What If the Kids Don’t Want Our Church?

photo © 2010 Dima Bushkov, Flickr

What happens when a generation comes along that doesn’t care about the game you’ve spent so much time buying equipment for?

I had a conversation with a man not long ago who has the unenviable task of sorting through his mother’s considerable estate, deciding what to keep, what to sell, and what to throw away. While sorting, in an act of extraordinary self-awareness, he stopped to consider just what his three adult daughters might like to keep when they find themselves going through his stuff after he’s gone.

During this moment of reflection, my friend had an epiphany: What if his kids don’t want all the stuff he’s worked so hard to acquire?

He was struck by the fact that his adult daughters have no real attachment to all the antiques and precious heirlooms his family has spent so much time accumulating. He went on to observe that his daughters and their partners tend to value instead things like mobility and flexibility. They’ve shown no desire to become curators of a bunch of stuff — even special stuff, really good stuff.

For one thing, they don’t have the room for it. They live in apartments and small houses. They don’t have any space to house an armoire, no place to stash a dining room table for 12. When your biggest piece of furniture is a flat screen TV, and your idea of rearranging the living room is pushing a stack of magazines to the other side of the Ikea coffee table, the prospect of being responsible for a 12 place-setting china inheritance feels like a commitment on par with marriage, or deciding to take in a stray dachshund.

For another thing, their lives are centered on adventure and experience. They love the outdoors, love to travel. They’re used to packing light. They tend to have a different relationship to “stuff.” Oh, they like nice stuff, to be sure. It’s just that they view stuff instrumentally. Stuff is a tool for the accomplishment of purposes. And to the extent that a nice tool helps accomplish its purpose more efficiently than a lousy one, they value it. The question put to a thing is not whether its value is intrinsic or even sentimental, but whether it’s useful. To their way of thinking, you use stuff to help you do things you want to do, not to make you feel good about things you’ve already done.

And how can we blame them, really? We raised them to think of things as disposable. Sporks, iPods, jobs, marriages — use a thing until either it breaks (in which case, you buy another one) or you don’t need it anymore (in which case, you throw it out and look to the next thing).

For previous generations, stuff was what you spent the bulk of your time working to acquire, then spent the leftover time working to maintain and repair, so that you would have something to hand down to your children. And they to their children. And so on, in an endless string of accumulation and maintenance, world without end. Amen.

But what happens when a generation comes along that doesn’t care about the game you’ve spent so much time buying equipment for, has little invested in the durable nature of the stuff you value? What happens when your kids say, “Don’t give me all that stuff. I’ll just have a yard sale, and call Goodwill to haul away what’s left over”?

Now, you could spend your time trying to convince them that they have a responsibility to value the things you value. You’ve lived. You know. They’re going to want this stuff. It’s worth something — not like that stupid crap they spend their money on. (Oh, sure a mountain biking trip in New Zealand would be “fun,” but what do you have left when you get back and unpack your luggage?)

Convince them the stuff they value is pointless and shallow. That should work. How did that conversation go, by the way — you remember, right? — when your parents took great pains to try to persuade you how The Beatles couldn’t hold a candle to the greats like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole?

Or, you could keep your wisdom to yourself and grouse in silence about the fact that they just don’t appreciate all you’ve worked to give them. (Don’t they realize how much time and energy you’ve put into making something for them to have?) I mean, you could do that. Lord knows it’s been done before. But you know, deep down you know, that that just makes you the bitter crank you always used to make fun of: “Hey, you kids get off of my Antique American Oak Bow Glass China Cabinet!”

Or you could make peace with the fact that the way they make it through life will inevitably look different from the way you did.

Why is this in the Religion section? Because churches with massive overhead invested in things like church buildings, denominational infrastructures, functional church organizational models (think: a baptized version of General Motors’ organizational structure, complete with a board of directors, departments, departmental committees, etc.) are awakening to the fact that the generations that are supposed to be taking the institutional baton are showing very little interest in grabbing for it.

In fact, in many ways, these generations increasingly think the church has been running toward the wrong finish line for years — concerned as it seems to have been not with figuring out how more faithfully to live like the Jesus of the Gospels, but in acquiring bigger and better stuff to hand down to a generation that doesn’t particularly want to inherit it.

You could try to convince the emerging generations that they ought to value the tools you’ve always used, that they should want to take care of them, that they’re going to need them someday, that they should want to pass them down to their children.

Or, you could complain about the fact that these kids just don’t appreciate what you’ve done for them.

Or, you could suck it up and bless them on their next wild adventure.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of articles ranging from church history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions, as well as the forthcoming book from Chalice Press, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, [D]mergent.org, and blogs at his own site. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. D.R. Bartlette says:

    No offense to Christians, but I don’t think the reason younger people are leaving organized religion in droves is because they don’t want a lot of “stuff.” Too many (not all, I know) churches are too focused on judgmentalism and exclusion, such as preaching against gays and single moms. The younger generation’s focus on experience lines up with the values this article points to: that God (or whatever spiritual force you believe in) isn’t found in an old book or a new building; it’s found within our own hearts, and within the hearts of all living things. This is a good, and hopeful, indicator of humanity’s evolution. It should be encouraged and emulated, not mourned.
    BTW – I’m from the South, so I know the experience of religion might not be the same here as it is in other parts of the country. For one, there’s a hell of a lot more of it, and it wields far too much power.

  2. when I was in grad school, my grandmother died and I inherited a set of china. I toted it around in boxes for 20 years. I never lived anywhere with room for china. My mother was angry that I kept it in boxes, and mentioned it at least once a year. Finally, in my 40’s, I had a house with enough room and money for a china cabinet. I unpacked the china and discovered that I hated it. It wasn’t my taste at all. I actually loathed it. I didn’t want to waste a whole side of a room displaying it. I didn’t want to use it. If I wanted china, I’d get something completely different.

    It’s still in the boxes.

  3. Faith is something that can be modeled, it can be required. You can bring your kids to church with you, but if they stop wanting to go, forcing them is about the worst thing you can do. If they are meant to return, they will, in good time. If not, you are only pulling the rubber band farther and farther back, so they release will be that much stronger.

  4. And how can we blame them, really? We raised them to think of things as disposable

    Wasn’t it rather out generation who was raised to be overly attached to things we own, to the extent that we spend far more time messing about with that, and not enough time on what we really want to do with our lives?

    I don’t know. Seems to me that (where I live), people who are into organized religion are, by and large, a dying breed.

  5. As a young person and as someone who once worked in a church, this post really rings true for me. I felt like the older generations were very concerned with the church as a place, whereas younger people like myself tend to be more focused on church as an activity.

    I think the most salient question for many churches going forward may be, “Is our church primarily a place that we go or a thing that we do?”


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