The topic of Millennials leaving the church has been much discussed in the last couple of years. I’ve certainly been interested in the subject myself, since I teach theology to Millennials and am always interested in what makes them tick. Just this past week, there were two blog posts on this issue, which received a great deal of attention on Facebook, but what I’ve found even more interesting is some of the push-back that has followed.
The first blog was posted by Andrea Palpant Dilley and was titled, “Change Wisley Dude!” Like many others, Dilley warns that the Millennial generation is unlikely to stick around if evangelical churches continue to cater to consumer demands. Dilley has recently discovered the Anglican tradition and loves the historical rootedness of her new ecclesial home. Writing to pastors concerned with reaching out to the younger generations, she cautions against the temptation to cater to fleeting consumer desires:
Some of us want to walk into a cathedral space that reminds us of the small place we inhabit in the great arc of salvation history. We want to meet the Unmoved Mover in an unmoved sanctuary.
So as you change — or as change is imposed upon you — keep your historic identity and your ecclesial soul. Fight the urge for perpetual reinvention, and don’t watch the roll book for young adults.
The other post, and the one that has gotten far more attention, comes from Rachel Held Evans and is titled, “Why Millenials are Leaving the Church.” RHE, as she is commonly known, has become somewhat of a blogging superstar recently, and like many people, I appreciate her bold style and get-right-to-the point approach. Much like Dilley, RHE laments the evangelical drift towards entertainment and the loss of intellectual depth. Held-Evans has also become an outspoken critic of the traditional evangelical approach to members of LGBT community. Among other things, RHE writes that
Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
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.
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
I know from first-hand experience working with Millenials that RHE speaks for many people here. Indeed, her recent post went viral, receiving 130,000 hits shortly after being published. However, having spent many years studying the great Christian theological tradition, I am skeptical about her recommended approach to embracing the “High Church.” Indeed, I worry that RHE is approaching the High Church tradition as though it were just one more product to be consumed – a product that is more aesthetically pleasing to her maturing tastes than it is intellectually compelling. Likewise, I would caution my many millennial friends here, since classical Christianity won’t be so easily c0-modified. Placing the Episcopal Church in the same category with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism suggests that RHE is much less interested in substance than she lets on. While I could say considerably more here, I would encourage readers to have a look at several responses to RHE’s highly popular post.
The first is from First Things and represents a traditional Protestant/Roman Catholic/Orthodox perspective (if that makes sense). You can find it here, and I encourage you to read it.
The second response represents an Anabaptist perspective, and it is also very worth considering.
Anyone who has taken a class with me knows that I am also concerned about many evangelical trends. However, what I really appreciate about these critiques of RHE is that they treat millennials with enough respect to hold them accountable. Millennials, like the rest of us, will stand before the throne of God one day, and I’m not sure RHE’s list of gripes will suffice as an excuse for bailing on the Christian faith. From a Christian perspective, there is no excuse for criticizing the church and then finding the exit. The church, for two thousand years, has been referred to as a great paradox – the bride of Christ and yet stained. As one anonymous Medieval monk once said, “The Church is like Noah’s Ark, the only thing worse than the stench on the inside is the storm raging outside!”
Perhaps that was a bit of an overstatement, but the point is well-taken. There has never been a time when the church was not a challenge. No generation has been free from the responsibility to struggle with faithfulness. What may, unfortunately, set the current generation apart is their unwillingness to stick with the church, despite her many imperfections. The word that needs to be spoken to Millenials, in other words, is this: Suck it up! Quit the narcissistic whining and act, in love and grace, as our Lord would have us act. If substance and depth are what you want, then become more substantive and be a blessing to your brothers and sisters in Christ. This, I assume, is what RHE is trying to do, and even if I disagree with her on important issues, I applaud her for the courage to speak-up and stick with the faith. But I would encourage RHE to be a little harder on her Millennial brothers and sisters, since they are not so different from the rest of us as they might like to think.
I posted a short meditation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Sunday morning, and it is quite relevant here, so I’ll let Bonhoeffer have the last word:
“How can God entrust great things to one who will not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).