A Millennial Mainline Resurgence Is Just Around the Corner!

Evangelical Protestants: “I’m Desperate for You” (and your really shady politics).

An interesting article by reformist evangelical and author Rachel Held Evans has been making the rounds on blog posts and Facebook. Evans speaks about her experience as a consultant to evangelical churches that are wondering why Millennials are leaving organized religion.

Evans rolls her eyes at churches that think they can win back Millennials with “hipper worship bands,” “pastors in skinny jeans,” and “an updated Web site that includes online giving.”  A lot of her suggestions for churches to recapture the Millennial generation were ones that my fellow mainliners found appealing, and even seemed to re-post with apparent glee. These were things we mainliners are already doing!

According to Evans, some of the qualities Millennials are looking for in a church are:

  • High church liturgy that seems “so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool.’” Check.
  • “Questions that don’t have predetermined answers.” Check.
  • “Churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.” Check.
  • “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.” Increasingly and decisively, check.
  • “We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.” Check.
  • “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.” Check.

Mainline Protestant churches offer most, if not all of these things. My own Presbyterian Church (USA) greets visitors to its Web site with these words:

“Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”

What Millennial couldn’t love that? It’s traditional, it’s uncool, and it has Jesus. Not like those slick, smarmy UCC’s who have that whole God Is Still Speaking thing.

Mainline Protestants: I’m desperate for this to be over so I can go to brunch.

Walk into any Presbyterian Church and you’ll find an order of worship that hasn’t changed in 400 years. Multimedia? Feh. That’s for evangelicals. We sing hymns—out of hymn books! And none of that ego-stroking “seeker church” crap here. You can barely get into a Presbyterian service without declaring your unworthiness before God in a group prayer of confession. There’ll be 2000 year-old creeds to recite and choir and organ anthems from as late as the 1970’s. And then the pastor will do something you will not see anywhere else all week. She or he will stand up and give a monologue—uninterrupted—for twenty minutes without any visual illustrations! It’s church unplugged!

If a Presbyterian Church does use multimedia or contemporary praise songs, they’re usually published by Maranatha! or Hill Songs or Word publishing or one of the other evangelical presses. These songs about the dominion of Jesus over all the earth, the masculinity of God, and the horrific blood and sacrifice of the cross are tried and true winners of souls.


I want to make a suggestion to fellow Mainline friends who, based on Rachel Held Evans’ article, might be tempted to think we are in for an influx of Millennials. Whatever she is suggesting that evangelicals have overdone, we have underdone.

We need hipper worship bands—performing contemporary music that is composed for our churches and reflects our theology.

We need more pastors in skinny jeans, or at least pastors who look and act like people you can interact with as human. We have some of the best trained, most creative and thoughtful spiritual leaders in the culture today—people who could provide real guidance to Millennials—but they are corseted by robes and sermon forms and worship traditions that don’t reflect how anyone communicates in this day and age.

We need to unwrap Jesus from our theological language and expose him for the spiritual revolutionary he actually was. Hint: if your main descriptions for Jesus include phrases like “triune,” “incarnate,” or “eternally begotten of the Father” you are not doing this.

We need to fill our musty old churches with creative multimedia, not prepackaged by church publishers, but using actual popular culture that people interact with every day, as well as music and art generated by congregation members or local artists.

And it’s not enough to “have Jesus.” To the spiritual but not religious generation, we need to help them see why Jesus is important and has relevance to their lives.

What I’m suggesting is radical change in the way we do church. We have to dump the organ and the anthems. Four-line hymns, which were once a form of popular music, but now are not, have to go. The 20-minute, uninterrupted, unillustrated sermon must go. The thick theological language that was developed to hide the truly revolutionary nature of Christ has to go. The aversion to the visual and multimedia has to go.

The club-like structure of churches where you “join” a place that has a building, a staff, an education wing, and a board of trustees, is already crumbling and will soon be gone. Using social media, vastly expanded Web content, and yes, online giving, are necessary in a culture where how you “belong” to an organization has changed radically.

Our teaching and focus on social justice, inclusion, and community that transcends politics are right for this generation, but our packaging is wrong. This is the opposite problem from the evangelicals.

I suspect that the Mainline denominations can find some forms of worship and expressions of theology that are true to their traditions and will speak to the 21st Century. But this will not happen without some significant postmodern reinterpretation. Simply doing things as they have always been done has not been good enough for some time, and there will be no resurgence in people looking for boring churches. There is a difference between having a tradition, and being staid, sclerotic, and comatose.

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  • kshoosh86

    I hope you do realize that some of those words you want to abolish actually mean something. Maybe check a dictionary first if you don’t know what those words mean? For example, the word “incarnate” literally means “Embodied in flesh; in human form: “God incarnate”.” That’s the problem with getting rid of language you don’t like– the word precisely describes the spiritual/human state of Jesus: he was God’s Son, a divine being in human flesh.

