Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, the recent results of a study by the Pew Research Center should come as no real surprise. In fact, at the risk of being self-referential, it confirms much of what my wife and I wrote in our book, MySpace to Sacred space: God for a New Generation, more than two years ago.

The Study arrives at a few key points, which include the facts that younger people are as interested in making space for both God and prayer in their lives as the generations that precede them (in some ways more so), but they increasingly don’t see the church as the necessary mediator for that experience.

There are tons of reasons for this, including general mistrust of and disaffection with institutions as a whole. Since Vietnam and Watergate, our perceptions of institutions have been in precipitous decline; add to that daily news stories of corporate malfeasance and millions of layoffs and you have a villain in the making.

And let’s not revisit the scores of religious figureheads who have succumbed to temptation and corruption, and the institutions that too often have tried to justify, minimize or even cover up the problems. On top of all of this, our understanding of community has become more disparate and virtualized with the advent of social networking. Though some may see this as a poor substitute for “real” community, at least it’s something.

After all, where were all these people when front porches were replaced by attached garages? Or when nuclear families gave way to professional upward mobility? Or when more than half of our parents got divorced and moved hundreds or thousands of miles apart? to blame social networking for the dissolution of physical community is to focus on the finger, ignoring the thing it’s pointing to.

But I digress…

A changing/evolving sense of community aside, there are some other interesting differences between younger people today and those older than them, summed up well by this paragraph in the Pew Study:

In their social and political views, young adults are clearly more accepting than older Americans of homosexuality, more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation of human life and less prone to see Hollywood as threatening their moral values. At the same time, Millennials are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. And they are slightly more supportive than their elders of government efforts to protect morality, as well as somewhat more comfortable with involvement in politics by churches and other houses of worship.

Though some may read these more “progressive” social values as an indicator of younger people straying from the moral values imparted by traditional church, we in mainline and more moderate to progressive independent congregations should see this as a tremendous opportunity for relevance. But be careful not to read this as an opportunity to pack your pews with youth and young adults. It’s more about a chance to connect over shared values of social justice and change, and in so much as we can be an agent or facilitator of that change younger people seek in their communities, they may find a great ally in the church.

But they still may never come to worship. So what’s it going to be, church? Real, relevant, gospel-inspired change, or survival of the institution of church as we know it/ There’s a real possibility we may not be able to have both.

When I speak and lead workshops for congregations and denominations, I often pose this question: if you could fully live in to you church’s mission today, but if the cost would be shutting your doors forever, would you do it? Of course this is a hypothetical posed in extreme language on purpose, to push people within the church to consider what’s really most important to them.

Consider Jesus (I know, a radical concept). He never had a church building, no budget and no salary. He walked around, noticed needs before him and went about meeting them, then he called others to do likewise. He shared wisdom through story and didn’t worry about retirement packages, balance sheets or mortgages. He focused instead on living out what he believed every day, and left the rest up to God.

Now, I’m not one to leave myself out of the group that this challenges. Though I don’t get paid by my church, my wife does, and the prospect of giving that up and simply walking the earth and meeting needs – especially with two kids – seems nuts. And I’m not saying this is necessarily what we’re all called to as church leaders, but it’s a question worth asking.

If, like the rich man in the Gospels, we’re coming to Christ and asking what is required of us, what will be our reaction if the answer is “leave everything behind and follow me”? What if the trend of younger people walking away from church is the kind of necessary pruning back that scripture calls for, rather than the cultural crisis of faith that many churches label it as?

Yes, there is still a need for communities of people offering one another love, wisdom, support and mutual accountability, to challenge people to put their faith into transformational action and to give them the tools to do so. And insomuch as institutional church can facilitate that, I believe there is a place for it in today’s culture. But the degree to which the existing buildings, paid staff, boards of directors and bylaws will – or even should – be a part of that, I’m not so sure.

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