A Conversational Way Forward: Responding to the Exodus of Millennials from our Churches

Rachel Held Evans has written a wonderful piece for the CNN Belief blog on why Millennials are leaving our churches.

It has been in heavy rotation on the social media circuits the last couple of days, but in case you haven’t seen it yet, do stop and read it now.

From my experience talking to millennials in churches and colleges, I think Rachel has hit the nail on the head.  However, I am a few years older than Rachel (squarely in the middle of Generation X), and I remember very similar pieces being written about why Gen-Xers were leaving churches in the early to mid-1990s. So, maybe there’s a bit of “nothing new under the sun” here, but I think the challenges that she has named are real and crucial for churches to address.

For the last few years, John Pattison and I (along with a diverse assortment of friends), have been exploring this very question, of how our churches move forward into deeper Christian faithfulness, in a time when — as Rachel emphasized — people of many ages are longing for substance, to belong to a community that is being transformed and is bearing witness of Christ’s peace to our neighbors.   Along the way, we stumbled into the language and philosophy of the Slow Food movement, and it utterly captivated our imaginations: what might it look like to envision Slow Church? Just as the Slow Food movement names and offers an alternative to the shortcuts of the industrial food system, we wanted to do more than simply critique the carnage of mainstream church culture, and all the shortcuts that define it, we wanted to offer a different way.  Just as the local community is the primary context for Slow Food, we too wanted to plead for the recovery of local churches as vital to the resurrection of a gospel that was vibrant and meaningful. Just as the Slow Food movement is centrally concerned not only with what we eat, but the means by which that food was grown and prepared, we wanted a Christianity was not only concerned with ends (say the peace of heaven when we die), but one in the means by which we pursue these ends are not at cross-purposes, but fit well with them (We learned a lot here from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful book The Jesus Way, which reminds us that Jesus, as the Way, was deeply concerned that our lives fit the ends we desire).

So what does a Slow Church look like? There are of course, at least as many answers to this question, as there are local churches. But following the three cardinal virtues of the Slow Food movement (desiring food that is good, clean and fair), we have named three similar virtues that define a Slow Church: Ethics, Ecology and Economy.  Of course, these three virtues mean vastly different things to different people, so let me offer a brief depiction of what we mean when we use them in relation to Slow Church.  When we speak of ethics, we mean being church well, or of preferring to define the health of our life together in qualitative terms instead of quantitative ones.   When we speak of ethics, we also must speak of the practices that are essential to sustaining healthy church communities, including stability and work.  When we speak of ecology, we mean that we locate our life together in the context of God’s mission of reconciling all creation. If God is reconciling all creation, there is no part or no people group (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation) that can be cast off; we must always be attentive and discerning together, as we seek not only to proclaim the peace of Christ, but to embody it in our neighborhoods. Finally, when we speak of economy, we must recognize and proclaim the wondrous economy of care that is God’s creation, in which God loves and abundantly provides for the flourishing of all creation.  We move within this economy of care as we live lives oriented toward first gratitude and then generosity, lamenting our complicity in the situations of those who do not know God’s abundant provision.

As I have had the opportunity to talk about Slow Church over the last few years in churches and a variety of other Christian settings, I have been struck by how this vision resonates with Millennials, Gen-Xers and others who are deeply frustrated with the status quo of evangelicalism. As I read Rachel’s article, I realized that what we are calling Slow Church, addresses most, if not all the concerns that she raised as crucial among Millennnials.

I have noted above that Slow Church is deeply concerned with means, so how do we move forward out of the mess that Rachel has described?  Let me offer a few suggestions that, if taken seriously, will get us rolling on this long, slow journey toward a deeper and more faithful Christian witness in our local churches.


First, to pastors and other established leaders in congregations and denominations…
Rachel’s advice to “sit down and really talk with [millennials and other dissenters], is a good start.  It is much more important that we are growing in understanding and love for others in our congregations than that we be right about particular doctrines or social policies. God’s work is one of transformation; we all need to be open to change.   The way in which Jesus led his disciples was marked by its vulnerability. Similarly, as we lead congregations, to what extent are we vulnerable, not trying to be supreme authorities or to shelter our brothers and sisters from all possible contingencies of life.


To Millennials, or others who are exasperated with what you find in churches…
Don’t give up hope.  We need you to bear witness to a different way WITHIN our churches.  Talk with the leaders of your churches, challenge them to read books with you and discuss them.  Dare to imagine and seek a meaningful life that is centered in your church community.  Find a congregation that you have some connection to and can at least tolerate, and stay put; be patient, and always keep asking and seeking, even when doing so isn’t always appreciated.  Find friends in your congregation that will commit to staying put and asking and seeking together with you.


