Evolution of religion, society and the younger generation
By Rev. Topher Mehlhoff
Special to the Star Journal
I’m standing up in the high school auditorium in my clergy shirt (you know the kind – the one with the collar and the white tab) talking about how important it is to support trans students by calling them by their chosen names and identified pronouns. I won’t know it until they’ve also said their peace, but what I’m saying is making other religious people very frustrated. They’re here at the school board meeting to speak against trans rights. I don’t think they expected an ordained minister to show up and say the exact opposite.
I figure that’s as good a way as any to introduce myself and let you know why I’m writing this column. Hi. My name is Topher Mehlhoff and I am a pastor serving 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rhinelander. I’m 40 years old which makes me one of those “geriatric millennials” you may have heard of. When I was a kid, I thought 40 was the beginning of being really old, but I serve a congregation that is very nearly 100% older than I am.
I think I am still considered a “young minister” by most, even though I’m old enough to know what a rotary phone is and how it worked. Most people my age and younger don’t go to church (Gallup Poll, March 29, 2021). Millennial church attendance has seen a drastic decline, dropping from 51% a decade ago to 35% today, according to Gallup. Smarter people than me have tried and failed to explain this drop, but I think the scene I described in my first paragraph is pretty illustrative of why my generation no longer chooses to attend church.
Millennials who grew up in the church and paid attention in Sunday school (like me) came away believing that Jesus loves everyone and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. That simple ethos has led us to say, “Black lives matter,” along with our Black neighbors. It has led us to support gay rights alongside our gay neighbors. It has led us to work toward income equality. And it led me to stand up and say trans kids should be supported by school policy, even though an auditorium of fellow Christians strongly disagreed.
Millennials are not leaving the church because they are unspiritual or immoral. I believe a millennial is more likely to leave the church because of their spirituality or morality. There are of course exceptions (and I hope my own church can be counted among them), but the morality of many, many churches run contrary to the morals of millennials. Church for us is more often a hindrance in living a moral and spiritual life than a support.
This is obviously not the first time that a younger generation has disagreed with a previous one, nor will it be the last. But there does seem to be more at play here than a generation gap. Religion is going to have to go through a big change if it hopes to survive into the 21st century. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying – God will be fine. But Christianity is going to have to evolve or die.
Wanting to be a part of that evolution is a big reason I followed a call to ministry. My faith tradition has evolved quite a bit in the last two thousand years, and we’re due for another spring cleaning. We need to empty out the attic, get rid of the things we no longer need and replace the things we do need. I think that process is exciting.
I realize that what I find exciting is extremely uncomfortable to others. It can feel like God-given traditions are falling apart. But what is happening today is no more an end to religion than when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German so every common person could read it. The kind of religion that will survive the 21st century will be accessible and flexible. One that can respond with honesty to tough questions. One that allows for experimentation and divergent viewpoints. Surely, anyone can find the excitement in that?
Topher Mehlhoff is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and he serves 1st Congregational UCC in Rhinelander. More of his writing can be found at topherbepreachin.com.