    You claim to want to “unwrap Jesus from our theological language and expose him for the spiritual revolutionary he actually was.” That sounds like a nice, young, hip thing to say, but the problem is, the theological language defines WHO Jesus was. Yes, he was a revolutionary in his time, but he was far more than that. Gandhi was a revolutionary. MLK Jr. was a revolutionary. Jesus was the freaking Son of God. As Christians, we need that theological language. It defines Jesus, His relationship with God, and our relationship with both of them, and it reminds us that Jesus was soooooo much more than simply a revolutionary.

    • http://www.evolvingchristianfaith.net irreverance

      I believe the point about language was to say that all language is contextual, and if a concept means anything at all, other more culturally relevant language can be used to communicate the concept.

  • Voidhawk

    I think the church’s biggest problem is that it’s muddling around the wrapping when it’s the content driving away millenials. The internet and global communication means that we’re exposed to more ideas than any other time in history. When the Church can’t provide satisfying answers to (for example) the problem of evil, it takes seconds for a young person to google their question and have it answered by very different philosophies.
    A church which has relied on stock answers and ‘you’ve just got to have faith’ for generations is now finding that young people rightly aren’t accepting that any more. Bring in as many skinny-jeaned ministers and electric guitars as you want but until the chuch can actually answer the questions at the very heart of people’s doubt then you’re going to see more and more people drift away.

  • Tim

    the mainline church will grow when it starts being real. When it starts showing its humanity and need for grace. When it starts living what it preaches. When disciples are made. It won’t happen before that….I don’t care how skinny your jeans are, or how hip your worship teams are, or for Rachel, how high your liturgy is.

  • Lisa

    Here’s one response to Rachel Held Evan’s piece that I completely agree with. As a divinity school student I am still working through how this might look in my own tradition and would be interested to hear of congregations that are putting it into action.

  • jdens

    In general, I hate your suggestions. :D I really do. I don’t go to church to encounter pop culture. I look at screens all day every day and don’t want them intruding on what has become a nourishing break from them. There is too much visual and aural “noise” in the modern everyday life. I want a different sensory environment in church–a palate cleanser, if you will. You know what I do, if I’m not watching the preacher or the reader or the activity at the altar? I’m looking at the stained glass windows, and the stories they depict. I’m looking at the architectural details, at the tree outside the window. And all these things point to God and feed my soul.

    If you don’t have a glorious organ, by all means have a band. But I don’t want to croon a love song to Jesus or chirp some peppy tune about God. I want sacred music that acknowledges complexity, and joy, and suffering, and the yearning for the holy. It doesn’t have to be old to do that, but being old doesn’t make it irrelevant or “musty” either. If your church is lucky enough to have a pipe organ in good condition, and you choose to ditch it, you don’t deserve it! (said lightheartedly, but nonetheless sincerely)

    Look, ultimately, you seem to be addressing issues of style. There are people who feel they can worship better with the changes you’ve suggested. I feel like I’ve been there and done that and never want to go back there again. Ever. (And if my mainline Episcopal church abandoned their liturgical ways for what you’ve described, I would feel betrayed–and I’m not an old grump, just a grump born in the 80s.) Whatever the style, if your church is supporting each other and the wider community in love and a commitment to justice, it’s probably doing ok, no matter what the numbers or demographics are. It’s the whole ‘style over substance’ attitude that makes a church look inauthentic and … well, unsubstantial.

  • Jz Jz

    I don’t care how you package it, if it’s not the truth, it won’t fly in the long run. The problem with what is typically called the “liberal” mainline is that it has decided to reflect the popular culture in its BELIEFS instead of reflecting Jesus. Forms and rituals, while important, are secondary to the truth of the Gospel.

    Having a debate about forms and ritual while denying (or attempting to change) the truth is nothing other than rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic while it sinks.

  • ampope

    Read a UK view on this issue at http://www.balmofgileaduk.blogspot.co.uk

  • micah_mccoy

    Howdy! A real live Millennial here! Just to let you know, the reason I and most of the people I know left the church is not because the services are too hip or too traditional or we didn’t see “enough of Jesus” in the church as Evans has asserted–it’s because we’re not believers anymore. Here’s how that usually happens:

    Christian: I invite you to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
    Millennial: Why?
    Christian: Because he died for your sins.
    Millennial: Why was that necessary?
    Christian: Because that’s the only way God would forgive your sins.
    Millennial: That makes no sense.
    Christian: Want to come to my church?
    Millennial: No thanks.

    • lila f

      Then unfortunately the Gospel has not been clearly explained to you, and you have not internalized it. To understand the concept of Jesus dying for your sins, you must first understand the holiness of God, and the true meaning and depth of your sin, which is treason against God. Until you see that contrast, you won’t make sense of the Cross. And I’m a millenial too. Run through the Ten Commandments and see if you’ve kept them perfectly. Read through some proverbs and see how you measure up. I know I’m guilty of every sin in the book.

