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Millennials Search For Religious ‘Authenticity’

Millennials are forging their own path when it comes to church attendance and religion.

As a popular May Pew poll pointed out, many of these young people are veering sharply away from organized religion and towards the “nones” category, an opaque motley of agnostics, atheists, and the “free range faithful,” as Elizabeth Drescher calls them in her article for America magazine. They are, as she puts it, “ambling all about the religious landscape to partake of its diverse offerings without seeking a single set of answers (or questions) or intending to settle in one spiritual place.”

However, while they seem to be seeking more flexibility, Drescher’s article also notes that most “nones” have some specific goals in mind: they want something “relational and experiential, oriented toward being present to the spiritual based in the self, the other and the world instead of in structures of belief, belonging and behaving associated with traditional religions.”

Those who remain inside the church are seeking a similarly specific and personal religious experience—even if they’re looking for it in more conventional venues. Take this list of church qualifications, put together by a millennial named George. When Southeastern Seminary professor Chuck Lawless asked him what he would like to see in a local church, he responded with these personal guidelines:

  • Bold preaching and sound doctrine that is not watered down. The church should speak truth without sugarcoating the gospel.
  • Genuine opportunities to get involved, where he can make a real difference in the world.
  • A real community of believers, people with whom he can hang out, but who also push and challenge him.
  • A strong commitment to evangelism, especially locally. He would like opportunities to connect with and influence the local community for God.
  • Worship services that are “unrehearsed, naturally flowing and Spirit-led,” but that also have an “authenticity that validates the message and structure that follows the Lord’s leading.” He would also like to see a “strong, team-focused worship leader” and variety in worship.
  • Hospitality that welcomes others. He would like a church that welcomes strangers and does not “cocoon itself” around the familiar.
  • Humility in leadership and flexibility in terms of where and when the church gathers. The “where” is not as important as that the congregation “truly be the church” and “truly know God.”

There is a danger to creating lists such as these: it means that we come to the church with the attitude of a consumer, looking to see how it fulfills us, rather than approaching it humbly, with an awareness of our own insufficiencies. That said, George seems to have a refreshing appreciation for strong biblical doctrine, delivered forthrightly. This would seem to indicate that, despite some broader cultural trends, there are at least some millennials who want the Gospel—not a politically correct, modernized version of the Gospel.

Additionally, we can applaud George’s desire for tangible community connection within the church, reinforced by a strong local vision. There has been, amongst some churches, an abdication of local outreach—whether for the glamor of globalized missions, or for the ease of intra-church networking. His list indicates a desire for more thoughtful and thorough ministry in the church’s own backyard.

But consider some of the other words used in George’s list to describe his desired church: “genuine,” “real,” “unrehearsed,” “natural,” “authenticity,” “flexibility.”

These words are reminiscent of the “free range faithful,” who are also engaged in an earnest search for something raw, organic, “authentic.” They’re just searching for it in a different venue than George is. The urge for a more natural religious experience is an old one, and it’s been touted by various romanticists for ages, from Thoreau in Walden Pond in the 1850s to the unbound hippies of the 1960s.

In seeming stark contrast to these free-range faithful are today’s high-church hipsters: people searching for authenticity, often seeking it in the old or obscure, scorning the modern trappings of their society. By going high church these hipsters have rejected the flexible and unrehearsed vibe that George is looking for. Rather than demanding less structure and tradition, they’re finding their comfort in more.

But in their embrace of the old liturgical service, they often are tapping into an aesthetic preference—like Thoreau and George—more than they are embracing a doctrinal and theological way of life. Take Jimmy Fallon, who talked to Teri Gross of NPR about attending mass growing up: “I just, I loved the church,” he said. “I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church.” Fallon stopped going to church when the service became less traditional.

Of course, there are legitimate problems with attempts to “modernize” old and carefully preserved traditions of worship, and Fallon is right to point these out. But at least some of the millennials who are going high church seem to be doing so because they see in it that vintage, nonconformist vibe they are after. Like smoking pipes and playing old records, it gives them a sense of authenticity, of separation from the vulgarities of modern culture. And in this sense, they are still members of the free range faithful: seeking something “genuine” and “real” perhaps, but not necessarily looking beyond the beautiful traditions to understand their core. Their definition of real and genuine involves more structure and form than George’s, but even liturgy can become another consumer’s choice in today’s church.

The search for “authenticity” is difficult to define or to complete, because we ourselves are a mess of contradictions and charades. How can we properly scrutinize our own motivations—and the motivations of others—determining what is real, and what is fake? Both in personal and communal living, there are layers of facade we must break through, subconscious lies that must be confronted. Most attempts to liberate ourselves from societal or religious masks will lead to greater confusion and disguise: the hipster who smokes his pipe or listens to old records out of a desire to separate himself from society is acting out a part he has scripted for himself.

We can treat church the same way: like something that’s supposed to give us a sense of nonconformist identity, something that will go against the grain amidst a mainstream culture gone mediocre. We can create our lists, and check them twice: noting with derision any perceived melodramatic elements or rote routines in a service or its congregants. We can leave with a shrug of our shoulders, explaining that the church just wasn’t “authentic” or “genuine” enough, explaining that things seemed too rigid and rehearsed.

But to merely abdicate the church for its flaws is an improper response—just as bringing a long list of qualifications and demands is also flawed.

Leaving the church should not be done merely out of an aesthetic frustration with perceived artificiality. Pretension is truly indicative of the sin that cakes and coats our lives, covering us in layers of unreality, insulating us from each other. Whether we seek genuine religious experience within or without Christianity, we will find that artificiality constantly gets in our way—because truth is difficult to seek, and often easily disguised.

But this is what church is about: the slow stripping away of such unrealities, the slow sanctification of the body as we come—again, slowly—to see each other, and ourselves, with truth and grace. It’s a painful process, one that is often stalemated or short-circuited by our own flaws and shortcomings. No church is perfect, because no person in the church is perfect. Therefore, we will have to go through the process of becoming-real, no matter what church or denomination we join, no matter what pastor or priest we follow.

The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions. And they may again drive you away, urging you into a “free range” faith that is ever seeking the authentic.

But you can choose to stay and to love this flawed and marred church, still so far from perfection. You can choose to walk amongst the faltering limbs of this body, this ailing bride, because you know that you too are a flawed limb. You know that you, too, have caked makeup over your raw sores, and have attempted to look “normal,” even perhaps “authentic.” You know that you’ve whitewashed your tombs.

Church is not about our perfection or authenticity. There are layers of sin and blindness that we have yet to uncover. But church is about Christ, as Rod Dreher reminded his readers last week. It’s about the Gospel. And that truth reaches out to us in our states of inauthenticity, giving us a chance to rise above the facades.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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