For those of you out there that keep track of the “Christian blogosphere” (and if you don’t, you’re probably better for it), there’s a very weird discussion happening amongst many different writers and thinkers about “millennials” (those born from the early 80s to early 2000s), and how they relate to the church.
A couple of weeks ago Rachel Held Evans wrote a post for CNN’s religion blog in which she said that millennials are leaving the church because they don’t find substance there; but rather, all they seem to find are hypocritical, judgmental, and bigoted people that want to fight over silly things. She said that this desire for substance is why the millennials that do stay in the church are leaning towards more liturgical traditions. She encouraged church leaders to look at millennials and consider whether their departure might be speaking to systemic issues that are plaguing the American evangelical church.
Here’s a little pro-tip for anyone that does not spend their time in the Christian blogosphere. If Rachel Held Evans ever says anything that resonates with people and gets a lot of exposure, no matter what it is, the super conservative wing of our evangelical brothers and sisters gets all worked up and simply has to respond in some way. (I am convinced that if she ever wrote anything that was all about how much she loves Jesus, some mainstream conservative out there would need to write an article decrying her lack of love for the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In this case, they sent the young, cool twentysomething Brett McCracken of Hipster Christianity fame. In The Washington Post, he wrote an editorial that pretty much rehashes the thesis of his book (seriously, a huge portion of the post is simply quotes from his previous writings).
His basic idea: Christians today just think they are so darn cool with all their little social justice and progressive issues and voting Democrat, but at the end of the day, the church shouldn’t change to accommodate them. They need to change and learn how to listen to the older folks that know what they’re doing. They need to stop thinking they know the way the church should be, and that leaders should listen to them. They should just go to church and deal with the issues, because in the end, they’re probably the ones that are wrong. Church needs to stay “un-cool”.
The Christian blogosphere blew up. If you’re a Christian (or have lots of Christian friends), you’ve probably seen one or both of these articles floating around Facebook or Twitter. Everyone who was anyone simply had to write some sort of post talking about why they thought millennials were leaving the church. Rachel held Evans wrote a blog post that simply asked what the heck just happened? To her credit, she ended up writing a follow-up piece for CNN that was refreshingly boring and non-controversial (and so unfortunately probably did not get as much exposure), that simply gave seven reasons (most of them sacraments) for why millennials need and should love the church. It was really good. Go read it.
Anyway, I just had a few brief thoughts on this I wanted to share.
On Millennials Leaving the Church
First, my view on why millennials are leaving the church: they’re not.
To summarize that piece I just linked to: overall, millennials are indeed less religious right now. But….so is every age group. America overall is becoming less “religiously-affiliated” (not necessarily “less religious”, mind you). So this is not something limited to “millennials”.
Further, the proportion of “young adults” that are not “religiously affiliated” is the same as it’s always been. This is the normal sociological life-cycle for American Christianity. Young adults (especially those that were raised religious) become less affiliated as they become adults, and then once they get older and start getting married, they generally tend to come back. As the article puts it: there is no unique “millennial crisis” going on right now in the American Church.
Also, this entire discussion is really off-kilter because when people are referring to these “millennials” in question, they are way too often thinking of white, middle-class Evangelicals. This post over at The Jesus Event is an amazing and blistering unpacking of this.
And so, all in all, I think this discussion is silly, incomplete, and perpetuates racial and generational assumptions that are wrong and damaging to the church overall.
The “Media” is Loving This
I usually don’t care much when these sorts of silly discussions and arguments happen at The Gospel Coalition, Sojourners, or among the websites of Mark Driscoll, John Piper, et al. Why? Because these “family discussion” are happening “within the family”. They are happening in the online “living rooms” of our family members, however weird we think certain parts of the family tree are.
But these two posts happened on CNN and The Washington Post. This is like having the argument in the middle of the street or the grocery store. I’m sure the executives of those news networks and the individuals running those blogs were sitting there in quiet amusement while the Christians sniped at each other. Further, this “discussion” is over such minor misunderstandings and talking past one another.