And finally, to everyone…
Create, nurture and defend spaces in your congregational life for open conversation — in which people can raise critiques of the church and ask difficult questions, and in which these questions and critiques can be used constructively by the congregation to imagine new ways forward. Here at Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, we have created a space for open conversation on Sunday nights, and it has radically transformed us over the last 15 years (I have told our story  in detail in my recent book The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities).  We were (and still mostly are) a congregation of diverse generations, theological convictions and political opinions, and the practice of conversation may have drawn us a little closer, but it did not magically make us one-minded on all things, but rather what it has done is to nurture in our midst a deep love for and trust of one another, so that we can work and seek the peace of Christ together, even when we don’t always agree with one another about what we should do or why we should do it.


As Rachel has indicated, there is a deep hunger today for church communities that can sustain these substantial sorts of conversation, and conversation is the way that we move forward in the direction we are calling Slow Church.  It is in conversation that begin to be the church well, learning as we continue to do here at Englewood to love and trust each other in deeper and more meaningful ways.  It is in conversation that we navigate the many complexities and tensions of following God’s mission of reconciling all things, being ever attentive to the particularities of our histories and places.   It is in conversation that we embody our love for each other in an economy of care, gratefully receiving God’s abundant provision and generously sharing with our sisters, brothers and neighbors.

This is the journey to which we are called, a way of cultivating community in the patient way of Jesus.

[Watch for the SLOW CHURCH book, coming next spring from IVP / Praxis ]

  • http://www.wiselywoven.com J Fowler

    Interesting post. I’ve been thinking about blogging about my own experience with all this. We are currently without a church community after having recently left a congregation we were loosely affiliated with. We are not eager to join another fellowship right away but are trying to seek out relationships with other Jesus followers. My big problem with alot of what we are doing in typical church settings is that I feel it is often a replacement for actual community. Sometimes I feel like I am a part of the mannikin of Christ or a corpse (where all the parts are disconnected). The LORD impressed on me one time that we are afflicted with an “a-part-ment complex” – like a real apartment complex everyone is very close but the walls are up. I’m tired of our religious culture being a substitute for real, living relationships.

    • erbks

      Jason, Thanks for commenting. I would love for you to write a bit about your experience in response to this all! There is, of course, no categorical response to the question of leaving or staying, but if we are convicted that the building of walls between people is a problem in our churches, then we need to ask ourselves if our leaving would only serve to build a perhaps thicker and more impenetrable wall? I’ll speak for myself here, but all the conditions that lead to the “wall-building” you describe are constantly at work in my heart: fear, anxiety, desire for control, etc, etc.

  • scottcheatham

    To me, this article eclipses Evans’ in that it strikes a better balance for dialog. At times in reading her piece, I was led to believe that I would have to change core beliefs in order to make a lasting impact with the Millennial generation. In all of this, we must remember that Jesus himself told us that many would turn away and seek a church that catered to their belief system rather than what the bible teaches. This was a well thought out response or “addition” to her thoughts to consider the sociological nature of church and not just feed our own selfish interests.

    • erbks

      Scott, I think you have hit the nail on the head in naming “selfish desires.” We won’t make any progress toward a deeper Christian faithfulness, until we all — establishment and dissenting Christians — take seriously Jesus’s call to discipleship, that first of all is to “deny ourselves.” Thx! Chris

      • Things1to3

        As a millennial raised in a baptist church I took the notion of “denying ourselves” VERY seriously. I took it seriously to the point that I had self esteem issues, depression issues, and interpersonal issues that were very destructive. When I left the church and started to recognize myself as a worthy human being was when I began to heal. It’s easy to throw out the accusation that those who don’t agree with you are doing so for selfish reasons, but that’s ignoring the issue by framing it int this manner is a self-fulfilling argument.

        If listening and discussing other perspectives are a violation of your core beliefs than your “faith” is already dead.

  • Richard Sheriff

    If I am understanding the content of this dialog about ‘slow
    church’ – it appears to me that this is conversation that always has been
    conducted in the ‘secret places’ but not often in the format of ‘church’ (the
    assembly place) – I understand that the various understandings that separate
    the ‘church’ by denominations can ill afford suggestions or queries that oppose
    a particular view or position of that denominational assembly place or the ‘national
    organization’ which determines the ‘doctrine’ that is promoted to distinguish
    it from other ‘church’ doctrines – indeed many will agreed that many of the
    basic positions of doctrine are acceptable to all ‘followers’ – yet they almost
    always are identified by their ‘doctrinal’ difference – I suspect that for most
    who ‘minister’ in any particular denominational setting is obligated to promote
    that position – that does not permit or encourage much, if any question of
    authority of ‘scripture as interpreted’ by ‘denominational doctrine’ – it is
    take or leave it with any reasoning together for possible other interpretation –
    that is a danger of being a reflection or an echo the understanding of others –
    indeed it is a great value and even a necessity for ‘teachers’ – but not unlike
    many teaching goals in similar settings has been reduced to nothing more of
    information to be accepted as truth without closes examination – teaching fails
    when it emphasizes ‘what to think’ rather than ‘how to think’ – as mentioned
    earlier teachers are a necessary part of the gifts to the ‘church’ – but even ‘godly’
    teachers need to guard against promotion of their own agenda

