None, Done, Just No Fun

I live in the None Zone.

That's a label church leaders have been using for the Pacific Northwest since the 1990s, when I was, myself, a United Methodist minister. Here in the upper left corner of the United States, most people when asked which religion or denomination they belong to reply "none of the above." Organized religion--and I'm not just talking about Christianity here--has never been able to establish a toehold on this part of the country. It's rare for any of our halls of worship to have problems seating everyone during services.

I've speculated on the reason for this a number of times, and I'm not going to devote much more space to it today. Church is just a hard sell for people who have better things to do with a Sunday morning than sitting in a pew hearing a preacher expound on an ancient text. Today, though, I came across another category for the unchurched, one that resonates with me even more than "none": "done."

I encountered it through a link a friend shared on Facebook. In his essay, "The Rise of the Dones," Tom Schultz writes about a new problem facing churches with dwindling memberships. This time it's not recruiting, it's attrition: midlife parishioners, many of them active in lay leadership, are simply walking away from church. They've heard the same sermon too many times, cycled through too many positions on the church council, kicked their kids out of bed to drag them to Sunday School too many times. One Sunday morning, it just hits them: I could be taking my family to brunch. I could be hiking in Forest Park. I could be sleeping in (though that one's not going to appeal to me). I could spend the weekend in a cabin on Mt. Hood. I could do so many other things that are less work and more fun, and more meaningful to me than going to church. So they're done.

This wasn't a major problem in any of the churches I served, though it happened occasionally to me. Usually I didn't become aware of it until it was time for nominations. The committee would know the perfect job for a certain person, and I'd call him or her up, say, "How would you like to chair the education committee?" and hear, "You know, I'd rather not have a position this year." And then the family would disappear. As I said, though, this didn't happen often, mostly, I expect, because the churches I served had older memberships. The Greatest Generation saw church as a natural responsibility, like inoculations, voting, or paying taxes, and just did it, happily serving in every office they were volunteered for right up until they moved into nursing facilities. Even then, there were few things that brought them more joy than having one of their adult children or a friend bring them to church.

One thing that drove me away from ministry, though, was that church was so obviously designed for that generation, rather than mine. I spent most of my short career leading worship services that would have put me to sleep. That's how it had to be: a pastor serves the congregation he or she is appointed to, the people who are filling the pews, not the ones who are absent. These are the people whose tithes pay the pastor's salary, whose votes on church committees decide which programs a church will have, and whose opinions dictate to a large extent how a pastor plans and presents the most public face of the congregation, its Sunday service. I squeezed in as many contemporary hymns as I could, but there was no getting around how much happier my parishioners were when they got to sing their favorites. My job, I came to realize, was not to take a church into the next generation, but rather to hold its hand as it drifted off to its final rest.

That generation is now mostly gone from church leadership. In its place are Baby Boomers, the post-World War Two generation whose passion fueled the modern era. They grew up on rock and roll, and their music choices reflect that. It's now acceptable to clap (on 2 and 4, of course) to worship songs with a light rock feel, to have guitars and drums in the sanctuary, and to applaud throughout the service. That lightening up, though, was a long time coming, long enough that by the time it arrived, most boomers were already done with the antiquated ways their parents worshiped. For those who remained, the "praise music" they prefer is, itself, a turn-off to their children, so the already thinned ranks of the boomers have led to an even poorer showing of Generation X--not to mention their own children, the Millennials. The church is going out with a whimper.

Once I left ministry, I continued working in churches, participating in the Metanoia Peace Community, playing piano and directing choirs for an African-American church, a United Methodist church, and finally a United Church of Christ. In all these settings, I found worship styles dominated by the mid-lifers, the adult leaders in their 40s and 50s. They were looking for music that reflected their preferences, rather than those of their parents, and mostly succeeding. By the time they had remade worship, though, the style they preferred had become a musical cliche, and their children wanted little or none of it.

This ongoing cycle of always being "so last generation" is one of the main reasons the laity pastors most want to see in leadership, the adults just hitting midlife with all the competence and confidence that comes from having come into their own as members of society, but who are not yet looking toward retirement, are vanishing from the pews. Gifted with internet literacy, they're much quicker to figure out why church just isn't as rewarding as it should be. They're done, and they're not coming back.

Toward the end of my own ministry, I was hitting this point for myself. I'd preached the same sermons too many times. I wanted to say challenging things, but increasingly, that meant pushing the message onto the bleeding edge of theology. Every week, I was working with difficult texts, questioning authorship, digging into verses that revealed uncomfortable beliefs about God, exposing the seamy underbelly of church history, seeing how far I could push a radical progressive agenda in a congregation of moderate traditionalists. It was more than they could take, and I knew it, and acted accordingly, unconsciously at first but, as the end drew near, more and more finding I just wasn't motivated to perform the basic acts of ministry. I was done, and I needed to leave. The church and I came to that realization simultaneously. The only church home I could have after that--Metanoia--was a place that routinely experimented with all those edgy ideas I had craved. Once it disbanded, I was completely done. And I've not been back.

Sundays, for me, are times for resting, contemplating, enjoying my loved ones, exercising my body, eating well, visiting my parents, writing, playing music--all activities that make this day a true Sabbath for me. In my opinion, that's what the Dones are seeking for themselves. There was a time when church provided many of these things, when it was especially relevant to those who filled the pews, taught the classes, staffed the committees; but that time was seventy years ago, and it's not coming back.

There are Millennials who are remaking church in their own image as something that is less institutional, more energetic, more relevant, attending services that feel more like rock concerts than anything even their hippest parents would consider doing on a Sunday. They're also having these services on Saturday nights, freeing up the day of rest for all the other things young people would rather do with a day off. It sounds vibrant, exciting--and not for me.

As I said, I'm done. I went there, did that with the first half of my life. For the rest, I'm going to use my Sabbath the way God intended, if Genesis 1 is to be believed: as a time to rest from my labors and enjoy all the beauty around me for the very good creation that it is.


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