The statistics are in. The millennials are leaving the church, and nobody seems quite sure what to do about it.
I am one of them. Born in 1983, I belong to the wispy beginnings of the new generation. I turned 30 this year, and I’m raising two small boys. I hold within me both cynicism and hope. I left the church. I came back.
Here is what I can tell you about millennials: We grew up on easy answers, catchphrases and cliché, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that things are almost always more complicated than that.
When I returned to church, it wasn’t because of great programs, alluring events or a really cool “café” set up in the foyer. I went back not because of what the church was doing, but rather in spite of it. I went back because I needed community, and because, thanks to a steady dose of medication and therapy, I was finally well enough to root through the cliché to find it.
But not all of us are there yet. For some of us, the clichés are still maddening and alienating. Recently, I asked my followers online for the five church clichés that they tend to hate the most. These were the top five responses:
“The Bible clearly says…”
We are the first generation to grow up in the age of information technology, and we have at our fingertips hundreds of commentaries, sermons, ideas, and books. We can engage with Biblical scholars on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s impossible not to see the way that their doctrines – rooted in the same Bible – differ and clash.
We’re acutely aware of the Bible’s intricacies. We know the Bible is clear about some things– but also that much is not clear. We know the words are weighted to a culture that we don’t completely understand and that the scholars will never all agree.
We want to hear our pastors approach these words with humility and reverence. Saying, “This is where study and prayer have led me, but I could be wrong,” does infinitely more to secure our trust than The Bible clearly says…
“God will never give you more than you can handle”
This paraphrased Mother Teresa quote has become so commonplace in Christian culture that I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t in the Bible.
Inherent in this phrase is the undertone that if life has become “more than you can handle,” then your faith must not be strong enough. We millennials may be a bit narcissistic, but we also know the weight of too much. We understand that we need help. Connections. Friendship. Sometimes therapy.
We know that life so often feels like entirely too much to handle. And we want to know that this is okay with you and with God.
“Love on” (e.g. “As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids.”
In addition to sounding just plain creepy, this phrase also has troubling implications. We may understand that we need help, but we certainly don’t want to be anyone’s project or ministry.
It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simply loved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler…but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself.
And really, that’s what we’re looking for: relationship –that honest back and forth of giving and receiving love.
Black and white quantifiers of faith, such as “Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding”
Millennials are sick of rhetoric that centers around who’s in and who’s out. We know our own doubtful hearts enough to know that belief and unbelief so often coexist. Those of us who follow the Christian faith know that world around us feels truer than the invisible God who holds it together.
Terms like backsliding that try to pinpoint the success (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of our faith, frustrate us. We don’t want to hustle to prove our faith; we don’t want to pretend. We want to be accepted, not analyzed.
“God is in control . . . has a plan . . . works in mysterious ways”
Chances are we believe this is true. But it’s the last thing we want to hear when something goes horribly wrong in our life. We are drawn to the Jesus who sits down with the down-and-out woman at the well. Who touches the leper, the sick, the hurting. Who cries when Lazarus is found dead…even though he is in control and has a plan to bring Lazarus back to life.
You’ve heard us say that we like Jesus but not the church, and it’s not because we’re trying to be difficult. It’s because the Jesus we read about enters into the pain of humanity where so often the church people seem to want to float above it.
In the end, it’s not really about what churches say or don’t say. What millennials want is to be seen. Understood. Loved. It’s what everyone wants, really. And for this generation of journeyers? Choosing honesty over cliché is a really great place to start.
Check out our related article: “5 really bad reasons to leave your church.”
If you liked what Addie had to say in this piece, consider purchasing her recently released book, “When We Were on Fire: a Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over.”