    Some of my concern for , at least the Church in America, I how
    we identify ourselves, other than denominationally, as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’
    – you can use your own understanding to apply to these terms because the point
    I wish to make can still be understood – these identifying labels show
    division, and even derision for purpose contrary to the cause of Christ – these
    labels usually indicate a ‘political’ position to be applied to groups of
    believers – there are many who have taken a position that in order to be a ‘true
    Christian’ one must endorse a particular political preference – while many
    actually believe that if you believe the opposing position you are opposed to
    the Bible as the ‘infallible’ ‘inerrant’ ‘inspired’ Word of God – which means that you cannot be a believer unless
    you believe the Bible is all of these things, and endorses a particular political
    preference – it appears to me that many have made the ‘written’ Word of God to be more relevant than
    the God of the ‘written word’ – we fail whenever ‘we are the choice’ of God
    rather that God being our choice – “you will be my people and I will be your
    God…if…” – so let us not oppose one another based upon a ‘political’ difference
    – but let us unite in ‘spiritual unity’ – politicians use ‘religious people’ to
    accomplish their political agenda by dividing believers – and the ‘church’ use
    politicians to promote our particular doctrinal position to ‘legislate holiness’
    so that it becomes the law of the land – when that happens Christians who have
    been saved by ‘grace’ are turning back to the ‘law’ to enforce their position
    to be accepted as the law of the land – all that has happened then is that you
    have burdened us with a law of religion – no salvation received or given – just

  • Lausten North

    If this is the height of conversation on the topic, you are in big trouble. Everything Rachel wants can be found outside of church, except Jesus, and she offers no explanation of what she means by that. This is exactly what every sermon I’ve ever heard or read does, and that numbers in the thousands: offer something about power, peace, unity and love, then say Jesus is behind it. That’s what Millennials have figured does not work.

    After my last pastor gave me four books that didn’t satisfy me, I asked him to read one I had. He said he would think about it. If you have to write an article to tell leaders to listen to their followers, you are already pretty far down the road of self-destruction. If you have to explain to an organization that is supposed to be about spiritual matters that your life should about your desires, you’ve already missed the boat.

  • Mginiafriend

    This doesn’t just apply to Millenials. I’m part of the LGBT community. I opted to leave the denomination I was raised in because I have no voice in the denomination. I truly love the straight allies whose voices can be heard in the din of the arguing but LGBT voices need to be heard too – the “holy conversations” that seem to take place once in awhile in larger general church forums are dominated by those who are heterosexist. There is no honest attempt at conversation, as only one side gets to voice their concerns. From an age perspective: I’m Gen X. By the mid 1990s I was the ONLY person under between 18 and 30 in the church I was going to. I went back to visit that church recently – I was the only person under 50. Churches would be wise to have a formal sit down with the WHOLE church – where guidelines such as “no interrupting”, no foul language (yes it does exist in church), respect that others wish to be heard as well, and even a “moderator” – to discus what people want to DO and BE and HAVE DONE in their church. A good old fashioned bull session where even the wildest ideas can be thrown out there and given voice.

    • erbks

      Amen. ~Chris

  • Rob Carr

    I’m looking for the words “pray” or “prayerful” or “teaching/cultivating spiritual practices—like silence—-lectio” that engender in us the “mind of Christ,” or “being filled with all the fullness of God.” Seems a slow church would recognize the value of contemplative spirituality

    • erbks

      Rob, I’d like to suggest that the sort of conversation that I have described briefly here is a contemplative practice, albeit a social one, as opposed to a personal one. It is a way for us to seek the mind of Christ together, and reflect on how we do that together within all particularities of our context.

      Prayerfulness, Mindfulness, etc are apt descriptors of HOW we should pursue conversation together. ~Chris

  • cfreeman

    Thanks for this piece, Christopher. You’re right. Not much new here. Sounds vaguely like Channing Pollock’s 1940 article, “Why I Don’t Go to Church.” Here’s some of what he said.

    “We find the kind of religion they [preachers] offer to be the preservation of symbols, doctrines and a philosophy largely without meaning in our modern world.” “The overwhelming majority [of preachers] are good and devout persons who have nothing to say, and must say it twice every Sunday.” “The need is for fundamental and universal truths, expressed in the new terms of each generation. The world is hungry for such truths. We ask our spiritual leaders for bread, and they give us, not even a stone, but pebbles.”