      • micah_mccoy

        Hi Lila,

        Given the extremely simplified dialogue I provided, I can understand how you could come to the conclusion that the Gospel had not been clearly explained to me and not internalized. The reality for me, however, was the opposite. I grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister and was a passionate, thoughtful, and studious Christian through my early twenties. What changed for me was that when I left home I was exposed to a wider set of ideas and challenged to examine what I had been taught. For me–and I suspect for many others–many of the structural Christian beliefs don’t pass the ‘why’ test when you drill right down to it.The “Holiness of god”–by what evidence? The “depth of my sin”–well, yes but I’m an adult who is perfectly capable of taking responsibility for that myself and atoning where appropriate without bringing crucifixion into the mix. “Proverbs?” How about:

        “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” – Proverbs 31:6 NIV

        …Now there’s something that I can get behind. :)

        But I think that the main point I intended to make earlier is that I hear a whole lot of discourse about “Why Millennials are leaving the church” that does not involve any discussion of “Why are Millennials no longer buying into things that are taught in church.” This probably needs to be part of the discussion if people are truly interested in understanding why our skinny-jeans aren’t polishing the pews.

        • Zach Sasser

          I should have read to the end before commenting above. As to holiness – neither side is truly defendable. The question for most millennials that I know is whether or not there is a God, and if there is one does that God care. If there is no apparent pattern of action that demonstrates a relationship of care, then God is either capricious, demonic, or just a fairy tale. You sound like you are on the other side of having asked and answered similar questions. I wonder how much you have actually explored beyond the critiques of the obvious flaws of orthodox Christianity. I, too, have misgivings with atonement theology. What sort of God requires infanticide to appease a blood lust in order to love what that same God created and animates? Have you considered the view of Liberation theology? What of the idea the the crucifixion was a natural consequence of a man standing against the powers and structures that oppress and demoralize because he believed he expressed the heart of God? What of the idea that God raised Jesus to demonstrate that love is more powerful than death, and we have something else to look forward to? What of the idea that the kingdom of God is not a future reality, but a present experience available to those who also express the heart of God by opposing that which causes suffering? Of course, if there is no spiritual character to life and no author or caregiver for the spiritual aspect of creation, then my questions are irrelevant. Do you believe their is no God?

      • BillYeager

        “the true meaning and depth of your sin, which is treason against God.” – Yeah, that. I think you’ll find the requirement for self-loathing/guilt and a demand for subservience to an absent deity are not exactly going to sell well to a generation who are, on the whole, far more informed and vastly more capable of reasoning and critical thinking than every generation before them.
        There’s not going to be a resurgence.

    • DrLindsay

      I think that’s about the quality of theological engagement that goes on in many churches. And I wouldn’t blame you for leaving.

    • Zach Sasser

      What if the invitation was more like, “Hey, I’m part of a community of imperfect people. We think being together helps us become better people. We think Jesus offers us an understanding of how to do that – a way to become part of something greater than ourselves. Come and tell me what you think about it.” No sucker punch. No telling you that you’re a bad person. Just an invitation to a community of people who believe that their is a God, and that God is involved in all things, moving us toward something better.

      • DrLindsay

        I like that invitation. I think what this generation needs more than anything is a sense of meaning.

  • MichaelS

    When I go to church, it’s because my wife makes me. I deconverted almost 3 years ago, and don’t see myself going back.

    My suggestion is that churches, in a sense, “get over it.” You aren’t running a business. Just be there for people when they need it, and work with what remains. Maybe my kids will become Christians again. You never know. These things always seem to go in cycles.

  • Zach Sasser

    Nice article, but it still seems to me that you are still addressing the packaging of Christianity.

    • DrLindsay

      Zach, I think my point is that, to some extent, the packaging is the problem. Mainline Christianity has a lot to offer that’s not getting out there in part because our “packaging” is misunderstood by the broader culture.

      I do want to acknowledge that I’m coming from a position as a scholar and critic and someone who has not been deeply into church and community building for a few years. I strongly respect people like you and my other friends in ministry who are “in the trenches” of trying to creatively lead congregations and help them imagine what both the now and the future of the church might be.

      • Zach Sasser

        I see your point – speak to the Romans as a Roman. I don’t mean to dismiss the need to be culturally sensitive or suggest that we don’t need any of your suggestions. It just seems to me that we should worry less about appearing relevant and more about being authentic and transparent in our relationships.

  • Kevin Daugherty

    I tried being a mainline Presbyterian. It did not work out for me. In fact, most mainline churches in my area, in all honestly, suck. I really think the idea that the mainline is some bastion of progressive Christianity is a stereotype.

    • DrLindsay

      I’d be interested to find out what your “area” is.

      • Kevin Daugherty

        Southwestern Pennsylvania.