Mark and I recently committed to a new church home. After almost a year of searching, questioning, praying and discussing, we found ourselves at Christ Community, an Evangelical Free church, at the suggestion of our former pastor (leaving a church well is a whole other conversation, and I would argue incredibly important). About the same time, Rachel Held Evans’ post Why Millennials are Leaving the Church started circulating the internet, once again. Now, being a millennial, I can appreciate her perspective and acknowledge her personal faith journey that has lead her to her current Episcopal church. However, I disagree with the reasoning she offers based on my own faith journey and experience actively searching for a new church home.
First, she states, “young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people….how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.”
Social justice, homosexuality, republican versus democrat. I find that these conversations and contentions occur just as frequently in mainline church denominations as in the conservative evangelical churches Evans refers to. In fact, while living in Springfield, MO, there were a number of churches who went out of their way to proclaim that they were progressive, that they were for social justice, that they welcomed the LGBTQIA community. The effort to distinguish themselves as different from the rest of the Bible belt was just as head strong as the churches who hyped up their conservatism.
And, it was in Springfield, MO where I became bitter, where I grew cynical of the church. Neither option offered grace. Both were simply arguing for the most “right” response to national issues. Neither were concerned for the other. The other was simply wrong.
When we moved to Kansas City, I was in the midst of my cynicism. Mark, whether he would call it this or not, was mostly apathetic. But, we knew we needed to still find a church home. We knew what we were feeling was crippling us spiritually. We needed to not just hear the Word preached, but the Good News proclaimed. We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but we knew we had to search.
We could have just stopped going to church. That’s what so many do when they feel the root of cynicism take hold. But, church isn’t about me. It isn’t about you. It’s about worshiping our Savior as a corporate body.
Thankfully, we were led to a church that preached just that – the Good News – that Christ lived the sinless life that we can never live, died the death we should have died, so that we can be made new. There wasn’t an emphasis on social justice, politics, anything. The flag being waved was Jesus. Everything else was secondary.
So, yes, millennials are leaving because of a focus on politics, etc., but I would argue that millennials are really leaving the church because the flag being waved isn’t Jesus, it isn’t grace, it isn’t mercy but where one stands on today’s national issues. It’s a church of America, and not of God’s kingdom.
Second, she shares that,”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….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 am personally drawn to beautiful sanctuaries, the hymns, some liturgy. It is how I am able to fully worship God. Yet, I know that there are many who love the darkened auditorium, the hip band and the fog lights. It is how they worship God. I don’t like to raise my hands or dance in the aisles, but when I was in college, there were many who did worship in that style during chapel.
There is glory for God in our differences.
I would argue that churches are not necessarily making the changes to just draw twenty-somethings back to church. In fact, many of the auditorium style churches were built in the 90s and early aughts. Regardless of their aim and who they are trying to attract, it is dangerous to make overarching generalizations on any generation or worship style. We are all created in God’s image, which is more diverse than we can fathom. That includes the ways we worship. There is not a right or wrong way. Some are drawn to the more high church traditions, some are more middle ground (like myself) and others are more charismatic and Pentecostal. There is glory for God in our differences!
That same danger applies to the word evangelical – we cannot put the blanket of “fundamentalism” over all evangelicals. To be evangelical simply means to be a Christian who believes “in the centrality of the conversion in receiving salvation, believe in the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity and have a strong commitment to evangelism or sharing the Christian message.” There is a lot of baggage with that word, and many, many people have abused the Christian message with legalism and religion. But to be an evangelical purely means to trust in God’s good mercy, that He sent his only son Jesus to die for my sins, so that I can be in right relationship with Him.
Ultimately, seeking a church isn’t about me. So often, millennials are referred to as the “me” generation. We are the generation of selfies, of seeking balance in life, of asking “what’s in it for me?” We can be materialistic, consumers of everything, and this can seep into our spiritual lives. Church is a group of broken people. It will fail. Churches need grace and mercy just as much as I do! So we cannot shop for a church. We should not just stop attending church because the music is wrong, the people aren’t as nice as we want them to be, we don’t know the pastor on a one-on-one basis, our questions aren’t heard when we want them to be heard. Switching churches must be prayerfully considered. Ultimately, we must remember that church isn’t about me. Church isn’t perfect. It’s about Christ’s body united in glorious worship and the proclaiming of the Gospel.