Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

7 Aug, 2013

Last week Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans, wrote a piece for CNN belief blog provocatively entitled “Why millennials are leaving the church“. It has become a major subject of discussion in the evangelical blogosphere with over 150,000 hits.

Evans conclusion is that millennials are leaving because we, the church, have only made stylistic changes when we need to make more sweeping changes of substance. I believe both stylistic and substantive changes are misguided attempts at being “cool”. Cool works for watches, tablet computers, and clothes. It does not work for the gospel of Christ.

Not all of her statements are bad. The one point on which we agree:

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates  edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

I wholeheartedly agree. Relevant is not the same as cool. We make a huge mistake in conflating the two ideas. To be relevant we need to not only answer the important questions, but we need to show our culture what the important questions are and why those questions are important. In many cases, we as the church have given answers to questions that people are not asking. We need to change that and learn to communicate the gospel better.

While I may agree on a few points, there are many points here that I take issue with.

For instance, Evans says “the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules.” Who exactly is obsessed with sex? The church did not suddenly become Victorian in the last 50 years. The Christian orthodoxy has not changed on the issue of human sexuality nor is it an overemphasized aspect of our message. It is our pornified culture that is obsessed with sex. Once upon a time a person’s religion was public and their sex life was private. Now things have reversed. Sexuality is ubiquitous in the news, television, movies, and internet. Our culture sexualizes even our children. Has anyone noticed that women now wear lingerie in public? Do Christian guests beg Piers Morgan to back them into a corner about Christian sexual ethics? How many more articles must we endure on the Huffington Post about how the church needs to update her sexual mores to survive the 21st Century?

We talk about sex rarely at CityLight. But every time we’ve addressed our singles within the church on the topic, someone comes up and thanks us for being so candid about sex, and for talking about a biblical sexuality. We are sexually broken and the gospel offers the only cure.

Sex is our culture’s number one idol. We can talk about greed, lying, murder, and a host of other sins without protest. Questioning the idolatry of sex will earn nothing but scorn.

Evans makes several statements about things we need to change but is vague on how these changes will actualize:

We want an end to the culture wars.

Our culture matters just as much as the natural environment. Christians have not only a right but a responsibility to speak up on important issues in the culture around them. Christianity is not just for the private sphere. Much of the cultural trouble we see today stems from Christians abdicating their place in the public sphere. We do need to learn better ways to approach cultural issues so we are persuading our neighbors and not just arguing with them.

We want a truce between science and faith.

All truth is God’s truth. There is not a conflict between faith and science. Rather there is a conflict between philosophical naturalists, who hijack the mantle of science, and theists who recognize God as the divine source for everything. Should we agree with secularists that we can keep our faith within the walls of the church while the philosophical naturalists take everything else under the name of science? We cannot let atheistic religion masquerade as science. Christians should call them on it when they violate their own principle of accepting facts based on evidence and when they smuggle philosophical assumptions into the discussion.

We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We would all love to be known for what we stand for rather than what we are against. But consider this: much of what is known about evangelical Christians (outside of our own communities) comes from the media. Do the media care what we want to be known for? Or, do they just care about the controversial aspects of faith? The things Christians want to be known for will not give them the ratings they desire. So, no matter how well we craft our message, they will always find some knuckle-head to drag out and mock. We have our work cut out for us.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

I’ve been to many churches in my lifetime. While some evangelical churches have a conservative political bent, I have never heard any one church promote allegiance to a single party or single nation over allegiance to the kingdom of God. Christians should be working within both political parties to move our country toward righteousness. Christians, when putting God first, will not participate in the animosity that passes for public discourse today.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

At our church we genuinely welcome all people to our faith community. I know there are some churches that do not. Churches should not single out LGBT people for special scorn when we are all devastated by sin in some way. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, he had no stones to throw. But he did leave her with a warning to “go and sin no more”. We need love AND truth. In the end, if we think we love by letting people believe they are okay when they are not, we are doing the most unloving thing of all.

While we still see churches that show animosity toward LGBT people, we see many more either abandoning Christian orthodoxy altogether or being cowed into silence. Abandoning orthodoxy is plainly wrong but silence is viewed as an accepted alternative. The problem with silence is it becomes a vacuum to be filled by the licentious culture or a demagogue.

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.

I agree. We should be leading in all of these areas. I believe that Christianity offers the only rationale for why these things are important for us to achieve.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions  Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

I do understand the draw toward a more historically grounded spirituality. We have much to learn from those who went before us. I hope we can understand the rich traditions and keep the best parts. Still something deeper is happening here. For some who grew up in the evangelical community, being drawn to high church traditions hides the subtle reality that they might be ashamed of the evangelical churches they grew up in. Like a vintage t-shirt, high church traditions have recently become more in vogue. They are now considered cool precisely because they are unconcerned with being cool. Being unconcerned about coolness is a prerequisite for being cool, which is why a church too obsessed with being cool could never really be cool. That’s the irony of coolness.

The discussion on coolness brings me back to the point made in the beginning. Relevant is not the same as cool. A Christianity that looks like everyone else around them is largely irrelevant.

Whether the church is the ‘edgier worship, coffee shop, multi-media’ church; or the ‘emergent, we don’t get involved in culture war issues, and support our LGBT friends’ church; or the ‘high tradition’ church; relevance is not found by being cool. Any of these churches could be relevant, but they will not be relevant if they water down the truth of the gospel. The message of the cross must mean something in how a person orders his or her life. The Christians who inspire me the most are the ones whose lives reflect a risen Christ. Pastors who spend years in prison, Christians who give up lucrative careers to serve in remote parts of the world, and Christian leaders who are willing to stand for truth especially when it is not popular, are examples of lives reflecting a risen Christ. Even the former alcoholic whose life has been changed by Christ, though his current life seems ordinary, lives on the cutting edge just by being sober every day.

Some of these substantive changes are just more attempts at being cool. The culture war is not cool, or at least being on one side isn’t cool. Being associated with a certain political party: also un-cool. Not supportive of the LGBT community? Mega un-cool. Perhaps if the Church were cool in the right ways the millennials wouldn’t be leaving. Then again, the mainline protestant churches have taken these positions for years and it hasn’t helped them keep members from leaving. Many evangelical churches are still growing despite being un-cool on these issues.

So, why are millennials leaving the church? I believe this exodus is the result of our failure to demonstrate how to live lives that are different because of the gospel. Millennials are not challenged by the lives we have lived in front of them. Great men and women of God never sought relevance. They sought Christ in the midst of their culture, and that is what made them relevant. We need to move beyond the American consumer Christianity and let the true gospel change us. Furthermore, we need to what are the important questions. As a member of Gen X I remember back to an important question posed to us as children on our televisions: Where’s the beef? Now, that’s a good question.

-by Pastor Shawn Martin