Why Millennials Are [Really] Leaving The Church

Oy.

What a debate this has turned into. A couple of weeks ago, an article by Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s Belief Blog went viral. Evans, a self-proclaimed adopted Millennial takes aim at the “attractional” church model that squeezes preachers into skinny jeans, strives for “hip” worship and puts coffee in the lobby.

Twenty-somethings nationwide wore out the “share” button. They stood up and applauded, and lauded Evans as the new voice of the new Christianity.

Out with the ways of our parents and grandparents, in with a new, “real” portrait of faith.

Now, I think Evans has articulated incredibly well what millennials want church to be. That is why it got spread so quickly. But—as a member of the generation myself—I must take some issue with some of her conclusions. The question is not, “did she convey the zeitgeist of our generation correctly,” but rather, “are the things our generation is seeking beneficial?

For example, take this statement from Evans:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.”

The aim of this post is not to offer a point-by-point criticism of Evans’ article. But creeds like this one are where I begin to feel uncomfortable. While I agree with what these statements say, I think if millennials were granted all these wishes, it would be detrimental to the Church. “Being known for what we are for rather than what we are against” is a great aspiration. Unless, of course, you are not actually against anything. In that case you are denying scriptural commands to “test every spirit,” (1 John 4:1) and other calls to be diligent in sniffing out false teachings (Romans 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 Timothy 4:13, 15; Titus 1:8-11, 2:1).

Another problematic statement is that millennials “want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.” The root cause of this comes from the fact that millennials have grown up in a largely post-modern and subjective world. In our reality, the world tells us that truth is relative and that personal experience is the ultimate authority in moral/ethical decision making. Biblical teaching, however, tells us that truth is objective, there is a God, and he has already spoken authoritatively through his word. In reality, the questions we ask have been asked – and answered ­– in the past, and biblically so.

The word “doctrine” comes from the Greek word meaning “to teach.” Therefore, doctrines are the teachings of the church. We shouldn’t be scared of having doctrines that have been thought out and scripturally backed. Why must we demand of the church that they act as if we are the first ones to struggle with the issue of homosexuality, or the balance of culture and holiness, or the need for social action? Why the arrogance that says, “We’ve finally got this figured out, and since the church won’t listen, we’re out of here.”

The arrogance comes from what I believe is the real reason millennials are leaving. Because they are human. Not only are they human, they are sinners. You. And Me. And all the millennials. And all the Pre-millennials. And all the post-millennials. We are humans who desperately struggle to submit to God because our egos get in the way.

When we get down to it, every generation – every person – wants a God that pats him or her on the back. We want a God that agrees with what we agree with and condemns what we condemn – a God who values our own areas of strength and condemns the areas in which others struggle.

This can be seen repeatedly throughout the biblical record. Approximately seven milliseconds after being rescued form Egypt, Israel cast shrines of gold in the form of a calf (“Make us gods who will go before us.” Exodus 32:1) in hopes that their gods would suit their needs. One author points out that Satan’s first deception was to suggest to Eve that “she knew as much about reality and morality as God did.[i] (Genesis 3:4-5) Jesus was crucified because he was the Messiah that was prophesied but not the one the Jews wanted. More recently, the products of the sixties and the Jesus People movement wanted hipper worship in their churches. Today we want acceptance of things the Bible clearly condemns and the freedom to begin our belief statements with “I kind of feel like . . . “

Evans, along with many Millennials, would connect the “Jesus” with “social justice” in some way. “Being authentic” to many means serving like Jesus served. And while I agree that the church can grow a great deal in this area, Jesus’ message was not just about social justice. His first words in ministry were, “Repent!” (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15).

Interestingly, Evans makes the statement, “We aren’t leaving because we don’t find the cool factor, but because we can’t find Jesus.” But is it possible that millennials are leaving because the Jesus they find is not the Jesus that would condone everything they think to do? Is it possible that the church portrayed in the Bible cannot be harmonized with the relativist, permissive church for which millennials are screaming? Could it be that our churches have done a fine job of bringing Jesus to the forefront, and that a young and one prideful generation after another just doesn’t want to be told what to do?


[i] Jack Cottrell, Solid! The Authority of God’s Word. WIPF and STOCK publishers. Eugene, OR, 1991. p. 85

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