Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Hot Topics Issue: February 2015
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Are Valley churches losing ground as millennials reach adulthood?

On a bright Sunday morning last December, Rev. Jeffrey Dirrim joined about 100 other people in a peaceful protest before services began at Pastor Steven Anderson’s Faithful World Baptist Church in Tempe. Anderson, a lightning rod in the Christian community who went viral last year with a sermon preaching the extermination of gays to eradicate AIDS, and another in which he demanded that women be both subservient and silent in church, was once again in national headlines for his extreme views. Dirrim, an openly gay United Church of Christ pastor, wanted to be anywhere but that Tempe strip mall that day.

“I’ve got kids saying, ‘There’s a church that wants to kill us.’ It’s the last place I wanted to be. I don’t want to give him [Anderson] any more media exposure,” Dirrim says. His congregation, Rebel + Divine UCC, serves a primarily LGBT community – including many homeless members – concentrated in Downtown Phoenix but spread throughout the Valley.

“I went so that they [wouldn’t have to]. We offered communion. It was beautiful. I spoke very briefly,” Dirrim says. “There’s this moment where you hear his message and you say, ‘He’s crazy. How can anyone listen to him? How dare him.’ And then in faith, and for some it’s very brief, but there’s this moment [of] ‘What if he’s right?’ And I wanted to affirm for those that may have that moment that he’s wrong. That if you’re preaching violence, you’re not a man of God.”

It’s a microcosm, albeit an extreme one, of many of the issues facing Christianity and organized religion at large today. As millennials – broadly defined as people born after 1980, the post-Gen X generation – enter adulthood, their progressive attitudes toward social issues like same-sex marriage, racial equality, feminism and more are transforming the way they relate to and participate in religion, if they participate at all. According to the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, 72 percent of Americans now think religion is losing influence in American life – the highest level in Pew polling over the past decade and an increase of 5 percent from 2010. Social issues like same-sex marriage are a huge contributing factor, with 52 percent of Americans supporting same-sex marriage in 2014, up from 35 percent in 2001. Millennials are leading the charge in what some have deemed the “liberalization” or “modernization” of society and, by extrapolation, of religion.

Even Pope Francis makes headlines almost daily with his ideologically provocative actions and soundbites (hello, Christmas message to the Curia), many of which are perceived to be more liberal than those of his predecessors and of the Roman Catholic Church at large. If the Pope is doing it, it’s definitely happening worldwide. But is this trend happening in the Valley? Or are traditional churches holding fast?

Interestingly, despite the aforementioned survey charting the decline of religious influence in America, a growing number of people want religion to play more of a role in politics. The percentage of Americans who say churches should express their political and social views has increased since 2010, from 43 percent to 49 percent – which could be a response from the conservative side, “pushing back” against the seemingly liberal nature of recent social changes. How millennials emerge from this cultural and cosmological melee will affect religion and culture for future generations.

As with so many areas of Arizona culture, Valley religion is a whorl of progressive, boundary-pushing pioneers against a historically conservative backdrop. According to real estate data and studies aggregate Sperling’s Best Places (bestplaces.net), of the 39.07 percent of Phoenix residents who identify as religious, the majority are Catholic, followed by Mormon (LDS), Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, other Christian, Jewish, Eastern religious traditions (Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) and lastly, Muslim. More progressive churches like the inclusive, non-denominational Unitarian Universalist Church have been active in the Valley in more recent history: UUC Phoenix’s origins date to 1947. Religious progression has been more or less in step with national trends, until the 1990s.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, many churches began the process of becoming “open and affirming” to LGBT congregants.   

In 2003, Phoenix made national headlines with the No Longer Silent Phoenix Declaration, a document outlining the goal of some Arizona clergy members to work toward full acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in Christianity and the world beyond. More than 160 clergy members from various faiths signed the document. Some were asked by church powers to recant their support, and some were even removed from their posts or excommunicated. The radical proclamation incited a rebuttal, “Courage, Clarity and Charity: A Phoenix Declaration,” and remains controversial in many circles today. GayChurch.org, a website dedicated to ministering to the LGBT community, estimates there are now more than 30 LGBT-affirming churches in Phoenix.

Rev. John Dorhauer is the Southwest Conference Minister of the United Church of Christ, a church with “an almost 350-year history of wrestling with the big issues of the day and coming out on the progressive end of the theological spectrum,” he says. In 2005, UCC’s General Synod affirmed “equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of gender,” however, UCC congregations are independent and each congregation has the power to decide if it will endorse and officiate same-sex marriages. Dorhauer was the first minister to officiate the marriage of a gay couple in Arizona after it became legal in September 2014.