    What I’m struck by is the magisterial tone of RHE, who (like Pollock) seems quite comfortable to speak not TO but FOR all of her generation. Maybe I’m too much of a free churcher to not get nervous with self-appointed oracles. But more problematic, what I hear is “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” All that sounds more ecclectic than ecclesial.

  • John Franklin Hay

    Appreciate what you’ve said here, Chris. Thanks.

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    I am so, so with you. Sign me up.

    I am a person who is Christian, gay, pretty conservative on most social points, and heterodox on others.

    I see all stripes of Christianity holding an imagined orthodoxy so tight that we are crowding out the possibilities for God in our lives – that goes for the Christian left and right.

    Can we become partners in trying to discern God’s will in our lives? Can we be open to mystery? Why do we have to pretend to have it all figured out?

    Thank you for your perspectives. I look forward to being part of the slow church in my circle of influence.

    You’re inspiring to me.

  • allthingsarabic

    Liberal and Progressive Christianity have nothing to offer the younger generations. Liberal churches are like a desperate, out-of-work 50-year old trying too hard. No one’s impressed with a grey, luke-warm anything!

    Conservative churches challenge people to a higher Kingdom work, the work of reconciliation. Liberal churches don’t offer anything the worldly, godless institutions don’t already offer — and better. Why would anyone stay in that?

    When we start believing the simple and profound truths of the Gospel. When we start putting aside our own agenda’s and say, “God I will believe your Word and obey it so that I can truly abide in You.” When we give up trying to straighten up chairs on a sinking ship, we find a calling that the young generations are dying to hear.

  • Josh

    I’m a little over this age now but, this reminded me of when I was this 14 year old gay kid. My dad was a Sunday School teacher and deacon. I confided with the youth minister that I had a crush on my male best friend. They did everything short of an exorcism in many, many, attempts to relieve me of my “confusion”. This included naming males in may family and asking if they molested me, making me pray with other deacons 4 hours per day and have people come by and read the anti-gay bible verses when possible (all with the belief that if I tried hard enough that I could fix this). Once they took me to a conversion therapist who tried to molest me.

    They barred me from attending the youth group lest I “confuse” any more kids. They even thought up the idea to tell the other church teenagers to put a little peer pressure on me and shame me publicly since we all went to the same Christian School. I tried so hard and none of it really helped. I remember my own Sunday School teacher came up to me and called me by my brother’s name. I corrected her and she said, “Oh yeah you are the (derogatory word).”

    At 15 years old I was so heartbroken and rejected by God that I dropped my bible in the trash on the way out. I said to God, “If I am going to hell for something you will not help me with then I should make the best of this life.” I never came back.

    • allthingsarabic

      Josh, You need to know from someone who has been in many, many churches that your experience was horrible and not normative.

      But, to your point…

      God will help anyone who wants to move out of a sinful lifestyle, no matter what the trap is. Do you think that heterosexuals do not struggle with sexual lust or pornography, etc? The object may differ but the results are the same — bondage to our own lusts.

      I do not know of a single man or woman who does not have some sort of terrible weakness that threatens to keep them captive. I can tell you from experience that it is possible to overcome the addiction. You must first, though, desire it with your whole heart and seek Christ through the Scriptures.

      I’m not sure, but it sounds like you don’t want to do this and never really have wanted it. You’ve allowed your bad experience at one church to dominate your view of God. I did the same thing, but later realized that God cannot be tied to any sinful man.

      If you were to seek God from a pure heart and commit to being transformed by His Word, you will likely always struggle with homosexual lust, but it will become less frequent and less powerful.

      But, here’s an important question you need to answer:
      Would you be willing to not have a sexual relationship at all your entire life in order to have a relationship with Christ? Is Christ worth it in your mind?

      • Bob Pena

        Change, substance, reconcile, are some of the words/thoughts I keep seeing. The church needs to change…to what we want, the church needs substance…of our choosing, the church need to reconcile…to the modern world. What the church needs is to follow Jesus of the bible, not the Jesus we want. When the bible conflicts with what we want or how we want to live our lives, we think we can appeal to a “Higher Moral Authority” to over-rule God. The clay does not tell the potter what it wants to be…especially when the potter also designed the clay. “Would you be willing to/not too….all your life in order to have a relationship with Christ? Is Christ worth it in your mind?” Good question.

  • Larry Sanders

    When your religions founding doctrine is based on the belief that some ethereal being decided to turn itself into a man in the Middle East desert two thousand years ago and trot around a bunch of superstitious, illiterate peasants for the purpose of allowing his creation to hang him to a tree and murder him as a blood sacrifice for their sins, then you’ve got yourself a pretty tough sell.

    At least to sane, rational minds.