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.
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.”