RHE, Millennials, & the Shadow Church


By now, most folks have read Rachel Held Evans’s viral piece for CNN - “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” – and probably blogged or tweeted their sage-like responses. And CNN ran a follow-up article from Rachel today, bringing some balancing emphasis on “Why Millennials Need the Church.” This short entry in response to the initial article is thus both late to the party and kinda premature based on the second piece. But, alas, I am a blogger and I can do no other.

What RHE attempts in “Why Millennials are Leaving” is to simply outline that millennials are leaving the church because of consumerism and repackaged conservatism. And she suggests that making church “cooler” is not the answer, but rather creating a safe space for doubts and questions, welcoming LGBT folks, and pursuing a holiness that extends to social justice and not just individual morals. She hints that there is a migration of millennials to the liturgical Catholic and mainline Protestant churches because of this.

About midway through, she says something rather brilliant (as usual):

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Now, at 34, I’m probably less of a millennial than Rachel is, but, like her, I resonate with this generation more than the grungy Generation X. I get the millennial ethos. I planted a church with a primary draw on millennials. And I also see – and experience – the millennial struggle with the evangelical church’s major issues. I totally get it.

And, I think Rachel is dead-on in sounding the alarm about the problems with commercial-cool church in America. Yes, this is a generation that’s seen it all and has a low tolerance for marketing BS. And yes, we are looking for roots, for substance, for authenticity. All of that is true, even if there are a multitude of exceptions to that rule within evangelicalism today – megachurches and club churches and coffee shop churches that are downright explosive in their growth and claim to be on the leading edge of revival in the land. Substance will end up being a real issue in these contexts, especially as culture continues to shift and superficial spirituality fails to answer millennials’ deepening questions as they grow up.

But there is probably a significant flaw in Rachel’s argument, which is that statistically speaking, evangelicalism is steady or only slowly declining in America while there is no sign of a millennial invasion of the mainline Protestant church. And the mainline is still declining fast. While there are certainly progressive Christians within the millennial generation who are occupying mainline churches, the critical institutional and financial problems are far from solved.

Thus, Rachel’s experience of post-evangelical millennials gravitating to the mainline, while legitimate, is not pervasive. And, the implication that progressive evangelicals are really looking for a traditional mainline experience, and not a relevant church experience, is a bridge too far. For both churched and unchurched millennials, mainline Protestantism remains a shadow church and not the most likely option.

Instead of this view, I suggest that we take a less categorical approach to the very real situation of millennial malaise regarding church. Namely, it is not about evangelical vs. mainline, but rather a need for recovering a compelling center for worship and Christian life, along with expressions of that center that are relevant, contextual, and incarnational without being superficial and commercial. 

As a former church planter in a progressive city, I’ve seen the problems with trying to sustain a brand new evangelical expression. Namely, because of a transient (young) congregation and fluctuating finances, it didn’t sustain and we closed the church! Yet, during the lifespan of the church we saw both churched and unchurched millennials drawn to a compelling center and a relevant expression. The center was an uncompromising love for and worship of Jesus as King in life, death, resurrection, and reign, with a commitment to the traditions of discipleship, baptism, and the Lord’s Table. And the expression was contextual musically, stylistically, and communally.

Now, I am ministering from time to time in a traditional United Methodist church with a much older congregation. The average age is probably 55 or 60, and there are only a handful of single adults and young families. Millennials are by no means flocking to this church, and if something doesn’t change in the next 15 years, it will likely have to close as well. Yet, currently, there are wonderful resources built into this community, and there is potential to move forward and engage the next generations. IF…a compelling center and a contextual expression can be regained.

All of this to say, Rachel is right in the desperate need among millennials for rootedness, stability, and substance. And mainline churches may be able to provide this because of their current resources. But they must commit to reclaiming a compelling center (Jesus!) and a contextual expression.

Yet, the evangelical church is not going to be left behind(!) either, so long as they commit to a spirituality with substance rather than a conservatism repackaged in commercial cool. Here too, a compelling center (Jesus, not political ideology!) and a contextual expression will serve the next generation. IF…the marketing tactics of consumer culture can be jettisoned and rootedness can be regained.

