Prayer practices and faith convictions of churchless millennial Christians: A ritual-liturgical exploration

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As of late the church, globally and locally, has expressed concern regarding the absence of the millennial generation in its pews. National and international trends indicate that millennials (of whom many have a church background) are leaving the traditional church – thereby becoming “churchless”. However, research indicates that this trend mostly reflects millennials’ rejection of the church and not the rejection of the Christian faith itself. Therefore there is a need to rethink worship with the millennial generation.

The lack of South African research on millennials and their relationship with the church complicates the task of addressing this need. South Africa’s context differs significantly from those of other countries, so that it would be reckless to apply international research to South African millennials without first contextualising the data.

This research seeks to be a local voice in the discussion about millennials and the church by addressing the following research question: What insights can the prayer practices of churchless millennial Christians offer into their faith practice if the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer/worship is the rule of faith) is employed? A second question also presents itself: How can worship with millennials subsequently be reconsidered?

The axiom lex orandi, lex credendi is used to indicate the interdependent relationship between worship and faith. Following this axiom, prayer both reflects and forms faith. Thus, a chiastic movement can be employed to move from the prayer practices (lex orandi) of churchless millennial Christians towards their faith convictions (lex credendi) and back again to possible forms of worship (lex orandi) with this generation. Such a movement also fits Osmer’s model (Osmer 2008, Practical theology: An introduction) for practical theological interpretation, the primary methodology chosen for this research.

In this research the analysis of the prayer practices of a sample of churchless millennial Christians served as the descriptive-empirical task of Osmer’s model. Grounded theory was used as the methodology for this specific part of the research. Grounded theory, as an inductive methodology, is unique in its focus on theory generation and the authenticity of the data.

By coding the prayer journals of both churchless and churchgoing millennial Christians, categories within prayer were identified and used to generate a theory on the faith convictions of churchless millennial Christians. The authors of these prayer journals became co-researchers in this research project as they entered into a form of auto-ethnography in recording their own prayer practices.

The theory generated from the coding and analysis suggests that churchless millennial Christians believe in God, the One who cares for and is with us. This image of God consists of two main ideas, namely God as the provider and God as a relational and immanent God.

Furthermore, it was found that churchless millennial Christians have prayer practices that are fluid in terms of both their structural and spatial components. Many co-researchers indicated a free-flowing structure in their prayers, often accompanied by unconventional spaces such as the dance floor, the mall, and the bathroom. This seems to affirm the faith conviction of an immanent God.

This image of God, the One who cares for and is with us may very well be a faith conviction expressed throughout the Bible, but the new and unique contexts of churchless millennial Christians give new meanings to an old idea. An overview of the contexts of this generation (in terms of factors such as technology, relationships, education and world events) indicates that the categories that emanate from the prayers of millennials have new nuances that ought not to be overlooked.

It can be said that churchless millennial Christians face a wide range of losses that hinder their access to “the good life”. These losses are comparable to the locust plagues in the Biblical book of Joel. In order to guide millennials through their unique context and experience of loss, a new approach to worship is necessary. Such a new approach moves away from a church-centred paradigm where the focus lies on getting millennials back into the pews. Rather, the missional paradigm is called for in which the church gathers in the absence of the church (building) in order to lament, mourn and pray. Such an approach is made possible through the concept of anatheism. Anatheism is focused on seeking God on the other side of traditional ideas of God. Or, put another way: “Seeking God after the death of God”. Essentially, this concept embraces the fears and doubts people might have concerning God in order to meet God as a Stranger.

The anatheistic approach asks the church to move away from the role of an all-knowing authority on God that should be approached in order to receive God. Rather, it encourages an understanding of the church as part of the community of not-knowing, who receive God in humility through hospitality towards the God unknown. Such an approach of not-knowing encourages curiosity and a search for God that yearns to be satisfied. In this approach, doubt may even be encouraged, as it opens the door to new encounters with God. Such an approach does not call the church to silence, but rather towards humility. It is an invitation to let go of the pressure of being in control and instead join a greater community of seekers. Perhaps the church may even encounter, along with churchless millennial Christians, the compassionate and immanent God whom Joel proclaims.

Anatheism reminds Christians that all need to seek God beyond God. But churchless millennial Christians are a stark reminder to the church that it is time to seek the church beyond the church. The church is called to find its identity as church beyond the current formats of being church. One could call it a call towards ana-ekklesia. The missional church defines its identity in the light of its being sent out into the world. Its existence is thus not solely dependent on its functionality as a consumer item within this world. Instead, the church’s identity lies in its task to guide others into the greater story of God and God’s people. The Reformed Church’s name and credo of semper reformanda serves as an incentive to rethink, reimagine and reform its ways. Similarly, the challenge of the millennial generation is not necessarily directed at the church, but at its format. In fact, communities of believers gather in many places outside the church and hence the whereabouts of the (traditional) church could be questioned just as much as the whereabouts of the churchless millennial Christians. 

It is amidst anatheism and ana-ekklesia that analeitourgia is found. This is the art of recognising and creating alternative liturgies that are not reliant on the church building or traditional rituals. Research shows that Christians’ liturgies are often found in everyday places and in everyday activities. The dichotomic separation of secular and sacred no longer holds water. Instead, churches are invited to move into people’s lived theologies towards greater understanding, but also greater participation in the sacrality of the everyday. Therefore, churches are called to both acknowledge and help form missional liturgies and rituals that can move beyond the church walls, beyond the conventionally sacred. In order for churches to do this, five acts are suggested.

The first is to identify rituals (whether conventionally sacred or secular) that play a big role in churchless millennial Christians’ lives and to understand the function of these rituals – specifically in terms of the manner in which they relate to experienced losses or the celebration of the good life. This forms part of the level of analeitourgia. Churches, all members being included, are then invited to join millennials in these spaces during these rituals in order to build relationships and become a part of their spiritual “tribes”. This second act is on the level of ana-ekklesia, as new formats of being church are explored. As part of the anatheistic level, churches are invited to receive God as the Stranger. This third act is an act of discernment. It is because of this discernment that churches can re-enter the level of ana-ekklesia in joining the Spirit in God’s mission. New ways of joining the Spirit among churchless millennial Christians are then pursued as a fourth act. The final act is to return to the level of analeitourgia when the church humbly engages with churchless millennial Christians in challenging and reforming rituals in order to receive God and the Spirit in the everyday.

It is in practising these five acts that the church can move through anatheism, ana-ekklesia and analeitourgia towards forming part of a greater community of faith that is grounded in people’s everyday lives and contexts, and in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Churchless millennial Christians’ prayers may seem conventional, but the generation, by staying away from conventional church (buildings), is implicitly extending a profound invitation to the church. It is an invitation to reconsider the God whom Christians worship (anatheism), the identity and forms of the church (ana-ekklesia) and the acts and spaces that serve as meeting grounds with God (analeitourigia). It is our suggestion that a culture of not-knowing (a lex non credendi), of reforming and of rituality can make worship with this “lost” generation possible.

Keywords: ana-ekklesia; analeitourgia; anatheism; churchless; faith practices; lex credendi; lex orandi; millennials; prayer practices; ritual


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