In his more than 26 years in UCC, Dorhauer says he’s seen changes in the way people raised in the technological era approach religion. “I think the difference with post-moderns and millennials is [that in] the centuries that preceded them, people of faith would adjust their moral compass based on what the church taught them was moral,” Dorhauer says. “Post-moderns aren’t going to do that anymore. If their heart tells them that hating this person is wrong, then rather than adjust their moral compass to what the church is saying, they’ll walk away from the church. It really is for them, ‘I don’t want to hate my neighbor. I want to love my neighbor. And you can’t make me hate my neighbor.’”

Dorhauer says UCC and similar churches have evolved to welcome this viewpoint. It’s a matter of survival and relevance, but also of the church’s progressive ideology. Not all churches share this adaptability, however. In some mainline Protestant churches and particularly in conservative and evangelical traditions, the philosophy is “me” should submit to the “He” – God. Pastor Aaron Dailey of Redemption Alhambra, a non-denominational evangelical church in Phoenix that supports traditional definitions of marriage and family, says he sees how his congregants are affected by the culture we live in, but he counsels them to transcend it through their relationship with and submission to Jesus.

“It’s a pretty young group of people [we serve] – we’re right next to GCU [Grand Canyon University]. You can see because of the culture that we swim in, you’re just in it; you don’t even know how you’re being shaped by it,” Dailey says. “It’s all about us, and we bring that into the Christian faith, and that’s not what Christianity is about. It makes it really tough when it’s all about coming into and under the lordship of Christ, when you’re trying to fit it into your personal thing rather than coming into something that’s bigger than you.”

In a sermon at the Peoria congregation of the sprawling Christ’s Church of the Valley (CCV) last November, Christian author John Stonestreet spoke as part of a CCV series on hope. His topic: “There Is Hope For Our Culture.” In his sermon, he confronted the issue of same-sex marriage – “one of those issues where Christians feel most awkward,” he said – head-on.  

“One of the things that I think we’ve failed to realize in understanding this particular issue is how dramatically our culture has shifted on [it] in a very short amount of time,” Stonestreet said. He used popular sitcoms from the last four decades to illustrate the shift: family-values-based The Cosby Show, friends-first Seinfeld and Friends, the gay-normalizing Will & Grace, and now the “take your pick” approach to family in Modern Family.

Stonestreet, a speaker and fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, does not support what many Christians call the gay “lifestyle.” However, he advocates a more compassionate approach than the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone damnation that more extreme churches threaten. Stonestreet also said that the failure of heterosexual marriage is more detrimental to the church and the institution of marriage than same-sex marriage. The cultural shift is bigger than millennial sympathy for LGBT rights. “The shift that has taken place has not been one specifically about homosexuality or LGBT rights or same-sex marriage. The shift that has taken place over the last several decades has been a complete shift in what we understand the human person to be.”

Therein lies the crux: Should religion adapt with the changing times? Or would doing so compromise the core values that religion is built upon? And, if the trend of religious noninvolvement continues (one-third of adults under age 30 claimed no religious affiliation in a 2012 Pew survey), will churches survive?

Politicized issues like the marriage question continue to be sticking points on both sides of the partisan aisle – and both sides of the pulpit. The clergy members interviewed for this piece all supported the intersection of faith and politics, as long as clergy don’t use their positions to advocate in a partisan way.

Dailey laughs at the question of whether his congregants get caught in the crosshairs of charged political discussions. “It seems like maybe that would be a suburban [issue].” Dailey says that, contrary to the stereotype of evangelical churches being a sea of red, his church is diverse in every way, including politically. “What we really try to do is point people toward their primary identity, which is in Christ. Primarily I’m not a Republican and primarily I’m not a Democrat,” he says. “If we look at what scripture teaches, our identity is found in Christ. It’s found in who he is, in being one of his children. That should shape the way we engage in politics.” He does admit that it can be difficult to counsel his flock on issues that clearly fly in the face of Redemption’s interpretation of the Bible’s teachings. In those cases, he urges them to pray and look to scripture.

Dorhauer hosts a weekly radio show online at radiophoenix.org dedicated to this topic called Relevance: Where Faith and Politics Collide. “You cannot be a person of faith and disengage from politics. What you have to avoid is being partisan,” Dorhauer says. “The question is not whether or not the church is political. It is and always has been. The question is, do religious leaders give themselves permission to be partisan? One of the ways that the fundamentalist religious right plays the game differently than the progressive left is they allow themselves to be partisan. You’ve got Catholic bishops saying to people in their diocese, ‘If you vote for a pro-choice candidate, you won’t receive communion in our diocese.’ You’ve got megachurch fundamentalist pastors handing out pamphlets before elections telling them which candidates to vote for if you’re a person of faith.” The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix did not respond to interview requests for this story.

