I’m not a millennial, I missed being part of that generation by about 3 to 5 years. I prefer to think of myself as a recovering Gen X-er (1965-1984), although, depending on who you ask I may be a Gen Y-er (1976ish-2004ish), which I’d totally be ok with. Regardless, I ended up sitting just outside of the group dubbed millennials. But, even though I’m not one, I’ve spent a ton of time with a bunch of them and I’m married to one, so I do have some firsthand knowledge about them and I absolutely love them as a generation. That being said, I think it’s time for them to move on.
One of the hottest topics on the church scene today is their exodus (real or perceived) from Christianity. And everyone has something to say about it. Nearly every church is clamoring to find ways to get them back in the pews (or padded chairs). Pastors are writing articles and books about why they should comeback and millennials are writing books about all of it; why they left, what would cause them to consider returning and even why they’ll never return. There’s a lot of writing on it. In fact, if you were to Google the words, “Millennials Leave Christianity” you would get about 745,000 hits. Obviously some of those will be duplicates, and if you vary the word order or use slightly different words you end up with fewer hits, but the point is, a lot people are concerned about millennials leaving Christianity.
I get it. I’m just as concerned when people leave the Church. I hate the idea of people leaving a community that’s supposed to be drawing close to Jesus because they’re angry, hurt or longing. But I’m lost for why that concern is directed solely at millennials, love them as I do. Lots of people walk away from church. And I’m convinced that if someone can willingly turn their back on Jesus and His bride, then they were probably sold a version of Christianity, unintentionally or not, that told them that once converted, “every little thing was gonna be alright.” A person’s ability to walk away from Christ always causes me to question whether they’ve ever actually experienced the genuine love of Jesus. I’m certain that if they had, walking away would be a near, if not completely, impossible task. But, I digress, for some reason our biggest concern is millennials leaving. And that’s fine for a season. It’s prompted some great discussion for why people leave and how to get to a place of deep community and love.
Rachel Held Evans is one of the more popular voices on the subject, writing blogs and books, her latest being Searching for Sundays (which full disclosure, I haven’t read, but I’m sure it’s on par with the high quality of her other writings). In a recent article she wrote for The Washington Post she said that all her searching has led her to the Episcopal Church and confesses that it was the sacraments that brought her back. I’ve read a number of articles, in addition to her’s, suggesting that a liturgical, sacramental focused Christianity is the best way to win millennials back. Maybe. Others, like Matthew Drake, have said that not even liturgy or sacraments will entice him back into the fold. He suggests that liturgical and sacramental church is as inauthentic, just a different kind, as the mega-church that millennials are leaving. All that to say that a lot of people have a lot of opinions, reasons and ideas about why they’re leaving, how to get them back or why it’ll never happen. But none of that matters.
I feel like it’s been given the attention that it needs. There are other demographics leaving the church and no one is writing about them. Maybe because they tend to leave quieter. Maybe because they don’t exactly know how to articulate why they’re leaving. And what about the large number of people that stay in church, because they grew up in the church or because a “good” person goes to church, but never knows the changing power of the Holy Spirit? I don’t see any articles about the guy in his 50s that has always attended church, every Sunday, but never, in 30 years, actually allowed Jesus to change his heart. Where’s those articles? Attending church doesn’t make you a Jesus follower anymore than seeing a movie makes you an actor. But this is where we’ve arrived, millennials. I think there’s two types of millennials in this whole “leaving” thing; the nominal and the seeker.
Without a deep connection to Jesus sacraments and liturgy become inauthentic.
The nominal millennial Christian likely came to church because someone invited them, so they went, loved the atmosphere, connected with the idea of participating in a social justice movement and bought into the buzzwords around following Jesus. Eventually they began to feel that “church” lacked depth and realized that it didn’t take church to promote social justice. So they left. But, because they were in church long enough, they feel like they have the experience and justification to offer advice on what needs to change in order to create depth. All in all, the Church might win some of them back, but most of them won’t come back. There was a significant lack of genuine connection and communion with Jesus, so they don’t know that they should be missing something or that their could be and should be more. Liturgy and sacraments won’t draw them back. If it does, it’ll be short lived. Without a deep connection to Jesus, sacraments and liturgy become, as Drake suggests, just as inauthentic. Sadly, if they already view church as inauthentic, little may change that view.
The seeker millennial Christian may have arrived at church and may be leaving for similar reasons as the nominal, but there are a few minor, but significant, differences. They’ve experienced Jesus and encountered community. They’ve tasted and seen that He is good. They’ve known His love and they know that it moves you to something deeper and so real that it is open and inviting to everyone. That’s not to say that traditional church is wrong, but the seeking millennial is being drawn to a deepness that they haven’t been able to find in the church that they’re leaving. I’m not convinced that most of them will be back either, but they want to be back, it just may not be in the way that we want them back. Frankly, I don’t want them back, not back where they came from. I want them to return to the body, but in a way that creates deep community centered on Jesus and goes to others seeking the same.
I think the best place for the millennial that’s seeking a deeper more meaningful communion with Jesus and His bride is wherever they feel like God is calling them to do that. If it’s their house with a few other believers, awesome. If it’s the Krispie Kreme with people that aren’t sure what they believe, even better. If it’s in a liturgical and sacramental focused Episcopalian church, that’s good too. The point is, I think writing about what might get them back has run it’s course; and I say that fully loving the fact that we get to have these discussions, especially in the medium of the written word. The time for action is here. The more we try to figure out how to draw them back, the more we potentially neglect those already sitting in the padded chairs. I’m sorry millennials, I love you, but it isn’t all about you. Instead, what if we helped the millennial figure out what God is calling them to rather than what the they are calling for us to change? What if we partnered with the millennial and discipled and guided them through where ever God is leading their heart? Better yet, what if millennials got together around God’s word and waited for Him to move?
To be fair, I’m sure it isn’t as simple as a right down the middle split of nominal v. seeker, but from what I’ve seen and read, those are the two biggest players. To be even more fair, I know a lot of millennials that are already doing this and it’s awesome. You can check out a few of them at Fresh Expressions or 1 Body. I think what it comes down to is that it’s probably better to focus on what God’s calling you to and witout trying to change the vision that others feel God has called them to. We’re one body with many parts. All together we’re His bride, and she’s beautiful.
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