I recently read Rachel Held Evan’s CNN blog post on “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.” Her basic assessment is that the church has lost touch with what matters to Millennials–namely, addressing the big issues that need solving in the world and actually doing something to solve them. Further, she critiques the way the church seems to have lost its way when it comes to owning the very reason why it should be doing something to solve the world’s really big problems in the first place: because Jesus said so.
The subsequent responses to Evans’ post (which has now been reposted over 150,000 times) have been predictably divided along theological and political lines. Progressive responses have centered on Evans’ definitions of “The Church,” claiming that because she comes out of a conservative evangelical strain she is a bit myopic in her critiques and fails to see how the mainline denominations don’t really fit in her categories. More conservative responses simply take umbrage with the notion that Evans might be right about her assertions regarding a lack of Christ-centeredness in the church’s approach to ministry and mission. Other conservative critics have pointed out that by focusing on social justice issues above evangelism, most mainline denominations have embarked on a long, slow slog toward death.
As a pastor in an historic mainline (or more accurately: “old line”) denomination who also “came out” of conservative evangelicalism, I see both sides of this critique. I think that for the most part, the conservative evangelical wing of the church has only begun to re-discover the church’s calling to acts of justice and mercy within the past fifteen years or so. And to Evans’ point about authenticity, I have personally experienced how social justice efforts have often been branded within the evangelical world as simply one more tool to “attract” idealistic young adults.
But on the other hand, I have also seen how, in my current “old line” context, acts of justice and mercy have often become a substitute for the saving message of the Gospel. To put it bluntly, more than a few congregations within the historic Protestant denominations seem to be more concerned with appearing tolerant, open-minded and non-threatening and thereby reduce the message of Jesus as the Way, Truth and the Life, to an afterthought – or no thought at all.
So, what are we to do with all of this? In the end, it seems that no one within the Church wants to truly own a part in the rapid migration of the Millennial generation away from “organized” religion. But we can no longer ignore their absence, nor can we continue to waste time trying to affix blame as to the reasons they have either left church or never tried it.
In my view, the only way forward is the way of the cross, which is inherently the way of humility, repentance and sacrifice. Some church leaders get this – and the growth in their churches among the 18 – 35-year-old Millennial demographic is staggering. Pastors like Andy Stanley and Rick Warren learned early on that the one sure way to reach young adults was to hire and empower young adults for leadership on their church staff. In Stanley’s case, it means bringing young adults on board in key decision-making positions so that the church’s visions for ministry and mission include the voices of young adults and leverages their creativity to make them happen.
When an organization truly cares about the needs and presence of young adults, it shows it by letting them lead – sooner, rather than later.
How is this an act of humility, repentance and sacrifice? Because it takes all three to make it a reality. Church leaders must show humility by admitting that they don’t always know the way forward when it comes to reaching young adults and that their way of “doing church” might actually be the biggest part of the problem. They must also show repentance for the ways that they have acted in unauthentic ways, dumbed down the Gospel, made idols of tradition and treated young adults as though they can’t handle the really deep theological issues of our day. Finally, they must show sacrifice by being willing to let go of their control, their habits, their sacred cows and even some of the missions and ministries they began with good intentions, but now are no longer effective.
And this is only the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a process filled with challenges and opportunities for failure. For those of us who still believe that the church has something to offer to the next generations, we must continue to stubbornly resist the temptation to give up. This has been the mistake of previous generations, the effects of which we now see clearly. The Millennials are not the future of the church; they are its very present. It’s an old cliché, but a good one, and one that bears repeating.
Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida. Visit his website.