A small but growing percentage (32 percent) of the aforementioned 49 percent of Americans who say churches should express their political and social views feels that churches should go so far as to endorse political candidates. Some churches – and not just the conservative evangelical ones – are following suit, with direct involvement in social and political causes.

“After 50 years of largely seeing religion as a private experience of personal faith and personal salvation, congregations are now seeing that in our country of growing poverty, escalating disparity and inequality, that core religious values have a moral component that must address these issues,” says Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, lead minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix. UU has historically been an inclusive, liberal and progressive church welcoming of all faiths, something Frederick-Gray illustrates via email. “The greatest religious leaders of history, from Moses to Jesus, from Dr. King to Gandhi, understood that religion has an important moral voice to bring to bear on larger systemic injustice. Today, we recognize that religion that cannot speak to the brokenness in our society, the breakdown of the social fabric, the overriding materialism, criminalization and militarism in our country, becomes powerless and irrelevant to addressing the moral issues of our day.”

Despite the preponderance of headlines about the “liberalization” of religion – from Pope Francis’ revelations rankling many in the Catholic Church to unaffiliated groups like Mormons Building Bridges trying to cover the gap between the Mormon church and its homosexual members – Pastor Dirrim of Rebel + Divine UCC says this overall trend is nothing new. He paraphrases author and theologian Phyllis Tickle in his summation.

“Every 700 to 900 years there’s a reformation period. During that time, the church, the institution, looks at everything it has and the way it’s been operating. The things that aren’t working anymore, they take and put in the front yard and have a rummage sale. They let it all go,” Dirrim says. “Then they go back inside and look at what’s left and they go, ‘Hmm.’ Then they move it around in a way that’ll work, add some new things and they continue to operate like that until the next reformation period.”

During these periods, Dirrim says, the communication changes. This is particularly evident in the last 25 years, with the technological revolution equipping most people with round-the-clock access to millions of ideas at the tips of their fingers. It’s overly reductive to say that technology killed religion, but there’s no doubt that it – and its concomitant cultural shifts – has changed how religions can and need to function.   

“I’m not a Facebook person,” Dirrim says. “[But] if I’m not on Facebook an hour, minimum, a day, I don’t know what’s going on with my youth and I can’t be their pastor. Things are just too fluid.” Successful churches have harnessed the power of social media, connecting with followers through interactive websites, YouTube sermons, Instagram, Facebook and even Twitter to announce youth group meetings. It’s necessary, Dirrim says, “to meet them where they are. They [millennials] don’t join anything. They don’t give, at least in traditional ways. They have to participate. It’s a very different model.”

Dorhauer echoes Dirrim’s assessment, but is slightly more measured in his prognosis for the fate of Christianity. “Technology gives us the opportunity to carry this conversation on at much deeper levels. When we fought over the early creeds, the bishops had to travel days to get somewhere to have the conversation with each other and it was only they that were permitted to enter the dialogue. Now, everybody with a cell phone is part of the dialogue.”

UCC has seen a decrease in membership of 1 percent or more each year since 1961. Dorhauer chalks it up to flawed methodology. “We’ve got a message that the post-moderns and the millennials would be excited about, but we don’t have a methodology that fits their way of being in the world. We’ve got to change for the sake of that message. It’s really that simple.” Asked if he thinks Christianity will ultimately make it, though, Dorhauer deadpans: “I give it a 50-50 shot. It could go either way, it’s way too early to tell.”

At this point, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. Is this simply another reformation period – growing pains that progressive churches will survive? Will the changing social tides spell the decline or even end for more conservative traditions? Mormon and conservative evangelical parishes have exploded in the Valley, an interesting counterpoint to the perceived “liberalization.” Perhaps religion is cyclical and a powerful conservative “push-back” is happening in response to more progressive trends.

Dorhauer and Dirrim indicate post-modern Christianity will be not just be post-denominational, but post-Christian. Interfaith work has been growing, and both men believe, as do many in their church, that Christ is not the only path to “spiritual health and wholeness,” a basic tenet of UCC. Rev. Frederick-Gray of the Unitarian Universalist church knows these efforts intimately.

“Religion is always changing. Some change faster than others. Religion, in order to remain relevant, must be flexible enough to respond to a changing world,” she says. “Core values in a tradition might not change, but as social needs and culture change, how those core values speak to the world today may change.”