Why Millennials are Leaving the Church. Evans did not claim to have the final word on the subject, but she cites some specific reasons why she believes that millennials are leaving churches, and what can be done. She treads some familiar ground, saying that millennials want church not to be about do's and don'ts, not about culture wars, not about excluding people, and not about squelching those with tough questions.
I personally, as a 35 year-old, resonate with many of these things. I don't think that church should be about impersonal morality. I think the calling of the church is to engage with the culture instead of retreating from it or combating it. I believe all should be welcome at church. And I believe that we should engage with difficult questions.
At the same time, there is an assumption behind the article that I think is very telling, and I would like to talk about it in this post.
For starters, this post is not meant to answer in full the question, "Why are millennials leaving the church?" There is no single answer. There are a variety of reasons why anyone leaves any church. Some of us will agree or disagree with the conclusions and suggestions of Held Evans (Trevin Wax wrote a post in response that I thought was very helpful).
Is Consumerism a Forgone Conclusion?
At some level the conclusions of Held Evans make the assumption that people relate to the church as customers. The church is an organization, run by pastors and elders and boards and priests, and then people attend as patrons. While past patrons may have been satisfied with contemporary music, coffee bars, and culture wars, the younger patrons are not. Therefore we need to rethink our product (or at least the presentation of our product).
I am all for creativity and evaluation. But I want to challenge the implicit assumption that church practices should be driven by the customer. We can be consumer-driven in many ways. More people will come if we just give them the music they want. More people will come if we have the right kids program. More people will come if we stop talking about hell. More people will come if we provide free coffee and a Starbucks environment.
As a church leader, I know how easy it is to be driven by these things. But we can also be consumer-driven by the things mentioned by Held Evans. More young people will come if we just sound more politically liberal than conservative. More young people will come if we talk about social justice and environmentalism. More young people will come if we downplay sexual ethics and talk more about the poor.
It is not a step forward if we trade one form of Christian consumerism for another.
Now, should the church be more involved in caring for creation, meeting the needs of the poor, and giving a holistic view of holiness? Absolutely. But not because millennials want it.
In fact, I think it borders on arrogance when any of us concludes that what we really want is what Jesus wants, while others are settling for something less. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves. He calls us to profound humility and brokenness. He calls us to recognize our own darkness and desperation. I don't think any of us fully want that. Part of us does, but a big part of us is repulsed by this. We only respond to this call by God's grace. We all must be careful not to overestimate the nobility of our own desires.
What is the Church?
Going along with the evaluation of consumerism, we must ask what the nature of the church is. When I as a Christian say, "The church is boring/self-consumed/mis-directed/apostate/etc." what exactly am I talking about? What is the church? A building is not a church. And a meeting on Sunday mornings is not the church. Biblically speaking, WE are the church. Believers are the church. So if the church has problems (and she surely does), then the problem is not theirs. The problem is ours. We must all own the church with all her wonder and all her failures. The church is us. I am a part of it, even if I choose to step back critique it.
In all of this, I don't want to communicate that there is not a significant responsibility given to church leaders. As a pastor, I see myself as hugely responsible for the tone at Life Bible Fellowship Church. All of my fellow pastors and elders feel the same. We are the leaders. We organize the programs. We preach the sermons. We make decisions. The problems at the church should be especially felt by those in charge.
At the same time, I want to challenge the idea that any of us would look at the church and say, for example, "They don't care for the poor." Even if this was true, and no one in the church was caring for the poor . . . that means that the person making the critique is also not caring for the poor. If you have a heart for the poor, or sex slaves, or unborn children, or God's creation, use your gifts to serve the church and the community. Very few church leaders will be anything but thrilled if congregants initiate godly activities. Sometimes they will turn into formal church programs and sometimes they won't. But if you are a believer, then you are part of the church. The church is not them. The church is us. So listen to the voice of the Spirit and step forward to follow his lead. Start praying, start serving, start discipling, start organizing. Help the church to be what she is called to be.
Again, this is not to say that leaders do not bear responsibility, and it is not to minimize the failure of leaders. Truth me, we feel that weight. But forward movement happens not when people leave because the church is not living up to their standards. Forward movement happens when God's people own God's calling not only for their own lives, but for the church as a whole.
A Warning about Being Critical
We all know that criticism can be constructive or destructive. I don't want to tell any of us to stop being critical. We should be bothered by sin and apathy in the church. But I do want to give a warning for any of us who tend to be critical.
As I said before, I am 35 years old. To some of you, that is old. To others of you, that is young. But I just want to say that at 35 I am already far less critical of other people and other churches than I was 5 years ago. And I am significantly less critical than I was ten years go. This is not to say that we automatically become less critical when we grow older, but age can bring perspective. And perspective often softens us.
As a younger man, I was very discontent about the church. As a young youth pastor I wanted us to be far bolder, do far for in the community, be far more connected to other churches, and be far more generous than we were. In my later 20s I still felt a great discontent while I was a college pastor. I wanted the church to be less partisan with politics (something I still want) and to be far more overtly compassionate to unbelievers. I wanted people to get off their rears and start serving, praying, and evangelizing.
Age can bring complacency, and that is not good. It is good for younger people to bring energy and clarity to the church. As we age, we can focus on our own lives and families and budgets and lose sight of the bigger mission of the church. The fresh energy and perspective is welcome. I am not asking millennials to stop being passionate or stop being critical. I am simply saying that you are likely to be more compassionate and less critical at a later stage of life.
If you are bothered by young families who seem to settle into suburbia and talk only of swimming lessons and square footage . . . good! We should be more concerned with the kingdom. But realize that child-raising can be consuming and that it is a high calling and that it can tend to exhaust those doing it.
If you are bothered by people who don't give generously . . . good! We all need to be challenged on that. But please realize that the older you get, the more you have dependents and commitments that demand from you financially. This doesn't excuse greed or complacency, but we should all seek to be understanding and compassionate. When you see a lack of financial generosity in others, practice generosity in heart toward them.
None of us should give in to complacency. But don't throw in the towel when you see complacency in others. Follow the voice on the Spirit in your own life. And he is not calling you to tear down or to abandon. He is calling you to build up and serve.
Don't Waste It!
If you are young and single, or married with no children, just realize that you are more uniquely suited to serve Jesus than anyone else in your church. It is much easier for you to go downtown and serve the poor, to go on foreign mission trips, to engage in campus ministry, to spend late nights discipling younger people. Take advantage of this! Serve Jesus and his church be making the most of your current setting! Everyone will benefit from this.
As someone who is not far out of the millennial group, I just want to encourage those who are millennials: Don't spend this amazing and unique time in life by sitting on the sidelines criticizing. Engage fully. Use your gifts. Serve Jesus and his people. And do your best to show compassion to those who seem to be missing out on the big mission of God. Chances are, in a few years you will find yourself battling the same apathy and complacency that now seems so repugnant.
Once again, don't take this as the final word on this big question. Just take it as one (important) factor that should be present in this discussion.