By Reverend Topher Melhoff
Special at the Star Journal
I’m standing in the high school auditorium in my clergy shirt (you know the genre – the one with the white collar and tongue) talking about the importance of supporting trans students by calling them by their chosen names and their identified pronouns. I won’t know until they also say their peace, but what I’m saying is that other religious are very frustrated. They are here at the school board meeting to speak out against trans rights. I don’t think they expected an ordained minister to show up and say the exact opposite.
I think this is as good a way as any to introduce myself and let you know why I am writing this column. Hi. My name is Topher Mehlhoff and I am a pastor serving the 1st United Church of Christ in the Rhineland. 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 start of being really old, but I serve a congregation that is almost 100% older than me.
I think I’m still considered a “young minister” by most, even though I’m old enough to know what a rotary phone is and how it works. Most people my age and under don’t go to church (Gallup Poll, March 29, 2021). Attendance at the Millennial Church has seen a drastic drop, from 51% ten years ago to 35% today, according to Gallup. People smarter than me have tried and failed to explain this drop, but I think the scene I described in my first paragraph illustrates quite well why my generation no longer chooses to go to church.
Millennials who grew up in the church and paid attention to Sunday school (like me) left believing that Jesus loves everyone and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This simple philosophy has led us to say, “Black lives matter,” along with our black neighbors. This has led us to support gay rights alongside our gay neighbors. This led us to work on income equality. And that got me to stand up and say that trans kids should be supported by school policy, even if an auditorium of fellow Christians strongly disagreed.
Millennials don’t leave church because they are unspiritual or immoral. I believe a millennial is more likely to leave the church because of their spirituality or morals. There are of course exceptions (and I hope my own church can be counted among them), but the morals of many, many churches run counter to millennial morality. The church is for us more often an obstacle to 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, and it will not be the last. But it seems there is more at stake here than a generation gap. Religion is going to have to undergo a big change if it is to survive in the 21st century. Make no mistake about what I’m saying – God will be fine. But Christianity is going to have to evolve or die.
Wanting to be part of this evolution is a big reason why I followed a call to ministry. My religious tradition has changed a lot over the past two thousand years, and we need to do another spring cleaning. We have to empty the attic, get rid of what we no longer need and replace what we need. I think this process is exciting.
I realize that what I find exciting is extremely uncomfortable for others. One can have the impression that the traditions given by God are crumbling. But what is happening today is no more the end of religion than when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German for everyone to read. The kind of religion that will survive the 21st century will be accessible and flexible. One who can honestly answer difficult questions. One that allows experimentation and divergent points of view. Surely anyone can find the excitement in this?
Topher Mehlhoff is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and he serves the 1st CCU of the Congregation in the Rhineland. More of his writings can be found on topherbepreachin.com.