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.

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.

  • https://twitter.com/haltheyounger Hal

    I think you’re right. When your view of the church heightens, it becomes much more difficult to criticize her from a distance. Thank you for this challenge.

  • http://lawsonhembree.wordpress.com/ Lawson Hembree

    Your point about teaching a strong ecclesiology is spot-on. We are redeemed branches grafted in to the true vine by our Savior not our own little sprouts. As branches, we must work for the good of the rest of the plant, even when we don’t agree with everything that’s going on at the local level.

    I’m also a college ministry guy and like you we teach on the importance of the church as a part of our “Four-Year Plan” while encouraging students to join and commit to a local body even if it isn’t ours.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to RHE’s piece!

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Thanks! Yeah, we have a big section of our transitions course for high school seniors be about the importance of finding a church when you’re away. It’s just crucial.

  • http://gospelaccordingtodoctorwho.tumblr.com/ dschram

    You make it sound like a marriage, but then that is what it is. We the church are the bride of Christ. We serve him by serving others, just as he did.

  • Dalaina May

    Thank you, Derek. I landed on your blog as I was reading some other responses to Evan’s article on other blogs. I am a 29 year old woman, born and raised in the church, now an overseas missionary sent from an evangelical church in Orange County, CA. I have major issues with many of Evan’s theological beliefs, yet the article resonated with me deeply as I too have been SO FRUSTRATED with what I see in the American church – for some of the reasons Evans mentioned. Pray for the Bride… ouch. I needed that smack over the head. Simple, but very, very deep answer. Maybe I will never see the changes that I think are so desperately needed, but praying for her will keep my heart soft and loving toward her. You are so right. Thank you.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Dalaina, a response like that humbles me. Thank you for obediently answering God’s call to go. I pray that when/if you come back, you can find a church here pray, live, grow, and dream with. Heck, I hope you have one overseas!
    Best,
    D

  • John Giglio

    The CNN article claimed that Millennials were entirely justified for abandoning any institution that refused to adopt their personal cultural expectations and postmodern tones of expression. This reply is flawless; deconstructing the various “I want Jesus; not the church” nonsense statements. The church is not a means to an end. Rather, she is the very thing Jesus has bound himself to and is committed to forming within history by the work of his Spirit.

  • Patrick Lafferty

    Augustine’s “She [the church] is a whore; but she is my mother,”while to our ears might seem over the top, perhaps captures both the angst some feel and the corresponding, if counter-intuitive, call to pray and serve her. Thanks for this, Derek.

  • RoycePashtun

    People are not necessarily leaving the Church, but leaving the religious/industrial complex governed by government registered corporations and ruled by professional managers, “directors,” and CEOs who have arrogated to themselves salaries and titles, in contradiction to the clearest of teachings from Jesus. And, when honest members question the whole system, those with vested interests lay a guilt trip on them (which is actually spiritual abuse), such as asking them if they’ve prayed enough, or given enough, whatever. That’s why they are “leaving” your system.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Royce,
    A few things:
    1. A “director” is an admittedly awkward title for non-ordained pastor. I pastor the college and young adults at my church. My nefarious religious-industrial complex job involves leading Bible studies, organizing small groups, potlucks, beach days, grabbing coffee and talking through relationships, Jesus, classes, life, and stuff like that. Oh, and ya, they pay TONS.
    2. There’s no space here to lay out a full-on ecclesiology but there is ample biblical basis for ordained, structured ministry. That is, if you read the whole Bible, not just two or three verses in the Gospels, out of context.
    3. Mildly asking someone if they’ve pray for the church isn’t spiritual abuse. That’s simply exhortation and the Bible is full of it. If that’s your definition, I’ve some broken and wounded people for you to talk to about real abuse.

    Finally, if the churches we see really are part of this nefarious cabal under the control of wicked, arrogant leaders (and, well, I don’t really dispute that I’m wicked and arrogant–I am Reformed), then the question still applies: have you prayed for it? If for no other reason than millions upon millions of your brothers and sisters in Christ are stuck in it, please pray for it.

    Welp, that’s it for now.

  • Robin Drake

    Yes! Learning about Jesus is necessary, but not sufficient to make one stay and work as part of a community, and I’m afraid traditional Sunday School has something to answer for there. It worked as long as it was backed up by the entire culture of the community, but in a more diverse environment, it comes up short. I learned more about ‘church as body’ from singing hymns as a chorister, than I did in Sunday School, and then capped that with 4 years of EFM.

