About a year ago, enormously popular “post-evangelical” blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay for CNN called, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.” It went viral. Since then, increasing numbers of Christians have lept to action, frantically trying to solve the problem. Since millennials are allegedly leaving the church, it follows that they are not getting what they want. In the last several years, evangelicals across the western world have had meetings, written articles, and conducted studies to discover what it is that millenials want. The evangelical community seems largely poised to do whatever it takes to entice the younger generation to attend church.
However, something is terribly wrong with this approach. In truth, a few things are wrong. First of all, it is not entirely accurate to say that “millennials are leaving the church.” According to George Barna, six in ten churched members of this age group walk away from the faith they were raised in. However, that still leaves four out of ten, and since millennials are an enormous group, that four represents a large number. Therefore, a substantial set of millennials remain in the church. To act as though millennials are absent from the pews is simply an overreaction at best, and disingenuous at worst.
Second, every generation has its own struggles just as it has strengths. There are valuable things millennials want to see more present in evangelical churches. Millennials want liturgy. Millenials want depth. Millennials want “authenticity.” Millennials want meaningful relationships (a rather vague and relative phrase). However, the church should not adopt or condone everything millenials want any more than it should adopt and condone the attitudes and biases of any other specific generation. According to Evans, “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.” Some of these are legitimate concerns, but some are not. Moreover, millennials have needs that they may not necessarily want, such as the need to be morally challenged, to be intellectually grounded, to be held theologically accountable, and to be spiritually convicted. If we forego what millennials need in favor of what millennials want, then we have undergone a tragic metamorphosis from historic Christianity to freestyle “Millennialism.”
Instead of preoccupying ourselves with what millennials want, we should ask a related, yet entirely different question: How can we better help all believers to become committed, convinced, mature followers of Christ? There is one unchanging standard for Christian maturity; God’s standard. There is no such thing as “millennial Christianity,” “baby-boomer Christianity,” “Gen X Christianity,” or any other generational variety. There is one church, bearing witness to one timeless truth. This teaching permeates Scripture. For example, see 1 Corinthians 12, and the entire book of Ephesians.
If we still find ourselves overly concerned about an ecclesiastical mass exodus of the younger generation, we need to remember something. God does not abandon his people, nor has he ever struggled to preserve the Church through the ages. The people of God will endure until the end. If we doubt that, we doubt not only his sovereignty, but also his trustworthiness. If he is not sovereign or trustworthy, then he is not truly God. Finally, if YHWH is not God, then millennials are right to leave the church.
But YHWH– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– is God. As we await the return of Jesus and the fulfilment of his promises, we should seek to be the nothing other than the continuation of Christ’s historic Church, preaching his Word, obeying his precepts, and discipling the nations. Millennials should not join in because their desires or even needs are being met; instead they should join because the message of Christ is the only true, final answer to the human condition, given once and for all generations.
I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. – Jesus’ prayer for his disciples (John 17:13-18)
*Note: For anyone wondering, I am 29 years old, and thus am solidly a millennial.