The Pew Research Center’s study on religion in the United States, released this month, revealed that the church is in the midst of significant changes. Mennonites are too statistically insignificant to be marked in this survey, but there’s much for us to glean alongside the stories we know from other researchers like Conrad Kanagy, Philip Jenkins and Soong Chan Rah.
The first thing I notice anecdotally in my work with East Coast Mennonites is the changing framework of Christendom. While some of us aren’t ready to herald the end of Christendom, we must notice it’s shifting. The ecumenical movement among the mainline denominations, along with the rise of evangelicalism, has changed the face of U.S. Christianity. Evangelicals have gained numbers and voice, while the mainline moves toward the margins.
We Mennonites find ourselves in a precarious space with similarities to both groups yet never at home in either. Nonetheless, these shifts also affect us. They should prompt us to hone what it means to keep Christ at the center, to live in community and to carry out the work of reconciliation. Where and with whom might we find hopeful collaboration?
Second, demographics are shifting. Among Catholics there is a growing percentage of Latinos in the pews. Historic black churches maintain their stability. Researcher Soong Chan Rah suggests that, because immigrants to the U.S. are dominantly Christian, if Americans are interested in maintaining a Christian majority, they must be pro-immigration. The church will increasingly be filled with people from diverse backgrounds. Will leadership and advocacy reflect these changes? How might response to police violence and immigration justice play into the life of the church?
And then there’s the reality that millennials are leaving the church in droves. Research suggests it’s actually happening across generations. Some of my bright millennial colleagues suggest that the U.S. churches’ perceived support of wars after 9/11 has contributed to cultivating a generation of cynicism. Clergy abuse, millennial migrations to cities, and tension around engaging gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in Christian communities also create dissonance among young people. There are no easy answers.
But I don’t find myself throwing up my arms either in celebration or frustration. The research frames the story of emptying pews in traditional Mennonite congregations in our heartlands. But it’s less aware of the work of renewal happening in congregations like Whitehall Mennonite in Allentown, Pa., shaped by the growing diversity of the Lehigh Valley, or Habecker Mennonite in Lancaster County, transforming into a congregational home for refugees from Myanmar. These stories are exceptions but might represent a way forward.
Also missing from the research is the burgeoning health of urban Anabaptist congregations. Philadelphia churches like Germantown Mennonite, Oxford Circle Mennonite, Vietnamese Mennonite or Philadelphia Praise are growing. Circle of Hope Brethren in Christ communities appeal to young adults drawn to Anabaptism.
The Pew research shows us we are not alone in wondering about millennials, in wondering how historic congregations might find a future and in pondering how increased diversity might shape us. The future belongs to God, whose clear response I hear as: “Be not afraid.” But keep moving.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.