Is the High Church the Christianity of the future?
America’s youth are leaving churches in droves. One in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion, according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, and 55 percent of those unaffiliated youth once had a religious identification when they were younger. Yet amidst this exodus, some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox branches of the faith. This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.
What this essay calls “the High Church” – churches, particularly those mentioned in the excerpt above, whose theology and the worship that expresses it are sacramental, liturgical, and steeped in tradition – are drawing more and more attention from a younger generation: which (if I may be so bold) sees through the often rather superficial, “feel-good,” “happy-clappy” style of worship that is known (perhaps with some irony, now) as “contemporary.”
Rather than seeking to “marry the spirit of the age” (which as Dean Inge warned, decades ago, would lead churches to become widowers), “High” churches immerse themselves in the timeless tradition of the Church Catholic, the Great Tradition of Christianity, focusing more on reverence than on “relevance.”
This does not mean that present-day considerations are irrelevant to such churches, of course; rather, it’s a matter of priorities: “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you,” as our Lord counseled (Matthew 6:33).
And this is finding resonance with many young people, who see from experience the failures and limitations of the secular, therapeutic model that has been largely dominant in mainstream churches since the late 1960s, 70s, and beyond (which is why calling this “contemporary” is more than a bit ironic). As the name of a Facebook group (founded and largely populated by millennials) of which I am a member puts, “Yes, young people do like traditional liturgy!”
From the linked article:
“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” Cone says. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”
The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. Where they search will have large implications for the future of Christianity. Protestant churches that want to preserve their youth membership may have to develop a greater openness toward the treasures of the past. One thing seems certain: this “sacramental yearning” will not go away.