The money quote for Rachel’s post was “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.”
The quote for Brett’s post was “As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me”.
Were they really that different? And yet this purported “disagreement” (admittedly, aggravated by McCracken) was broadcast to the widest possible audience. And those in the media probably really enjoyed watching it happen.
No, I’m not talking about the “Media” being god-hating, Christian-destroying, soul-less creatures hell-bent on the destruction of all that’s good and precious. I really don’t think that’s the case. I think they’ve started religion sections to their websites because it is in the national interest that the issues of religion are discussed in that sort of open forum.
But a discussion about why a couple of white twenty-somethings feel like other white twenty-somethings are frustrated by other churches of white people? This is in the national interest? I do think that it’s to society’s sick enjoyment (like a car crash) that these posts were written.
“Media” means something that is in the “middle”. It is the institution that is supposed to play the “middle-man” and connect the individuals of society with the institutions of society. As it pertains to the church, is this really what we want the media connecting the American public with? I don’t think so. Let’s keep family meetings in the family.
And lastly, I can’t help but roll my eyes at what I think I’ll call “meta-churching”, or the Church talking about the Church: turning their eyes inward to stare and talk incessantly about themselves.
And I don’t mean an intentional and well-thought out ecclesiology, or doctrine of the Church. I’m not even talking about robust debate on issues of importance or reflection on how the Church might be going wrong in this society.
I’m referring to the profoundly evangelical tendency to do ecclesiastical navel-gazing, the equivalent of a “Church selfie” that they can then broadcast into the world. It’s a constant need to talk about the way the Church is rather than being or doing Church or Resurrection life. And to be clear, this us a matter of emphasis, not absolutes. We need both taking and doing, but Evangelicals are far more breathless from talking about themselves than doing the work of the church.
I’m so thankful to be part of a church that does not do this. It is doggedly committed to the essentials of the faith, centrality of the Gospel, and learning how to live life in the rhythms of life established by the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. We are pretty highly liturgical, we actually believe things that are not very “accommodating” to the wider world, and yet “millennials” continue to come, fill more and more of our pews, come to know Christ, and try to live in light of that reality.
What the Church Needs to Be
Is religiosity going down in America? Yeah. Is the American Evangelical Church really messed up and broken on many levels? Absolutely. Do we need to have church-wide discussions about how we wear our faith and function in society? I really think so.
But is this accomplished and addressed by the conversations we’ve been having in the Christian blogosphere the past couple of weeks? I don’t think so. This sort of talk has not served the Church well any time it has seemed to be in “crisis”. What does?
I’ve seen no better discussion of this than Ross Douthat‘s Bad Religion. He concludes the book with four things that the American Church needs to recapture in order to be both faithful and attractive in the current cultural climate:
- Political without being partisan: let faith conspicuously inform your vote and politics, but don’t try and form a “Christian politics” or align to a particular party.
- Ecumenical but also confessional: Identify the essentials of the faith and hold fast to them, but work with many others that disagree with you on the secondary things. Don’t die on the hill of secondary matters.
- Moralistic but also holistic: In this he is critiquing those who would relentlessly bash homosexuals while letting the heterosexuals cohabitate and divorce without a word said to them, or those that would blast “socialism”, but turn a blind eye to greed. We should teach a holistic moral life, not pick and choose our favorites.
- Oriented toward sanctity and beauty: Douthat writes, “In every crisis in the Christian past, it has been the saints and the artists–from Saint Francis down to John Wesley, Dante to Dostoevsky–who resurrected the faith from one of its many deaths.”
He quotes Joseph Ratzinger saying, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
In other words, it’s the lives we live and the Beauty we create. And that art doesn’t necessarily have to be our usual conception. It can be the art of science, the art of governance, and the art of philosophy. This is what our attention should turn towards. Not the things that have consumed this discussion. We need to talk about things of true substance
Or, maybe not even talk at all.