the slums, handing out kisses and high fives to the common people because he possesses the radical notion that he is common too. His mediocrity makes him exceptional.
He is in the national spotlight and people are excited, perhaps not to convert to Christianity, but excited that for once, finally, the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant, is doing something worthwhile. They appear to be on the right side of history. For once, a Christian leader is working hard to lift up those they talk about on Sunday rather than forgetting about them Monday through Saturday. This may seem like an unfair indictment but for many millennials, it's simply their perception.
Christian leaders are falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to re-engage millennials. Millennials, it would seem, do not want to be re-engaged, or, they do not want to be re-engaged by the current Church. They are inspired by the pope, but see him as an exception rather than the rule. The standard Christian leaders millennials have grown up with are elderly white men from North Carolina, Michigan, Texas, and Mississippi, pushing Victorian values and doing their best to keep women, minorities, and the queer community under their thumb, all in the name of Jesus and strong American values.
Millennials are creating for themselves a new set of values, values informed not by 16th century Reformation theology but by lived experience. Globalization and online communities have convinced us that no religion is absolutely true or absolutely false. Our spiritual journeys are more "choose-your-own-adventure" than "connect the dots." We pick and choose from a variety of traditions, practices, and beliefs, not out of disrespect, but because it's what works and, quite honestly, it's what we have been indoctrinated to do. Every aspect of American culture insists that we "do it our way," actively catering to our every wont and desire, yet, religious leaders remain surprised when millennials apply the same ethos to spirituality and religion.
Like with every generation before it, millennials are attempting to create a world that they feel is worth living into. They are trying to absorb wisdom from the past while cleaving away ideologies that are outmoded and inhibit progress. Like all young people, millennials look for guidance from leaders such as Pope Francis but also wish the freedom to create their own avenues. As millennials and the Church move forward, it would seem the best both can hope for is a healthy exchange of ideas and wisdom; where both are encouraged to learn what works best from the other while allowing each the respect (and distance?) they deserve.
Follow Andrew Schwartz, M Div. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@schwartzajs