They question is, “Why?”
Over the last week, the internet has been buzzing about millennials and the church. Rachel Held Evans piece in CNN stands at the center of the conversation as it seemed to spawn across social media. And I get why. The first time I read the piece I resonated like a tuning fork with much of what she said. But, something didn’t sit right. And then a couple things didn’t sit right.
It doesn’t answer why millennials are leaving the church.
It may explain why millennials are leaving the evangelical church, but when you see studies showing mainline denominations bleeding millenials, you have to wonder about Rachel’s conclusions. Because mainline denominations, by and large, hold to the beliefs and practices she argued for. They emphasize social justice, are open to science, inclusive, liberal regarding sex, welcome to doubts, and practicing high liturgy. If millennials were truly leaving the evangelical church because of these issues, as suggested by so many, then wouldn’t we see the mainline denominations growing?
But they are not. So we are left asking, “Why are millennials leaving the church?”
I don’t have the answer to the question, but I do have some fears; especially after reflecting on Rachel’s piece (For the record, this is not a “hate on Rachel Held Evans” post. I actually really appreciate her. I think she exhibits a ton of courage putting herself and her views out in the public sphere the way she does. I may not agree with everything she says, but I like her and think it would be a lot of fun to have coffee or beer with her. Millennial beer-gate?)
As a pastor, one of my biggest frustrations is fighting against a culture that consumes churches. In fact, this might be my biggest critique of American Christianity. We have become a church of passive consumers who ingest whatever comes our way and expect church to be something that will “feed” us like Pavlov’s dog at the sound of church bells. We go to church with our stomach’s before our souls hoping to get what we want. We want church to meet our appetites. Our desires. We don’t want church to change us, we want church to change for us. There may be talk of church changing “with us,” but I’m not so sure about that. I don’t see a lot of changing “with”. If millennials truly wanted church to change “with” them then they wouldn’t be leaving the church.
And the dialogue wouldn’t start with “We want….” Maybe that is what bugged me most. That didn’t sound like a desire to change with, it sounded like a demand to be met before millennials decide if they’ll return. It sounded like another version of consumer church.
We don’t want latte’s, we want liturgy.
We don’t want hipster worship pastor dude, we want authentic priest.
We don’t want politics, we want social justice.
As a pastor of a church, I look out over my congregation every week and I see members of the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and whatever comes after that. Am I to placate to millennials? Are millennials going to engage those in their 70’s, or wait until they are gone to come back? Part of the beauty of church is that it is one place in our culture where the generations gather together. That doesn’t even happen at family reunions anymore. But it can and should happen in the church. The tension for a pastor has always been, and more so now than ever, to keep the generations talking to each other, not at each other.
And so while I resonate with so much of the conversation around why millennials are leaving, I am afraid we are not talking to each other, but at each other. We are discussing so much so- to the tune of percussing and concussing – that we cannot hear each other.
The church changed for a generation before. Hello, Willow Creek and the Boomers. That experiment didn’t go so well. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to say the church should change for a particular generation.
You see my fear is, that with all the talk of what millennials want from church, we are just playing consumer church with different words. Outside of the call for more substance (which is a cry I echo), it seems like we are want the same thing done differently.
But here is the deal, unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.
Christendom is coming to a close. Church is going to have to change. Call it a new reformation. Call it a changing of the guard. Call it what you want, but change is on the horizon. This makes how we have this dialogue very important. My hope is that, if we do it with a lot of grace and love, our dialogue might just be as beautiful as whatever emerges.