I’ve surveyed this issue somewhat before on the blog under the auspices of Celebrity Christianity vs. Creative Christianity.

Now – more than ever – is the time to creatively engage the current generations with a laserbeam focus on the center, Jesus.

Because, “like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | smitten word

    i’ve been a mainliner my whole life, and don’t consider us to be center-less, shadow-y, or lacking in Jesus. where’s the nuance there, zach? ;)

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      suzannah | smitten word not implying totality in either sense, and not using “shadow” as a derogatory term but existing in the shadows of more prevalent church options. Etc.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      suzannah | smitten word how do you see the mainline/millennial issue from a committed mainline perspective?

      • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | smitten word

        zachhoag i belong to an episcopal church, and before that i belonged to presbyterian churches, but i don’t really see myself as a committed mainliner. i am a christian committed to jesus and my local church, not any particular denominational expression.
        like the word liberal, “mainline” seems to be defined by its detractors and is not a word i find my identity in (or something i recognize in the mouths of evangelicals). the body of Christ is diverse. no denomination has a monopoly on orthodoxy, and people’s church preferences are personal (and change as they do). i don’t really see any one expression of christianity as The Answer for youth or anyone else, and i’d love for us to stop trying to compete for “market share”. i also think some churches should probably die, and that’s not altogether a bad thing.

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          Thanks friend, this is helpful clarity.

  • joshlancette

    Hi Zach,
    Thanks for sharing. As a millennial that has done my fair share of church hopping, shopping, attending, and leaving (evangelical, Piper’s baptist, Boyd’s baptist,nothing for four years, evangelical again, and now anglican), I agree with you that the laser beam focus needs to be on Jesus. I’m a creative type who appreciates good music and visual arts, but the churches I have been most drawn to didn’t have amazing bands or great visual decorations or other trendy things. However, because the center was firmly in Jesus, all that “cool” factor, or lack of it, didn’t matter. Whether it was mainline or not didn’t matter either. I don’t think most millennials want to be catered to, we want to be  somewhere God is moving, and I think God tends to move most in churches centered firmly in Jesus. It’s the moving of Jesus, not the marketing of Jesus, that is most important. So you are right on with this post. 
    I also like how you differentiated between contextual and superficial/commercial. That’s an important distinction. As usual, great thoughts.

  • Lydia

    I hate to say it but every generation has some of the same things to say as RHE said. As usual it becomes about age. As one who had to follow the trends in Evangelical Christendom, they are more complex than what she can imagine.
    The 40+ crowd is getting sick of the lattes, too. And questioning why they bother paying some pastor 6figures or pay someone to teach them at all.  And many of them are guilty of creating the environment we now see as a result of the church growth movement  and asking themselves tough questions as they are starting to give less and attend less and less. This is going on across the board. The place we see any growth at all are the 20 somethings who are attracted to the YRR/Neo Cal movement but even that is starting to climax some and I expect to see a serious fall out from that over the next 10 years or so.
    One of the fastest growing group of “nones” are the 60+ year olds.  These are true believers. They are quietly backing off but are still on the rolls. There are reasons for this that have more to do with the rise of authoritarianism in local churches. This age group was taught by their parents the danger of not recognizing a true Holy Priesthood and soul competency. 
    Let us stop making it about age and instead about the Holy Priesthood. We need each other.

  • Pingback: Into The Far Country | An Evangelical Heart with a Mainline Brain?

  • methodistmonk

    I appreciate this piece Zach. This is what I was wondering about on Geof’s blog. I know people in mainline churches (mine being the United Methodist Church, but PCUSA, Lutherans, and Episcpals as well) that are passionate about Jesus and have a message that is deeply resonating that in our mission and ministry. We have been walking that long obedience piece for a long time, but what I have discovered is to most of the world our message is not heard. I doubt many folks on the inside of evangelical circles or in the population in general could tell you what a Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal was. I think RHE has been challenged on this before on her blog. She writes something new to the evangelical crowd, but it is something that has been going on for many many years in the mainline church.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Yeah, exactly. Do you see revitalization happening in the UMC?

  • methodistmonk

    zachhoag pockets yes! churches yes! First Grace NOLA is truly an amazing story in the heart of New Orleans. 
    As far as conferences go, no. Our conferences are at a stand still.