Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Millenials and the Church and All That

The Spark

Apparently I missed some kind of memo in the Christian blogosphere to react ASAP to Rachel Held Evans' piece for CNN, Why Millenials are Leaving the Church. I'm a bit worried that people are so sick of hearing everyone and their dog's responses to it that no one will want to read this, but I feel I have only just gotten enough of a "handle" on the situation to write coherently on it.

You've probably read the original post; if not, I encourage you to do so just to see what all the fuss is about. Evans, attempting to represent the "millenial" generation, tells of her explorations of the reasons so many millenials are turning away from the religion of their parents. Research by the Barna Group has found that fully 61% of today's young adults "had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying)". Barna points to six main reasons these young adults give for this disengagement:
  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Their experience of Christianity was shallow.
  3. They viewed the church as antagonistic to science.
  4. Churches' attitudes toward sexuality were simple, repressive, and judgmental.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity as the "one true faith".
  6. Hostility toward doubt and questions about faith.
This is hardly news. A few years ago the president of the Barna Group, David Kinnamen, published a book titled You Lost Me, focused on drawing conclusions from this data. (My pastor Cor has also hosted a discussion about it on his blog) It's an area of great concern for the evangelical church, with alarmists worrying that (evangelical) Christianity is just a generation from extinction.

Of course, everyone has their own reaction to this situation, and their desired ways to address it aren't always compatible. For her part, Evans speaks against the assumption churches facing declining youth membership often make that the way to bring the young people back is to make some style updates become "hipper" and "cooler"--get a rock band that plays praise music, serve lots of (good) coffee, have the pastors wear skinny jeans, get a cooler website, and so on. Surely that will bring the young people back to church, right!?

Wrong, Evans says. Instead, she identifies these kinds of responses as part of the problem, so lots of millennials are turning to more liturgical, traditional churches that concern themselves more with being authentic than with seeming "cool".
Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
She explains that, like every generation, millennials come to church looking for Jesus, and if they don't find Him there, they tend  to leave. They care more about substance than style. She advises churches to sit down with millennials and learn more about they are looking for from church rather than deciding for them.


Once this post went up on CNN, the reactions and counter-reactions (and counter-counter-counter-reactions, or whatever this post is) began to fly. David Koyzis claims she misses the point of "high church traditions" by viewing them as stopping points for independently-minded spiritual seekers: "Held Evans appears to see Rome and Constantinople as little more than exotic ports of call for a disaffected generation whose members nevertheless retain their own spiritual autonomy. In all things, including spiritual, they [millenials] jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best." To be Catholic or orthodox, he says, means setting yourself under spiritual authority, whose teachings millennials who left church for some of the above six reasons might not like.
Indeed, attending Mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a “high-church” atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.
Ultimately, the same can be said, not only of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but of any church communion taking seriously the normative character of the Christian faith. The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.
Then Morgan Guyton responds to Koyzis, pointing out how funny it is that Koyzis, a reformed theologian, has somehow been called on to represent Catholicism and Orthodoxy as "a matter of obedience" when it is really so much more than that. He goes over his own weekly experiences with visiting a Catholic mass (Guyton is Methodist and so doesn't obey the authority of the Pope), which is the kind of "cafeteria" approach to spirituality that Koyzis is criticizing, and explains how this kind of "soft syncretism" is really a good thing.

Guyton asks, is it good evangelism to criticize people taking their first steps in the Christian faith for these reasons? "Rather than mining “millennial” consciousness for delegitimizing deconstructions that you can use to zing them for their unsophisticatedness, why not let God continue to use these superficial considerations as prevenient grace?" Are we being encouraging greeters or ridiculing gatekeepers of our own perceived spiritual purity when dealing with seekers? In the end, Guyton seems to agree with Evans' critiques and argues that we shouldn't criticize millennials who share her concerns and are looking for authentic religious experiences that bring them in touch with Jesus while moving past these sticking points, however they find them.

