A group of us spent the night in my office, which is located a few blocks away from the mall. We put on layer upon layer of clothing, in order to stay warm while we stood in one place for hours. We were pretty peculiar, a group of pastors, plus my daughter. And we were surrounded by an incredible array of people, white hippies wearing Grateful Dead concert souvenirs, New York liberals wrapped in fur coats, young Latinos with cell phones, older African-American women with hopeful histories. Our hearts lifted as Barack Obama was sworn in and they soared when he spoke.
Change is upon us.
Hopefully, there will be immediate policy changes—like the end of torture, health insurance for children, and an implementation of a wiser foreign policy. And there will be hard changes that will take time—like better education for all children, health care for all Americans, rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure, and environmental stewardship for our exhausted planet.
This event also marked significant cultural changes—like a move from the greed of the individual to the care of the community. With giant corporations begging for bailouts, and huge banks collapsing, we know that we need to do things differently.
What does all of mean for our congregations? What is changing on our religious landscape? Well, there is a new passion for social justice, for living out the words of Jesus. And I cannot help but notice the Joshua Generation—the young Evangelicals who cannot swear allegiance to Christian Right, who are finding their own way.
Newsweek recently had a portrait of a man who represented so many of my friends, as well as myself. We grew up in conservative Evangelical households, but when we became adults, the political alliances that our parents made no longer made sense. The sexism, homophobia, and (sometimes) racism of the Religious Right did not seem to match the ministry of Jesus.
There are a swarm of young Evangelicals who are wandering right now. Twenty-six percent of young Evangelicals support same-sex marriage. They no longer have a spiritual home in the congregations of their youth. So, how are denominations going to respond? Can we begin to open up our doors to a new generation?
I am a Presbyterian. I have been a PC(USA) pastor for ten years and a member for fifteen. I love my denomination, but I am still uncomfortable in it. Often, when I’m around denominational types, things are said that make our denominations inhospitable for people who grew up Evangelical.
I guess I should just spell it out. Because I love my church, I need to let you know that if we want to reach out to a new generation, we will need to learn to accept Evangelicals or ex-Evangelicals. You may not agree with me, you may not have had the same experience, but still, personally people communicate to me regularly, “You’re not one of us, and you never will be.” Sometimes I don’t know exactly how it’s being said, but I’ll try to put my finger on some of the more pernicious habits of the mainline.
In my denomination, many people say, “Well, they obviously don’t know what it means to be Presbyterian.” Wake up, my friends. No one knows what it means to be Presbyterian. We are a small group that will keep getting smaller if we think that everyone needs to know the Book of Order before being able to sit in a pew.
“Christianity has not been a force in our society since the sixties.” Wrong. Mainline denominationalism has not been a force in our culture since the sixties. Evangelicals have been a strong tradition since the birth of our nation, and they grew tremendously in the ’80s. They have been creating think tanks, educational institutions, and grass-roots political movements. And they are Christians too.
“Evangelicals are dumb.” Whether we say it outright or not, this is often our message. I know. I went to Bible College. And while I have friends who went on to do social work and their degrees were seen as an asset, mine has always been seen as a hindrance in my work as a minister. I have an education that allows me to understand inside-and-out the largest religious movement in our nation, and people in my denomination regularly mock me for it.
I can tell you that there were smart people at Bible college, and not-so-smart people in seminary. So, please, can we get over ourselves? Just because we worship in a denominational church doesn’t mean that our IQ is any higher.
I could go on. But I won’t. I’ll just wrap it up by saying, things are changing. And the biggest change on the religious front is that young Evangelicals are leaving their roots. Can we put aside our elitism? Can we reach out to them? If we can, this could be a time of tremendous growth and renewal for our congregations.