A couple of weeks ago, something of a dust up occurred after blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece for CNN declaring that Millennials were leaving the church because of the vapid nature of Evangelical religious experience. I wrote a reply to that assertion and declared that there was actually a lot more to it than that.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly old fashioned, I would like to ask Millennials who are complaining about the church and who are threatening to leave to stick around and be the change they want to see. We need them.
I am not a Baby Boomer or an octagenarian. I am 39 years old and came up in the disillusionment of Gen X melancholy. We didn't believe that we were going to save the world - we just wanted something authentic and real. Those of us who stuck with the church instead of thinking that we could perfect it have learned that our fondest hopes and dreams for something real usually crash up against the reality that we live in a world full of slogans and platitudes and empty promises - there are lots of sinners here too, including ourselves. We have served under the shadow of the Boomers with their "7 Steps to Happiness and Success In Life" ministry approaches and it wore us out before we even got started. Many of us found a place to serve where we could be authentic and true to who God created us to be and where we could have real relationships with people. But, even those relationships are often subject to people using one another for their own gain. It can all be kind of disillusioning.
I guess that what I am trying to say is that if Millennials are disappointed with the church and think that if it was all being done their way it would be better, I want to tell them that they will one day find that they are going to be disappointed with their way too - eventually. We live East of Eden. Everything shiny and new and hopeful will one day decay and grow old. People and institutions will disappoint you despite their great promise. The Kingdom is now, but it is not yet. We see through dark glasses.
What if Millennials were different from the Builders after WWII with their business model/assembly line churches and the Boomers with their Seeker Sensitive churches and the GenXers with our organic/emergent churches? What if they were different from all of us and they did not buy into the lie that everything would be better if they broke off and formed churches more to their liking? What if they took their concerns and desires to all of us and we worked together? What if they did what our parents didn't do and they stuck around and persevered in relationships? I know that they have never seen that modeled, really, and what they know from generations who have come before is that they need to strike out on their own if they want anything done - but, what if they were different?
We have been here before. Every 15 years or so, the next generation of Christians groans and stretches against what has come before and declares that to be authentically Christian means that this new generation must break away from the old and do church differently - better - with new purpose and vision. Always, the prospect of reaching their generation is at the forefront with dire threats of if their changes are not made and if their wisdom is not followed, the church will seek into irrelevancy. It happens like clockwork. I guarantee that in 15-20 years or so, the next generation will say the same thing and Millennials will be confused that their little brothers and sisters will not want to join them in whatever direction they have gone.
I had my ideals in the late 90's when I was in my early 20's. I was immersed in organic, missional church and was ministering among urban tribes, the gay and lesbian community, street kids, every nation under the sun, drug addicts, young professionals, and the homeless poor. I poured myself into San Francisco and the plethora of diversity there and loved it. Then, something strange happened. I moved to Montgomery, Alabama and began work in a local church that was relatively young, but established. I became pastor of that church a few years later and have served here in this one place for almost 14 years now. We have old and young, rich and poor, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. We are incredibly diverse and we keep learning how to love one another and love our community. We are engaged in mission all over the world and we are seeking to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. We learn from the senior adults in our midst who fought in wars and built lives and legacies. We learn from parents who have raised their children and sent them off into the world still loving Jesus and seeking to follow Him in the ways that He calls them. We have sent out families and individuals in mission and we have supported them as we can. We are seeing new families grow and have babies and we are helping their children know Christ and walk with him. The entire life cycle is in front of us and the older are teaching the younger about what it means to love God and love people - and also about what it means to hurt deeply and keep going.
I had lots of ideals and ways to do church and values and desires. I got to experience a lot of that in San Francisco as I lived on some type of edge. But, then I came to this city that was racially divided and Old South with a veneer of religion over a lot of spiritual weakness. We have been able to stand for and exhibit racial justice and reconciliation. We have seen the generations and socio-economic groups of our church work together. Without knowing it, all that I ever wanted to see and all that I ever hoped for in ministry and in church unfolded before me with a group of people that are not trendy or who do not headline conferences or speaking engagements or book tours. I wish that Rachel Held Evans and others could see what I see. We are not perfect and we miss the mark a lot. But, there is grace here and we would not know God the way that we do if we did not have each other.
We need to stick together. We need to talk to each other and learn and share our hopes and prayers and perhaps reject frustration and cynicism if it drives us apart from one another. Older generations of Christians need to humble themselves and share leadership, but they won't do that if they don't know that younger generations are willing to stick around. Younger generations should honor their elders while also bringing their own energy to the conversation. Basically, we who are in Christ together need one another.
I really do pray that this generation will pour themselves into relationships with their older brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents and that we will stop falling for the lie that newer is always better. Really, if we fall for this, we are doing the same exact thing that has been happening en masse since WWII, just in a different form. And, the result will be the same. The church will grow weaker, less relevant, and in 15-20 years, the next generation will rise up and say the same thing, just in a different form, and the beat goes on.