There are still more varied responses. Scot McKnight questions whether the "cataclysmic change" predicted by evangelicals based on the Barna Group data is real at all, or if this is part of millennials' life cycle and we can expect them to increasingly return to church as they get older. Anthony Bradley points to the United Methodist Church as the embodiment of Evans' vision for the church and (rather bewilderingly) wonders if she might be stealthily shilling for the UMC. Trevin Wax stands up for evangelicalism denying that the issues Evans points to are necessarily problems and saying they are caricatures of what following Jesus really should look like:
When I read the Gospels, I’m confronted by a Jesus who explodes our categories of righteousness and sin, repentance and forgiveness, and power and purity.
I meet a Jesus who doesn’t do away with the Law of the Old Testament, but ramps up the demands in order to lead us to Himself – the One who calls us to life-altering repentance and faith.
I see a King who makes utterly exclusive claims, and doesn’t seem to care who is offended.
I see a King who didn’t hold back anything from His people, and who expects His people to hold back nothing from Him.
He essentially deflects whatever blame Evans is directing toward the mistakes of the church, saying that the real issues with sexuality are found in our messed-up culture; that following Jesus is about putting His desires for us ahead of our desire for the church; that millennials are especially leaving the kinds of churches Evans describes because they soften the countercultural message of Jesus and avoid convicting people. Basically, he says millennials, not churches, are the ones who need to "step up".

Similarly, Brett McCracken calls Evans out on what he sees as allowing the young to dictate what the church should be, instead suggesting that millennials "just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?" (These would be fighting words were McCracken not a millennial himself) He questions the whole "adapt or die!" mentality that values the whims of today's young adults over the wisdom of older and more experienced Christians in deciding the direction of the church as "chronological snobbery". He compares the image-focused attitude of the church, obsessed with what people think of it and how it can please them better, with a typical junior high student. The gospel is the gospel, independently of whatever we want it to be at the moment.
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.
Finally, Jonathan Fitzgerald responds interestingly to both Evans and McCracken and tries to move beyond endless "conversation" to actually enacting solutions to the issues Evans raises by getting involved in our own churches rather than shopping around for a church that's already suits us perfectly. If Jesus is able to love His church with all its flaws, shouldn't we?

Yet Another Response

At 24, I fit squarely into the millennial generation as it is defined, unlike all the people I just cited except Brett McCracken and maybe Jonathan Fitzgerald. And yet I could barely be any less worthy to represent the nebulous, somewhat arbitrarily-chosen group of people designated by pollsters as "my generation". Wrapping up this whole category of people in the compact term "millennial" conveys the illusion that we are a coherent, neatly-defined group which we can converse about as a whole using sweeping generalizations. This is a mistaken notion. McCracken's description of millennials as a "#hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation" so completely fails to resemble me and many of my friends that I find it hilarious.

This is part of why I really appreciate Jonathan Fitzgerald's response, that we need action rather than conversation. It's not so much that actions speak louder than words; it's that actions, unlike words, are always concrete and contextualized, not hazy and nebulous. Millennials, like the rest of us, are individuals, not just a statistical demographic, whose relationship with these and other current issues in the church is unique and complex. Only once we start seeing them as individuals to be known rather than as members of predefined groups to be studied and concluded about can we be Christ to them, and they to us.

Besides that, I largely see the familiar liberal-Christian-versus-conservative-Christian argument being played out on the stage of the Barna Group data. Most everyone affirms the basic problem--fewer young people are attending church today than in years past--and rightly concludes that what the church needs, in the most general possible terms, is "more Jesus", but then disagreement arises over what, specifically, this is supposed to look like. More liberal Christians like Evans point to ways the church is pushing young people away that should be corrected; conservatives like McCracken are more likely to defend the church and either deny the problem or explain that the gospel is supposed to be offensive, so we shouldn't be surprised that people are turning from the church, which is supposed to represent Christ to them instead of pandering to their whims.

All this plays into a "rule for disagreement" I have, which is to try to understand the position you disagree with and make it make sense to you, rather than simply focusing on refuting it. Regardless of whatever vague demographic categories they are hidden behind, I don't doubt that the six issues raised by the Barna Group are serious ones worth our concern. Denying X current trend in church attendance among group Y does nothing to change this fact. Rather than denying that these things are problems or reaffirming that, say, the church is supposed to be concerned with sex or the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, conservatives need to honestly ask themselves, "Could these things really be problems somehow, with Millenials or others? Could I be part of those problems?"

Meanwhile, liberal-leaning Christians (with whom I increasingly identify) need to take seriously the possibility that they are expecting the church to conform to their own wishes and preferences (which may or may not be right, but definitely aren't perfect) rather than to the image of Christ. And this is where I see the value of Jonathan Fitzgerald's words, challenging myself more than others. It's far easier to point out the faults and areas of improvement we see in others than to work on our own (see Matthew 7:1-6). Assuming that the movement of young people away from the church is a problem, assigning responsibility for it to the church or to them won't help; only by shouldering it ourselves while trusting God to be enough can we begin to change it.

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