by Derek Penwell for Provoketive Magazine:
The church where I serve made a decision this past year to support its ministers in refusing to sign marriage licenses until the rights of marriage could be conferred upon LGTBQ couples. The decision brought national attention–the overwhelming majority of which was positive.
One group in particular who responded to the decision surprised me. I never saw it coming. Some of the most gratifying reactions came from the adult children of some of the older members of our congregation, which is to say, from young people who had dropped out of church a long time ago. From across the U.S. I got word from these displaced folks. They emailed, called, messaged me through social media, and, the ones who still live close by, button-holed me on the street. Their comments shared one thing in common: “I’m so proud to tell my friends that the church that did this cool thing is the church I grew up in.”
Then, a couple of them proceeded to say something that was hard to hear: “I never thought I’d see a church do something so Christian.”
Embedded in that response, I think, is something worth hearing about the way an increasing number of young people experience the church. According to a recent article on Sojourners Blog, Millennials are headed for the exits–even among Evangelicals. Why? According to the article, which cites research by the Barna Group, “Research indicates younger people are not only departing from their elders on ‘social issues,’ such as same-sex marriage and abortion, but on wealth distribution and care for the environment, as well.”
One way to look at the difference Millennials represent on these kinds of social issues is that they’ve been seduced by an increasingly secular society. From the time they were young, this thinking goes, the culture has offered Millennials a vision of human life that is often at odds with the vision claimed by churches, one focused less and less on God. Politically, “liberals” have successfully appealed to youthful passion and idealism, rendering them dewey-eyed woolgatherers who know little, either about God or about how the world “really” works. As a consequence, Millennials come to their convictions about the purpose of human life and its just embodiment either as a result of theological ignorance or theological rebellion. The implication is that if they really new about Christianity, they wouldn’t believe such outrageous things about marriage and economic equality and environmental responsibility.
There are a couple of different responses that come to mind, if this is the way you frame the problem of the disappearance of young adults. On the one hand, you could just tell young people they’re wrong, and they need to get right. In many cases, this was the strategy employed by the Greatest Generation when Baby Boomers started questioning organized religion in the 1960s and 70s. For those who think this kind of “unvarnished truth” strategy is the way to go, it might be helpful to contemplate its success when used on an earlier generation–take a look at The Big Chill, for instance.
On the other hand, you might look at the exodus of Millennials as a failure of relevance. Churches got sidetracked, started focusing on stuff Millennials found pointless–stuff like bigger buildings, keeping up social appearances for the country club set, right wing politics, etc. If you interpret irrelevance to be the reason young people don’t want anything to do with the church, you have an easy way to address the issue … be more relevant. Find cool looking people to play cool sounding music. Say “dude” a lot. Make sure you know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte. Easy.
There are couple of different branches of über relevance available, too. If you’re sympathetic to the whole mega-church movement, sprinkle some Jesus over the top of ordinary stuff young people like, and voilà, instant relevance. Christian rock climbing. Christian aerobics. Christian skateboarding. Christian Screamo bands. The possibilities are endless.
If you find an emergent emphasis more to your liking, you’ll need another set of accoutrements. Tattoos are good. Piercings and ear gauges add a nice touch. Make sure to do some outings in a pub, with lots of locally micro-brewed fare. Relevance isn’t too far off.
And while I happen to think the emergent movement is much more theologically interesting for a whole host of reasons other than just those things that accessorize it, like the mega-church stuff, if it’s just a marketing strategy for obtaining relevance, I think it’s doomed to drive Millennials away. Millennials have been socialized to be amazingly aware of being marketed to, and they react poorly to such poses adopted solely for the purpose of “winning” their spiritual “business.”
I find all of these ways of reading the departure of young adults from the church dismissive, sharing a common misconception that what’s wrong, what’s driving Millennials away from the church, resides somewhere outside the church (either with Millennials themselves or with the culture that produced them)–or that if it is the church’s fault, the problems are merely cosmetic, easily remedied by superficial tweaks here or there.
There’s another way of reading the generational tea leaves, however, one that places responsibility on the church not for failing to be relevant, but for failing to be faithful to the Jesus found in the Gospels. Maybe the problem is that Millennials hear about Jesus and then take him at his word. Maybe they really believe that stuff Jesus says st the beginning of his ministry in Luke:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then, they go to church, and instead of hearing about how to live with those who’ve been kicked to the curb, how to be Christ to a world caving in on itself, they hear about how the church’s job is to maneuver itself into positions of power, respectability, relevance, etc. They hear about committee meetings and deficit budgets and why it is imperative that we “keep Christ in Christmas.” They hear a baptized politics that exhorts them to be good moral “individuals” who seek a “personal relationship with Jesus,” but their relationship to the poor and the powerless, their relationship to an economic system designed to serve the interests of those already on top at the expense of those on the bottom, their relationship to a government that starts preemptive wars based on a conceit, their relationship to God’s creation–these are largely matters of indifference to the church. These young people go to church and hear why (if they happen to be at a conservative church) gay people are going to hell, or (if they happen to be at a more “progressive” church) why it might upset the ecclesiastical apple cart if we were to say that gay people are created in the image of God–exactly the way God wanted them.
All of which is to say: Maybe it’s not Millennials who’ve left the church, so much as that the church has left Jesus–and Millennials are the only ones brave enough to recognize that the emperor has been parading about without the benefit of clothes. If that’s the case, the church would do well to quit worrying so much about whether Millennials are leaving the church, and start investing time and effort and resources into looking more like Jesus. Then Millennials might finally see something for which it would be worth sticking around.
“I’m so proud to tell my friends that the church that did this cool thing is the church I grew up in” isn’t the same as, “How do I sign up to get back into church?” For any number of really important reasons, though, it’s a step in the right direction.