Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Would Jesus Attract Millennials?

why millennials are leaving the church cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
The blogosphere has been buzzing over why the millennial generation is being driven away from the church in America. It began with a post by Rachel Held Evans entitled, "Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church." She writes,
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don't have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
David Hayward (who drew the picture at the top of this post) is sympathetic to Held Evan's view, but thinks there's something else at work.

I hear where she's coming from. I agree that the church is fascinated with tweaking but not transforming itself. I agree there needs to be substantial change. I think maybe some millennials might want change in substance. But not all. So I would like to push Rachel Held Evans' argument a little further and suggest that most millennials just don't care what the church does. It is actually dead to them already.
You can change the style. You might keep some. You can change the substance. You might keep more. The substantial change people are talking about, in my opinion, is not substantial enough. Again, the substantial changes suggested are, in their own way, a more radical form of tweaking. I suspect a much deeper change is coming because the church is becoming not only less and less relevant, but less and less necessary. The suggested substantial changes can now be achieved without the aide or even presence of the church. This is the church's problem that it doesn't seem willing or able to admit. The church is gaping down the throat of its own death and can't face it.
The millennials I know don't even think about the church. It never crosses their minds. It doesn't appear within the scope of their needs. As their fierce sense of spiritual independence grows, the need for external spiritual authorities, institutions and venues shrinks.
And self-professed Byzantine-Rite Calvinist, David Koyzis responds as well, but is not sympathetic to Held Evans' perspective.
Claiming to speak for an entire generation to which she admittedly does not entirely belong, Rachel Held Evans tells us why millennials are leaving the church.
In all things, including spiritual, they [millennials] jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best. Some people simply like smells and bells, so go for it!
The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.
Wow! How do we navigate through this? I'm not sure, but I do have some thoughts.

First, it seems to me that it it difficult, if not impossible, for those of us in the world of the free market to shake the consumer mentality when it comes to the ministry of the church. This is what Koyzis is getting at, and I think he is right. We view the church in the same way as going grocery shopping. If we don't like the prices and the produce at Kroger there's always Giant Eagle. How many times over the years have visitors to worship on Sunday told me that they were "church shopping." Instead of considering the idea that God might be calling them to a particular community of faith where they can serve, they look for a church that passes the test in reference to their own needs and desires. In John 6, many followed Jesus because of the free meal, but decided to leave when he called for an unwavering commitment.

Second, nevertheless, Rachel Held Evans is correct to point out that we all have wants and desires and we cannot help but take those wants and desires with us into a community of faith. We are seekers. There is no way to get around that. However, it makes a great deal of difference as to the substance of what we seek. Everything Held Evans wants in a faith community is what I want as well, but I doubt if there are many congregations out there that meet all the criteria she lists. The church is going on to perfection; it is not there yet. Indeed, it must also be said that while millennials have indeed left evangelical churches for the reasons Held Evans suggests, they have left mainline Protestant churches as well. Indeed, one can also point to churches that are socially and politically conservative that have attracted millennials. This is indeed a complex matter.

Third, having said that I think David Hayward is right-- most millennials could care less about what the church does. When spirituality is viewed mostly as an autonomous endeavor, the church becomes irrelevant and unnecessary. And we Christians are at fault for promoting such individualism. If our churches are dying, it's because Christians have convinced people that the church is not needed. We are the cause of our own demise. Moreover, many of the things Held Evans lists in things she desires in a church can be found elsewhere. One does not need the church to engage in social justice. One can find groups that welcome and accept LGBT persons. If one wants to be involved in caring for the environment, there's the Sierra Club, and the Peace Corp. provides plenty of bridge-building opportunities. Of course, the problem here is that the church has viewed all good work as kingdom work, thus separating the king from the kingdom. Once that is done, the church, the foretaste of God's kingdom, truly becomes irrelevant, but that's another post for another time.

Fourth, I think it is incredibly problematic to paint any one generation with a broad brush. Fifteen years ago I was into generation analysis up to my armpits. I read everything I could get my hands on and carefully studied every survey I could find. I was certain that such knowledge was the key to making the necessary changes in the church that would attract younger folks (there's that consumer model rearing its ugly head again). But through experience in attempting to attract generations (mostly failed attempts), I began to see that people are much more complex than simply being a "product" (oops-- consumerism again) of their generation. I am not suggesting that such generational studies and surveys are useless; indeed they can be quite helpful. But we must remember that as any tool they have their limitations.

Fifth, this entire discussion as well as other discussions about the decline of the church in the West is not really about the death of the church; it is about the slow and lingering demise of Christendom, where the culture and values of the nation reflect the culture and values of Christianity. I, for one, wish it would die more quickly. Christendom is an affront to the gospel.

Sixth, and finally-- if Jesus were to show up today would he attract millennials? My guess is that he would attract some, but probably push away even more, as he would with any generation. We must never forget that during his ministry Jesus turned off at least as many people as he attracted. You don't get strung up on a cross for being much beloved. And as far as millennials desiring substance over style-- some folks in every generation desire that, and others in every generation would prefer style. Jesus experienced rejection because of his insistence on substance-- John 6 again.

I do know one thing: the task of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and many churches (including many in mainline Protestantism) have done a crappy job of disciple-making. And that task does not change whether people are attracted to it (and some will be) or pushed away by it (and some will be)-- and the deeper our discipleship, the less we are autonomous consumers.

First and foremost, it's not about what works, but what is right-- and what is right is being obedient to the mission given to us by Jesus-- making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).


  1. They're losing their faith is part of the problem and are eyeballing pagan forms of worship.

    I was raised in what I consider a pitiful church and spent some time not attending church as an adult.

    I didn't lose my faith, God found me a better one and I love it.

  2. This is a fantastic post, which a friend of mine shared on Facebook. I think you've nailed what I both liked and didn't like about the Rachel Held Evans piece.

    I've got a book coming out in a couple of weeks that goes into many of same points you make. It's entitled, Rescuing the Church from Consumerism. You might enjoy it.

    Incidentally, I was struck by your bio. I did my MTS at Duke Divinity School and then a PhD at Durham University. So, you and I both are thoroughly Durham educated!


  3. Mark,

    Well, being educated at Duke and Durham you are obviously one smart guy!

  4. Mark,

    Did you do your Ph.D. at Durham Univ. in Durham, England?