As a mom of “millennials” (adults born between 1980 and 2000 – mine are 18, 20, 26 and 29), I read with interest a couple of essays found on the Internet this week.
Best-selling author Rachel Held Evans went viral with her CNN Belief Blog “Why millennials are leaving the church”. A day later, in his Washington Post “On Faith” column, writer Brett McCracken responded with “How to keep millennials in the church? Let’s keep church un-cool.”
Basically, Evans said the church is out-of-step with how millennials view the world and advised church leaders to sit down with the 20-somethings to find out what they really want from church (with the hope that they won’t, after all, get up and leave). To make her point, she said “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.”
In response, McCracken as much as said “it isn’t all about you” and challenged millennials (of which he is one) to turn the tables on Evan’s suggestion and instead invite their pastors and church leaders out to coffee so that, in his words, “we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before.”
Both writers made the point that young evangelicals aren’t impressed with “church-as-performance”. Hip music delivered in a coffeehouse-style setting by a cool pastor doesn’t cut it for a demographic over-stimulated and bored by consumerism.
“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance,” said Evans. McCracken agreed.
If you care what a 60-year-old “baby-boomer” has to say about all this, I intend to weigh in on the discussion. But first, a little background:
Raised Catholic, I embraced evangelical Christianity as an 18-year-old running away from The Church. But, I came away from college disillusioned and a self-proclaimed “free-thinker”, so I left the Christian church when I was 21. Wiser and more savvy than the teenager who sought salvation, I no longer felt the need for religion in my life.
A decade later, I found my way back into the evangelical tradition. And, when I did, it wasn’t music or a coffeehouse or a hip preacher that drew me back (though all that was indeed happening at the time – this was the 80s, after all).
It was relationship, motherhood and scripture.
An older woman I had met through a business transaction reached out to me when I was in my late 20s and showed me the love of Jesus. She personified Christ in her life. I was an idealistic journalist at the time and still a bit of a skeptic when it came to “religion”, but she saw something in me that she felt God could use. My new friend shared her faith over lunch as naturally as she’d shared tips on running a business, and I was impressed. Because of her, I began reading my Bible again. And because of her, I eventually found myself standing in front of a group of smiling church ladies, talking about how I’d rediscovered my faith.
When I had my first child at 31, I was God-struck with the awe and wonder of motherhood. It was then that I decided to return to my roots – the Catholic Church. I took classes to re-enter the faith, and by the time my second child was born, I was a full-fledged Catholic again. I had both my sons baptized in the church and thought I was set for life – until life happened, and I was divorced, then eventually remarried.
Today, I worship and serve within the walls of a traditional, small-town Protestant church. Those four “millennials” who were raised in church are each taking a different path. One leans toward liturgy and tradition, two are very much engaged in post-modern church culture (one traditional and one on the “cool” side) and the fourth is on a quest to discover for himself just what he believes.
My point is: It isn’t “church” that brings, keeps or loses followers. It isn’t necessarily what’s written in the doctrinal statement, or what’s stenciled over the front entrance. It’s not the songs or the traditions, or even the politics of a church body that draw or disgust true followers of Christ. And much of the time, it’s not what is said from the pulpit in the name of Jesus about sin and how it corrupts that will send folks out the door.
On this, I agree with Evans:
“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.”
So, where do you find Jesus? Just two places that I know of – in his people and in his Word.
Jesus shines through relationships – the ones that draw you in and keep you there because of people who don’t just tell you, they show you how to “love like Jesus”. Politics, science and prejudice aside, Biblical truth spoken in love, offered with grace and lived out in faith is magnetic.
And if you think Jesus doesn’t reside in church, pull that Bible out of the pocket in front of you. Better yet, grab your own Bible and find out for yourself what he said about social justice, about sexual sin, about prejudice.
Christians will never discover the perfect way to “do church”. In the end, we’ll just find ourselves going in circles. To quote the words of a writer from another generation —
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Complete satisfaction will come only on the other side of this life. But, if we want to keep people seeking Jesus – and that includes congregating to worship – they must see him in our lives and hear his words on our lips.
And, what they choose to do with that is up to them.