Three Her.meneutics writers share their perspectives on young people and the church.
Been There, Done That
As a true sign that I am getting old, Rachel Held Evans's uber-popular CNN post Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church brought about a wistful, nostalgic response in me: Ah, to be young and turning my back on church again.
My mind traveled back to 1990, when I swore off church for good. I told God I still loved him, but his people I wasn't so sure about. Like a good Gen-X-er, I was angry. Angry about what I saw as wrongheaded views on women in the church and a hostile stance toward the gay community. Angry because I thought the church was filled with hypocrites who cared more about sexual sins than greedy ones.
Though I did still love Jesus and read my Bible and pray and go to a Christian college and then work for a Christian publisher, I kept pretty true to my no-church word. I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I darkened a church door during my 20s. And one of those times—at Westminster Abbey, no less—I was drunk.
So while I don't think we should ignore pieces that suggest differences in generational "needs" from church, millennial malaise about church is nothing new. Gen-Xers felt it, as did Boomers before us. And lest we forget: the U.S. was founded by disgruntled church folk!
According to Scot McKnight, statistics show that "young adults have always been less affiliated; when they get married and have children they return to their faith. Part of the life cycle is reflected in this." That's what happened with me. Maybe it was hormones, maybe it was the Holy Spirit, probably it was a bit of both, but five days after giving birth to my son, I was back in the pews of the church I had once sworn off. In the 11 years since, I can count on my fingers the number of Sundays we've missed. And never once have I shown up drunk.
Today, I love church more than I ever could've imagined. I love it for the things that used to drive me nuts: for the hypocrites and other messy folks who gather together every Sunday to be unified in one thing, for one hour: to worship the God who loves us regardless of our cheesiness or our rigidity, of our hostility or our mushiness, of our inclusion or exclusion.
I feel this way not because the church changed, but because God changed me, grew me up while he held tight to me as I wandered away. The welcome I received when I came back to my church family changed everything.
So, even though I prefer Christians welcoming the messes and the masses to church, it seems we would do well to tell the sick-and-tired, church-weary millennials: We get it. We've been there. Go do what you need to do; go where you need to go. God'll go with you, and we'll save you a seat.
Everyone's a Critic
Which church tradition is getting it right? Amid concern over millennials leaving the church, a lot of Christians are debating that question.
Some suggest that millennials exit evangelical churches in search of high church traditions with greater substance, and I don't doubt that that is true. However, the faith journey of millennials is more complicated than that, since church-switching is happening across traditions and types.
I never set foot in an evangelical church until college. I was raised in the mainline Protestant tradition and attended a loving Presbyterian church for the majority of my childhood. I have warm memories of my home church, and in many ways I was lucky to grow up there. Why, then, did I ultimately leave? Because I wasn't growing.
For all my home church's strengths, my faith remained at a shallow place. I don't remember learning the habits of daily surrender to Christ, or how to explain my faith to those who don't believe. Something was missing, and I found it in the evangelical tradition.
The funny thing is, my parents have a different take. They assure me that I did hear about all the essentials and more. But perhaps, they suggest, I wasn't ready for it yet. Perhaps my mainline background created a fertile soil in my soul, and the evangelical church planted the seeds.
I share this story to demonstrate that some Christians are most critical of the churches in which they were raised. Still others suffer from a perpetual "grass is greener" mentality about the church.
Ironically, my disillusionment with the mainline tradition is mirrored by the disillusionment of young evangelicals. To me, this critical spirit suggests something about human nature and our stages of life. Each of us must wrestle through the black and white idealisms of youth. And each of us must navigate the tension between earnest searching and self-serving cynicism.
We each have a different journey—some will find a home in the evangelical tradition, others in the Catholic, mainline, or Orthodox—which means that the diversity of Christ's Bride is important. All churches should preach the gospel, follow God's Word, and love his children, but these practices need not look the same everywhere. When it comes to change, churches must listen to the wounded without becoming enslaved to the critics.
It's impossible to be a home for everyone, but each local church can be a wonderful home for some. My advice? Be the church that God has called you to be, and do it well.
God's Preferences Over Our Own
When we focus our discussion on how to please this current generation, or how to please all generations; when we resolve to try something new, or to do exactly what has been done for the past 300 years, we miss the main point entirely.
Instead, we need to get serious about what pleases God.
When I was in my 20s, unmarried and new in town, I visited a church. Afterwards, I asked the pastor why the church held multiple services. "Well," he explained, "we want to have something for everyone. Our liturgical service is for those who like traditional worship, and the other one is for those who prefer something contemporary."
I never went back.
It wasn't that neither service suited me. What drove me away was the church's people-pleasing orientation. And the current debate about millennials' church preferences strikes me as similarly upside-down.
If worship is the community of God's people gathered to meet with him, and if we are God's creation, the citizens of his kingdom, and his children, our decisions about church and worship should come from God and his word. My church's confession says it this way: "the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men."
God obviously cares about how he is worshipped. From Cain and Abel to the Israelites at Sinai, from the churches of Corinth and Ephesus to—ultimately—the heavenly church gathered in unending praise, the Scripture commands "acceptable worship." (Heb. 12:28)
So, does the church need to do a better job of caring for millennials? Absolutely. And the best way the church can minister to people of this generation, or any generation—the way, in fact, that it can unite all kinds of people—is to clearly explain its actions from the Word of God.
The intent of the church is never to impose its selected practices on an unquestioning congregation. The intent of the church should be to equip its people to have their own convictions rooted in Scripture.
Do we sing? Yes, "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." (Eph. 5:19) Do we hear a sermon? We must constantly receive the preaching of God's word, containing both doctrine and application. (2 Tim. 4:1-5) Do we expect people to be present every Sunday? Scripture warns us against neglecting the assembly. (Heb. 10:25) Do we worship deliberately with a reverent tone? We approach God only "with reverence and awe." (Heb. 12:28)
The church's worship is never about me, or my generation, or even about what one writer called "something bigger than me." It's about God. And only in thoughtful reference to his word can we have a church for all generations.