  • sheila0405

    So much of what you say is so true. It’s not until we view the Church a la JFK “ask not what the Church can do for you, ask what you can do for your Church” that we find we can be connected to each other as Church. It is in serving that we are served in return. When praying for the Church, pray that God leads you to the church that is right for you. One that will challenge you at the same time it invites you in to help out. I go to church to be connected with God, but also God’s people. I have found that no man is an island when it comes to spirituality. We need each other. There is also quite a bit to be said for maturity. When we stop making ourselves the center of the universe, it is easier to connect with other people who are just like us, each with our own faults and frailties. Accepting others as more important than ourselves is the key to growing up into loving adults.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Augustine’s always the man.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Right?

  • John Hawthorne

    Derek: There are three things I want to address in response to your post. First, if you go back and read Rachel’s piece (as I did in depth last night when writing my own post on the topic) most of what she wrote summarized research done by the Barna folks and the recent data from the Public Research group. She may understand the issues you address and share some of them, but they aren’t her critiques. They’re the critiques that come from actual data on millenials. Maybe they aren’t leaving — they increasingly don’t care. Second, you’re right on the money about not teaching about ecclesiology. That has been a huge gap in American protestantism and evangelicalism might have been particularly guilty. Maybe it’s consumerism. Maybe it’s seekerism. Maybe it’s lack of liturgy. (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2013/08/01/is-the-new-evangelical-liturgy-really-an-improvement/) But third: I fear you give half an answer. Forgive for suggesting prayer isn’t enough but it’s one-sided. You pray for the church while it adjust AND it adjusts. Otherwise it risks becoming an internalized acceptance of what is rather than the prophetic challenge for the future. Millenials will have less interest in religion going forward. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we engage the ones we have.

  • pastordt

    Thank you. Just that – thank you.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    It’s ironic that she’s enthusing about being attracted to the high church as more “authentic.” She’d be in for a rude awakening if she actually were to attend, say, a tarditional Catholic church. They’re not going to sit down and ask whiny millenials how they feel. I can’t speak for the liberal (apostate) Catholic church.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    John, thanks for your response. A few things:
    1. I didn’t say that Evans’ list wasn’t based on those studies. As I noted in the article, I read her follow-up piece. That said, there are a lot of ways to analyze that date. One is to come to the conclusion that, millennials are right. Another is to conclude that in many of these places millennials are rejecting truth. Another is to doubt the self-reporting methods involved in polls like Barna, et. all. Pollsters analysis leaves something to be desired. The reason someone says their leaving, isn’t always the real reason.
    2. Thanks.
    3. I’m aware it was half an answer. Actually, it wasn’t really an answer, but just a plea to the people thinking of leaving. I’m Reformedish, so I think the Church should reform under the Word of God as necessary, whether the critiques are coming from millennials or 90-year olds.

    And yes, we should engage with them. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be in college ministry. ;)

    Thanks for stopping by.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    You’re welcome.

  • Carrie Givens

    Derek – Thanks for these words; they’ve been an encouragement as I’ve thought over them for the week.

    I was just thinking through it again and remembered a blog post a friend of mine wrote a while back, a letter to her church. It resonates with this topic: http://greenertrees.net/2012/10/17/a-letter-to-my-church/

  • michicatholic

    I’m Catholic. The post-reformation period has hit its end. Both sides of this struggle are having the same problems, albeit with different focus points. Our young are leaving too, some to join you, but the great majority because they no longer comprehend any of it. They need to see Jesus, not your flavor of confusion, nor our flavor of confusion. I’m not sure it matters a whole lot whether they encounter him at your house or ours, but they need to meet him and strike up a relationship with him. God bless you for being Christian too.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Sorry, you lost me. Who’s me and where’s my house?

  • jean_e_lane

    Articles like this resonate with me. But I have one problem with them. The labeling (millennials), the reverse (?) ageism, the assumptions that one has grown up in the church. Yes, I think I realize that you are trying to reach a specific group of people. But think about it. I have been a born-again believer and church-goer for 12 years. I am just in the middle of my ‘growing up’ years even though I am 60+. So I can relate to not being taught about the Church. Vague mentions once in a while but not the wholehearted belonging to which you referred. Somewhere along the line, I came to the realization that I should pray for my specific church and their role/place in the world-wide church. But have I? Evidently the realization didn’t hit me that hard. So thanks for hitting this person (who could be your mom!) over the head with your words.


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