How often at do we hear words in our churches to the effect, “We need to get our young people involved in . . . ”? Church membership is declining and, increasingly, the people who do attend are gray-haired. We know that we need young people to participate in our activities and to provide leadership for the future. But nothing seems to work. All sorts of ideas are put forward to increase youth participation. Maybe we need to be more conservative (or liberal); or maybe our worship services should be more (or less) liturgical; or maybe we should use more (or less) modern music. None of these ideas or initiatives seem to make much difference; the decline seems to be inexorable.
The chart below shows the membership in the Episcopal church in the United States. The steep decline it shows is hardly unique to that denomination — all types of church are reporting similar trends.
Maybe one reason that young people have a declining interest in church activities is that they see the church as out of touch with their concerns. Inter-generational gaps are hardly new — young people are always anxious to cast off the ideas of their elders and to strike out on their own. But in our time the gap seems to be particularly severe. Increasingly, young people look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk, and they are angry. They are angry that we have taken so much and left them with so little. The spokesperson for this anger is that remarkable young lady, Greta Thunberg. She and others in her age group are reading articles such as this one The Future will be Worse than We Thought.
No wonder they are angry.
Jesus reserves some of his harshest criticisms for those who fail to treat children well.
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Thunberg is not playing nice.
If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.
If we were to use old-fashioned religious imagery, it’s almost as if she is condemning us for sin.
So how are we older people to respond? Greta and her friends want us to take action — they want us to at least slow down the rate of global warming. (In fact, she probably knows that it is too late, that we are facing predicaments, not problems. But she is giving us a second chance.) To use another old-fashioned religious word, she is offering us a chance of redemption. But we probably need to start with repentance — an acknowledgment of our responsibility for what we have created.
After I had finished this post and scheduled it for publication I picked up a copy of this week’s Time magazine. The article describes how young people around the world are rebelling against the mess that their elders have made. Here is the cover.
Young people have always known how smart they are. As George Orwell said,
Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.
Having said which, it does seem as if the current generation gap is wider than it was for earlier generations.