Denial and the Return Myth

I’ve been writing about denial as it works in declining churches, and came across this good article by Nicole Havelka at Duke Divinty School’s Faith and Leadership website.  Nicole writes about “the return myth”, that thing where church goers are always saying that their young adults will come back to the church once they start having children.

I remember hearing a lot of this in my first church, which was in a small town.  Whether we believed this mantra or not, it was a convenient thing to say when our anxiety about church participation got the best of us.  And there were one or two families who had come back, making us wonder what was wrong with all the others.

Later I moved to another church where the myth persisted.  One day in a meeting, someone said, “Young people usually come back to the church after they start having their own children. ”  I challenged them, “Really?  Look around and think about your own children.  They haven’t come back.”  That pretty much killed the myth.

Maybe I was too hard on them.  But I recognized the symptoms of denial in that sort of talk.  Today, I think many churchgoers have grasped the fact that young adults are not going to automatically show up to get the baby “done” and then sign up to be Sunday School teachers.  Now the response I hear from older members is a sense of shame.  They have seen their children grow up and leave the flock, never returning with the grandchildren.  They wonder if they did something wrong to drive their children away.  They can’t understand why anyone would not want to be part of something so wonderful as the neighborhood church.  We have moved from denial into a stage of sad resignation.

But no one seems to think about the spiritual needs of those lost generations.  Many young adults polled report a high interest in maintaining some sort of spiritual life.  They just don’t want to practice it in their parents’ churches.  Instead of  wallowing in grief about how we have lost two generations of potential Christians, maybe it’s time to approach these generations (one of which I am a part) as a new mission field, and let them help lead us toward new models of spiritual nurture that work for them.

A good book to read on this topic is Carol Howard Merritt’s “Reframing Hope” (Alban Institute, 2010).  I heard Carol speak a couple years ago and felt she was not just talking about how to get young people back into our churches, but really cares about reaching out in mission to younger adults who have challenges and opportunities unique to their generation.

What are you hearing?  Is your congregation still perpetuating the “return myth”?  Is that myth keeping them in a state of denial?

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