We’re All Junior Highers Now: The Millennials and the Church
One thing I appreciate about Rachel Held Evans is that pieces like this provide good fodder for well-informed and winsome responses that I believe are more connected with how things really are. (If Rachel had used the word “I” instead of “we” throughout her piece, I think it would have been more helpful than presuming to speak as the spokesperson for an entire generation.)
Anthony Bradley observes that the church Rachel pines for already exists and is in decline:
Why doesn’t Evans, and others who embrace her critique of “the church,” simply encourage Millennials, who do not believe Jesus “is found” in their churches, to join churches like the UMC [United Methodist Church]? If someone is passionate about Jesus and is truly looking for him, but doesn’t find him in one church, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a genuine search would lead that person to another church where it is believed Jesus actually is? It makes me wonder if the Evans critique is not about something else.
One of the many blind spots in Evans’ entire project is that young evangelicals are not leaving evangelical churches to join mainline churches like the UMC, they are leaving the church altogether in many cases. Evans’ list does not help us understand that phenomena much at all. In fact, even the UMC, with all Evans’ lauded attributes, is hemorrhaging. The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America’s 350,000 congregations.
And Brett McCracken—author of the new book Gray Matters—has a thoughtful and humorous response in The Washington Post online. He suggests that Millennials spurn Rachel’s advice and do the opposite:
Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?
And for pastors, church leaders, and others so concerned with the survival of the church amidst the glut of “adapt or die!” hype, is asking Millennials what they want church to be and adjusting accordingly really your best bet? Are we really to believe that today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation of Millennials has more wisdom to offer about the church than those who have thought about and faithfully served the church decade after decade, amidst all its warts, challenges and ups and down?
Just like the Photoshop-savvy Millennials she is so desperate to retain, the church is ever more meticulously concerned with her image, monitoring what people are saying about her and taking cues from that.
Erik Thoennes, professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University, is troubled by the church’s obsession with perception.
“We’ve got experts who tell us ‘this is how pagans think about us, Oh no!’ and we wring our hands and say ‘we’re so lame!’” said Thoennes. “This perception-driven way of doing things will make you go crazy. We’re junior highers. Junior highers live in this world of ‘how am I being perceived’ all the time. Oh to be free from that!”
Much of this is an outgrowth of the audience-is-sovereign mentality of the seeker-sensitive movement, which has loomed large in evangelicalism’s recent history. Another part of it is Christianity’s capitulation to a consumerist culture where the primary goal is to scratch where the market itches.
But at the end of the day, the Christian gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever itch people think Christianity should scratch. Consumerism asserts that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about me. But to position the gospel within this consumerist, give-them-what-they-want framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamy variations. If Christianity aims to sell a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?
I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.
Not unrelated is Dan Phillips’ post, drawing from the book of Titus and encouraging us to ask some questions about the diversity of age—or lack thereof—in our churches.
Finally, every pastor and commentator should be aware of the arguments in books like Bradley Wright’s Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. Kevin DeYoung summarizes his research on young folks leaving the church:
we’ve seen over the past decades that the lower percentages among youth increase as the twenty-year-olds become thirty-year-olds, the thirty-year-olds become forty-year-olds and so on. Simply put, young adults (especially during their college years) are the least likely to be involved in church, but over time more and more of them (especially the ones with children) come back. Or, as the case may be, they never really meant to leave; they just drifted away for a time. Now, there’s no reason to celebrate 18-22-year-olds dropping out of church for a year, but making things sound worse than they are doesn’t help either.
Here is Wright in his own words:
Is the church really losing the young?
On the negative side, the number of young people who do not affiliate with any religion has increased in recent decades, just as it has for the whole population. Furthermore, to the extent that religiousness has changed, it has trended slightly toward less religious.
On the positive side, the percentage of young people who attend church or who think that religion is important has remained mostly stable. Also, the percentage that affiliate with Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Black protestantism are at or near 1970 levels. What I don’t see in the data are evidence of a cataclysmic loss of young people. Have we lost the young? No.