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Recently a column on CNN’s Belief Blog titled “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church” went viral, partially because any time the words “Millennials,” “leaving,” and “church” are combined in a headline, people pay attention.
But why? Why do we care so much about the reasons Millennials are reportedly leaving churches?
I’m a Millennial, but I am weary of everyone caring so much about why Millennials do this or don’t do that. I’m sorry Millennials, but I’m going to have to throw us under the bus here: we do not have everything figured out. And if we expect older generations and well-established institutions to morph to fit our every fickle desire, we do so at our peril.
The CNN piece, written by Rachel Held Evans, makes some good points, to be sure. The line that I saw shared on Facebook more than any other is this:
“We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I made the same point three years ago with my book Hipster Christianity, and in a Wall Street Journal column called “The Perils of Wannabe Cool Christianity,” where I wrote:
“If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that ‘cool Christianity’ is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.”
It’s certainly important to remind the church that efforts to be cool will do little if anything to keep young people engaged. It often has the opposite effect.
But I also think that the answer is decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be. But this is what Evans suggests. Her article ends with this proposed action step:
I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.
How about the opposite? Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?
And for pastors, church leaders, and others so concerned with the survival of the church amidst the glut of “adapt or die!” hype, is asking Millennials what they want church to be and adjusting accordingly really your best bet? Are we really to believe that today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation of Millennials has more wisdom to offer about the church than those who have thought about and faithfully served the church decade after decade, amidst all its warts, challenges and ups and down?
Part of the problem is the hubris of every generation, which thinks it has discovered, once and for all, the right way of doing things. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery,” defining it as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
But a deeper problem is that Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived. Just like the Photoshop-savvy Millennials she is so desperate to retain, the church is ever more meticulously concerned with her image, monitoring what people are saying about her and taking cues from that.
Erik Thoennes, professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University, is troubled by the church’s obsession with perception.
Much of this is an outgrowth of the audience-is-sovereign mentality of the seeker-sensitive movement, which has loomed large in evangelicalism’s recent history. Another part of it is Christianity’s capitulation to a consumerist culture where the primary goal is to scratch where the market itches.
But at the end of the day, the Christian gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever itch people think Christianity should scratch. Consumerism asserts that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about me. But to position the gospel within this consumerist, give-them-what-they-want framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamy variations. If Christianity aims to sell a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?
I’m not saying that the church should never listen to the audience or pay attention to data and trends. It’s just that more often than not, the “just tell us what you want us to be!” approach does more harm than good, turning the church into a shape-shifting chameleon with ever-diminishing ecclesiological confidence and cultural legitimacy. It smacks of desperation and weakness.
As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.