This is Part 2 of a multi-part series about college, faith, and the expectations of millennials from the perspective of two near-graduates: David and Lizzie, Mockingbird’s finest interns.
In our first “Millennials” post, Lizzie and I discussed the confluence of work and play in college and the uncertainties in discerning our next steps. In the second, we thought about our church experiences as young people. We noticed, as we talked and wrote, that we spend a lot of time in worship, and that worship is rarely focused on Jesus, much less anything beyond our phone screens. For Lizzie, jamming out at a Widespread Panic concert may be a peak religious experience, and for me, it may be sitting in the front row at The Revenant (hopefully an equal jab). But, in search of a pure high, and with the knowledge that those transient peaks inevitably turn into valleys, we’ve both found ourselves darkening the doors of church on Sundays. While church attendance growing up was often a product of what felt like an obligation to right conduct, no longer being forced to go has made us think about why we might continue to, and why this could be important to us.
Both of us suffer under the indelible burden of wanting to be and look cool. Might as well out and say it. An opportunity to own a worldview and a sense of self independent from that of high school and before propel a lot of inward thinking and make every move a calculation based on some abstract cool factor. How does church fit into that? Well, it has to, because we want church and Christianity to fit into our elaborate and disjointed thoughts about ourselves. We want what we worship to be as hip as we think we are.
For the longest time, “Church” did not mean “God” in my mind. “Church” meant friends, or appearances, or boredom. In fact, I never found “religion” in church at all until I came to college. I appreciated a stain-glass window or two, maybe, and the opportunity to walk up an aisle and be seen during communion (embarrassingly), but rarely the presence of a minister. Never a sermon.
I participated in a faith-based ministry throughout high school, but my dedication was of a somewhat dichotomous, superficial kind: on the one hand, I was there for social reasons. On the other, I was there to learn about Christianity, but even then, I took great pains to distinguish this group’s mission from a separate, “lesser” entity, or what I conceived to be church. I struggled to find peace in literal sanctuaries, so I looked for sanctuary elsewhere: in nature, libraries, or in school. Sometimes I felt that a good concert was the closest I’d ever come to feeling sanctity in a ceremony.
However, with college came a slew of various anxieties and obligations (as we mentioned in our last post), and though I still relied on my previous “sanctuaries” for peace, the opportunities to actually inhabit these spaces became scarce. Furthermore, my new life felt tangibly void of “purity” and “wholesomeness,” especially given the nature of those first few weeks of school, which were overwhelmingly hectic and overwhelmingly free. I began seeking out religious connection within a medley of communities, but as I attended “Christian” event after “Christian” event, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. By the end of first year, I had developed a rather schismatic sense of self, which both served to drive me toward Church and away from it at the same time.
In the course of that year, my eager search for a Christian community had been interrupted by the entrance of a few major components, which for the most part, tend to trouble nearly all religious college students at some point or another: 1st, academia; 2nd, new friends (and a “revved up” social life); and 3rd, our own doubt. Of course, the first two are not evils, and the third is only natural, but in college, the realm of scholarly conversation + exciting, alluringly “different” people + the encouragement to question everything = a realm often palpably devoid of God, and frankly, a realm comfortably so.
When I was 18, trying to find a group for whom (1) Christianity was “cool” and in which (2) I could fit in, I noticed certain behavioral expectations entirely different from those ruling the “opposite team,” or the “team” with whom I’d been spending the most time (a team for whom a “religious life-style” was both dull and guilt-laden). From what I saw, the expectations of the “religiously upright,” once breached, served as a sort of social and moral guillotine. I, for one, was toeing the line of “indecency.” To be Christian was to be “church,” and to be “church” was to be pious, innocent, gendered, and vulnerable. At least, that’s what I perceived. There was a certain satisfaction that came with maintaining that image, but the approval from that group meant disapproval from the other; as soon as I begin to err, I felt both an internal dissonance and an internal euphoria.
The “millennial” trouble with religion, and more particularly, the “millennial” distaste for church has developed out of our own ironically religious devotion to “millennial values.” At this age, it’s cool to be a liberal. It’s cool to be conscious of society, well-read, individualistic, “quirky,” and assertive. Or, alternatively, it’s cool to be “into finance,” to be a staunch capitalist, an entrepreneur full of ideas and gusto. Either way, one should know who they are and one should associate with other people who exhibit those qualities. We value tolerance, equality, adventure, and a distinctively incongruous affinity for group solidarity and individuality within that group. “The trouble with church,” then, is that many people my age equate religion with political intolerance, or judgment, or sterility.
Of course, Christianity is meant to provide human beings with the conceptual opposite. However, it wasn’t until even the past year that I began to truly hear sermons. To see them as words of comfort and renewal that enveloped my own problems and relieved me of many personal burdens. To rely on the religious figures in my life not as mighty authorities but as empathetic bolsters. To see church and questioning not as mutually exclusive, nor Christian forgiveness and human fallacy as incompatible.
Most often, I feel like Holden Caulfield when he said “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.” I read the book, but with confusion and uncertainty. I know, at least, that the words are for me. I used to sympathize more with this quote: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” Now, I recognize that we all are, and church does not condemn these lies, but removes the need for us to tell them.
One question mark for young Christians going off to college or into the professional sphere is whether to continue to go to church, and, after that, which one to attend. Ideally, this choice can be made apart from external pressures (for example, pressures from parents), but that’s much easier said than done. For one thing, it just feels good to be able to call home and mention the nice sermon from Sunday or the passage discussed in a weekly Bible study. Part of that satisfaction is the recollection of the moments of peace in those settings, but checking off boxes and pleasing people can feel good, too. Trying to reconcile the pressure between growing up in a Christian home and choosing a belief system that feels personal and not simply inherited can be difficult.
I saw my parents’ benign intentions to have me connected to a Christian community when visiting old family friends for a funeral in my hometown. As a kid, my parents’ friends were a bit of a mystery to me. They always seemed eager to talk about prayer and “God’s hand” in their lives. This became the lexicon I accepted as normal, but I never took too much time to reflect on what they were really talking about. I also failed to see the bond that perpetuated these relationships for my parents. Why were they so close to people from such different backgrounds and with seemingly so little in common? My selfish, young mind never made the obvious connection that in reality what held them together was a deeper sense of community than I could then see. I recognized it for the first time on the sad occasion of the funeral and was given a special lens for perceiving why I would have felt a certain unspoken pressure to stay involved in church after leaving the nest.
There wasn’t some obnoxious desire on my parents’ part that I stay sheltered from the big, bad world or hang out only with people who spoke in Christianese all the time. On the contrary, the pressure, if it was there at all, was a desire grounded in love that I get with a community of people tied together based on more than regional or socioeconomic ties. Bonding based on the crazy, radical concept of the Gospel, that as much as I try to fake that I’m ok, I have a serious need, and I don’t have the power to help myself. As much as the message millennials are spoon-fed everyday is that we’re special and can achieve great things, the rest available in worship says walk free in the love of Christ.