Last spring, as churches began to reopen after months of pandemic closure, a Mennonite pastor said to me, “If people don’t go back to church after COVID, it’s probably because their priorities weren’t right in the first place.”
It can’t be that simple, I thought. What else is going on?
To find out, I designed a project to explore pandemic-era changes in religious practices. I interviewed 20 millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) from a Mennonite background in the Harrisonburg, Va., area.
I had just read about a study by the Pew Research Center that found Americans were not going back to church as usual. The March 2021 study found that about 40% of people who had been regular attenders before the pandemic were showing up for in-person services again.
The numbers were moving in the right direction, but they also suggested a very different “new normal.” In-person church attendance is 30% to 50% lower than before the pandemic, according to an estimate by the Barna Group, a research firm that studies faith in the United States.
I was curious what this trend means for millennial Mennonites. I straddle the birth-year line between millennials and Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), so I watch the cohort from both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective. One thing millennials are known for, at least in church circles, is their large-scale disinterest in the Sunday morning service.
I suspected, if the dinner-table conversations at my house were any indication, that the question of millennials and religious practices was complicated.
My project used the framework of “lived religion” — homespun, noninstitutional, voluntary expressions of faith. Lived religion focuses on the ways we cultivate transcendence day-to-day. I asked people how their spiritual practices had changed.
Question 1: What spiritual practices did you start or stop during the lockdown?
Even those who had not been regular churchgoers adjusted their spiritual rhythms to fit with pandemic-era realities. (See responses in box at right.)
Some adapted by moving spiritual activities to COVID-appropriate locations: Bible studies went online or outdoors; prayer times were facilitated by apps at home. One woman arranged for a solitary prayer retreat at a Mennonite camp.
Adaptations often included spending time in nature. One said, “I started being more present to our acreage. That helps me feel more connected to God.” Another started his day with a walk around the neighborhood while reflecting on things he is grateful for.
Some people interacted with their faith communities in new ways. One woman told of making more space for conversations; she was getting better at conversing by text messaging. Another served her community by volunteering at a food bank. Another reached out to struggling friends by inviting them to join him in playing online video games.
Each made some change to nurture the spiritual life. I had not thought of this when I read the Pew study about the trend toward decreased church attendance.
Question 2: What is it about this practice that works for you?
Here are some responses:
It keeps me grounded in time and space.
I want to make Sunday a Sabbath in some way.
I want to get our family off screens.
I want to get out, move and be connected to the story of God’s people.
Nature makes me feel closer to God.
It helps me stay connected to people.
It is an antidote to feeling exhausted by fear and vigilance.
It helps me let go of control and see my life through the lens of different generations.
While juggling pandemic disruptions, these millennials were practicing spiritual disciplines. They were still praying, still serving, still caring for the people around them. Their practices looked different from churchgoing, but they weren’t turning into spiritual dropouts.
This matches what we are learning about millennials and their values: They may be less likely to show up in church, but they are not done with God. Even those who identify as “nones” — religiously unaffiliated — aren’t necessarily secular, atheists or hostile toward religion. In fact, one poll found at least a third said religion was at least somewhat important in their lives, and 41% said they prayed daily, weekly or monthly.
It may be helpful to think of this group as a Sunday diaspora, or scattering. Millennial Mennonites are being carried by a variety of forces — cultural, technological and theological — away from the church services of their childhoods.
The former picture of church — a community of extended family networks in which everyone gathers at a specific time and place for spiritual input from credentialed pastors and a unique chance to catch up with friends — no longer holds true. With technology, millennials are connected to everyone, all the time. They can listen to meaningful podcasts while running errands. If there has to be a sermon, it had better conclude with a discussion.
Many will never go back to church as their predecessors knew it. But millennials are not spiritual orphans or failures. They are not necessarily seed that fell on rocky ground (Mark 4), spiritually bankrupt or atheists.
This modern diaspora calls to mind an ancient one: the people of Jerusalem being forced to relocate to Babylon in 586 BCE. Those who survived feared for the faith of their children. Would they forget God? How could their faith survive without the temple and the priests? How could they sing the songs of Zion in a strange land? (Psalm 137:4).
But God’s instructions were clear: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:5-6).
The people I interviewed were doing something like that. They were developing new ways to practice their faith. Practices that could withstand a pandemic and church closures. Home-based practices that didn’t require professional clergy or a special building. They were trying their hand at singing the songs of Zion in a new land.
Some millennials, and older folks too, will not go back to church after COVID. But what they’re not doing isn’t the only thing that deserves attention. We should also notice what millennials are doing with their faith practices and listen when they tell what works for them.
Debbi (Diener) DiGennaro teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. Her research interest is the intersection of faith and social behavior. She was Eastern Mennonite Missions’ regional director in East Africa for 11 years. The full paper, of which this article is a summary, can be found on her website, debbidigennaro.com/research.
How do millennial and Anabaptist values connect?
Millennials’ movement away from church is not necessarily equivalent to spiritual apathy. Yet their spiritually meaningful practices often do not involve the organized church.
Millennials are decoupling spirituality from the congregation. The role of the church as the center of spiritual activity is starting to dissolve. Millennials want community and connection but may not look to the church to meet these needs. Want to organize meals for a new mom, volunteer at an event or organize a potluck? These connection tasks require no involvement from church personnel.
For Mennonites, the decoupling of spirituality from the congregation upsets our concept of belonging. Having decided that following Jesus is best done in community — by which we mean a congregation — we have built our systems around the congregation.
Mennonites do not have language or conceptual space for those who are committed to Jesus and the Anabaptist tradition but not active in a church. Is there a way for Mennonite millennials to belong if they are not attached to a church?
Millennials are taking a do-it-yourself approach to faith. The pandemic probably intensified this trend, which is evident in other areas of their lives. Need to reupholster a couch? Need to build a raised garden bed? The professional solution is expensive and time-consuming, but instructions for a DIY solution are free and accessible on the internet.
Likewise, solutions and initiatives that come from the institutional church can be complex — burdened with bureaucracy, politics, historical precedents, budgets. Millennials want accessible, customizable options.
This artisanal approach to spirituality requires participants to be deliberate and engaged. Millennials in this study frequently mentioned ownership and intentionality. A father of young children said, “If our family’s devotional life totally depends on us, we better take it seriously,” and reported that he and his wife were being more intentional about family devotional time.
A heightened sense of ownership has many virtues, yet it disrupts mutual accountability and denominational cohesion. It is difficult to support a person’s faith journey without a container that provides structure and promotes intimacy and influence.
I see synergy between Anabaptist values and millennials’ approaches to Christianity. Millennials value dialogue, authenticity, social justice and breaking down barriers between people. The congruence between these principles and Anabaptist values suggests fruitful possibilities for Mennonite millennials.
The chart below highlights some points where millennials and Anabaptists might find synergy. The third column shows activities reported by people in this study where these two streams converge. — Debbi DiGennaro