The Church Failed Millennials, Just Not In the Way You Think It Did

Image: EladeManu via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If you hadn’t already heard, millennials are leaving the church in droves leaving many church leaders scratching their heads as to what to do about it. Rachel Held Evans came out with a piece on CNN.com stepping into the gap to explain why they are leaving Apparently it struck a nerve; it was shared over 170,000 times. Speaking as the voice of a generation, she raised issues like our exhaustion with the culture wars, poor handling of teaching on sexuality, gay marriage, science and religion, and putative weakness on social justice. Instead, millennials want, and need, a deeper encounter with Jesus.

Of course, as the college and young adult guy at my church, as well as a millennial myself (freshly 27), I read her piece and the follow-up with great interest. I saw a number of those 170,000 shares in my Facebook feed, with loud cries of “Amen!” and some disgruntled nay-saying. I probably uttered both as I read it. While there were a number of insightfulreassuringly critical, and helpful interactions with her piece, addressed to the churches and readers in general, I wanted to briefly address myself more directly to my fellow millennials here.

We Were Failed 
I’ll be honest, my initial instinct when I come to pieces like these is to balk a bit. I worry that we can tend to come off as whiny, demanding, or entitled. Even worse, there’s a sort of myopia involved in thinking Christianity must change or die every 30 years or so.

We’re not the first group of young’uns frustrated with the church and maybe we need to question ourselves a bit more here. That said, I want to acknowledge that I think we were failed. This failure was more than weak, harmful teaching on sexuality, or false science/religion dichotomies. Those errors are there, to be sure, and ought to be dealt with, but the failure I’m thinking about goes a bit deeper.

One thing I think the pop Evangelical church has truly dropped the ball on is talking to us about the Church. I mean, honestly, during all the Sunday School lessons, high school talks, and special Bible studies, I’m not sure I heard any solid teaching about the Church until I hit college. This was a problem because once I hit my bitter phases, I didn’t have really have much of a doctrine of the Church to fall back on; to me the Church wasn’t really the beloved bride of Christ; I hadn’t been forced to consider the import of Christ’s body to which He has inseparably bound Himself as its head; there wasn’t really a people of God, elected to be spotless and pure in Him; instead of understanding myself to be a part of the corporate Temple of God, I saw each of us as our own little dwelling of the Spirit, responsible to keep our own act clean.

Have You Prayed For it?
Early on in my own college-aged angst over the frustrations of church life, I got a piece of sage advice from an older Christian mentor. I think I had been complaining about all the ways my church, or the church, didn’t “get it”, or something like that, when they asked me, “Yes, that’s probably all very true, but have you been praying for it?”

Had I been praying for it? To be honest, I don’t think I had. I thought the church was there to pray for me, not really the other way around. Still, I found myself gently challenged in that question, so I started to pray for the church. Not perfectly, of course, but regularly. And actually, I not only prayed for it, I decided to commit myself to it, and serve it more diligently. And you know what? It made it worse in a lot of ways.

By praying for it and serving it, I began to love it like I never really had before. Instead of viewing it through the non-committal, arm’s distance, American, semi-apathy I had settled into, I saw its weaknesses and failures in the stark, glaring light of love. The thing about that love, though, is that it didn’t drive me away, but drew me deeper in. I came to the point where walking away from it wasn’t even an option.

Even more, in light of prayer, and time spent serving her, I began to realize that, in fact, some of my earlier frustrations with her were more to do with my youth and haste, than her flaws. She turned out to be more holy and beautiful than I gave her credit for. I began to see all of the wonderful works Jesus was working in His Bride that I’d simply been too jaded and frustrated to notice before.

It’s not so much that I found out that she didn’t really have any flaws, it’s that I found out I had some too. I saw all the ways I could be loved and give love, to know and be known, receive and give myself away in imitation of my Savior. In spite of it all, I became conscious of my deep need for the Church. In fact, following Jesus without her didn’t really make any sense. If I had walked away, it wouldn’t have been just her problem, but mine as well. It wasn’t an issue of the church getting better to fit my wants, needs, and expectations, but realizing how skewed and myopic some of my wants and judgments really were (and still are.)

And this brings me to my “plea” to fellow millennials. A lot of us are leaving the church. For some of us, this is simply finding out we never really had anything more than a superficial “faith” in the first place. Others of us really love Jesus, but are fed up and frustrated with the church we grew up with. My question for you is: have you prayed for her? Have you really served her? Do you love her? Have you struggled to see her the way Christ sees her, as the bride He was willing to lay Himself down for, even to the point of death to cover her sins and make her whole?

If you haven’t, try it. Pray for the church. Pray for her health, her life, her forgiveness, her sanctification, and mission in the world. Then, find a half-way decent church that preaches the Bible, prays, and tries to be neighborly, and commit yourself to it. Risk being wrong about the church in the best way possible. Continue to show up, be present, graciously challenging, as well as submitting, enough to have an actual voice in your community. Whatever you do, don’t simply leave. If you do, you’ll rob yourself of the chance to see what Jesus is doing in that community He’s covenanted Himself to. Instead, commit yourself and risk a bit of hope. Generations before us have found that God comes through on His promises to preserve the church He obtained with His own blood (Acts 20:28). Dare to believe that Jesus is still sanctifying His Bride, until that day when she is presented to Him in glory. I know for myself, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.


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