The ‘circulation of the saints’ and the search for meaning…


When churches grow, where do these new members come from?  And why have they chosen this particular church?  These questions have bedeviled church leaders, especially those in megachurches, for decades.  The search for answers has provided employment for a small army of researchers.


“Very little significant church growth occurs as a result of converting the unsaved, except for the conversion of ones’ offspring,” according to Scott Thumma, a leading sociologist who studies church growth. 


“Even among the more theologically conservative churches still showing membership increases, the growth is slowing and is not keeping up with general population increases.”


“Nearly all church growth is the result of a circulation of the saints.”


The circulation Thumma describes is primarily within the Protestant tradition and is mainly related to the rise of megachurches—a phenomenon roughly  three decades old.


But another “circulation of the saints” has been quietly occurring at the same time, though not on the scale that led to the rise of the “seeker-friendly” megachurches.  This circulation is a migration from the casual, informality of low church worship to churches with a high church liturgy. 


A recent article in The American Conservative, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy,” drew attention to this phenomenon.


For Bart Gingerich, a fellow with the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary, becoming Anglican was an intellectual journey steeped in the thought of ancient church fathers. He spent the first 15 years of his life in the United Methodist Church, where he felt he was taught a “Precious Moments” version of Christianity: watered down, polite, and unreal. …


For high-school English teacher Jesse Cone, joining the Orthodox Church fulfilled a deep yearning for community and sacramental reality. Cone grew up in the Presbyterian Church of America, heavily involved in youth group and church activities. …


For blogger Jason Stellman, joining the Catholic Church was an act of religious and intellectual honesty. Brought up in a Baptist church, Stellman became a missionary in Europe for Calvary Chapel after college. When he began studying and accepting Calvinistic theology, he was dismissed from Calvary’s ministry and moved back to the U.S. He joined the Presbyterian Church of America and enrolled in Westminster Seminary in 2000. He and his wife helped start a Presbyterian Church in Southern California some time later. … The more Stellman read, the more he was drawn to the Catholic Church. … Last year, he announced to his church that he was leaving to become Catholic.


Meaning!  The search for meaning is “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy.”


This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age. …


Lee Nelson, Co-Chair of the Catechesis Taskforce of the Anglican Church of North America … believes a sacramental hunger lies at the heart of what many Millennials feel. “We are highly wired to be experiential,” he says. In the midst of our consumer culture, young people “ache for sacramentality.”


“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” Cone says. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”


The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. Where they search will have large implications for the future of Christianity. Protestant churches that want to preserve their youth membership may have to develop a greater openness toward the treasures of the past. One thing seems certain: this “sacramental yearning” will not go away.



Gracy Olmstead, the author of “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy,” is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


“A conversation with Scott Thumma” is available here.



Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!