Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how 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.
I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.
I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.
Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”
And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.
Out of concern for Rachel's head, let me just say that I get what she is saying. I understand her. And, I think that she is dead wrong in solely blaming Evangelicals for Millennials leaving the church. Now, I have expressed my share of criticism for Evangelicals over the years. As a 39 year old Gen X pastor who cut my teeth in ministry in San Francisco and Marin County in the late 1990's as a young twentysomething, I also fully understand progressive, pluralistic mindsets. But, I still think that Rachel is wrong.
Since Rachel is a self-styled expert on Millennials and the unchurched and those leaving the church and why, and since she speaks to pastors who do not understand the world or the people in their church or outside their church and since she continually tries to inform Evangelicals as to our failings, I thought that I would respond.
Rachel tells us that Millennials are leaving the church because they do not see substance or because the positions of the church are wrong on so many significant issues. She says that the "BS meters" of Millennials are highly sensitive and they are aware of when they are enduring a sales pitch or when they are being exposed to a consumerist ethos. She continues to basically say that if the church would just be more progressive, more inclusive, and more embracing of doubt and difference instead of the way we are - in other words, more like her - then, Millennials would embrace the church again.
Some of what she says has some merit and every church and every Christian could be more authentic, more whole, more faithful to Christ, more grace-filled, and more of, well everything. Also, there are many great qualities of the Millennial Generation and I completely understand the desire for justice, authenticity, and inclusion in that generation. It is a really positive aspect of who they are, if you actually can generalize across a whole generation that way. So, I do not want to be critical of Millennials. Also, the list of failures of every church is wide and it is long because the church is made up of sinners saved by grace who get things wrong. I get things wrong all the time. I imagine that Rachel does too.
But, I don't want to make this personal apart from saying that I disagree with her. While the Evangelical church always needs to be reforming and while we have tons of flaws and we have been way too political and consumer oriented and selfish and judgmental and a host of other things over the years, I really do not think that the reason that Millennials are right now leaving the church is because we are not progressive enough in our approach or that our substance is all wrong. That might be true for some churches and you can always draw anectdotal evidence from a handfull of surveys and personal testimonies from friends and readers who are angry, hurt, wounded, and bitter over something that happened. I have seen it in my own ministry when people get upset about something they think I did even though I tried in every possible way to make amends, affirm them, apologize, reconcile, and make things right while grieving deeply over the broken relationship. But, reconciliation just wasn't possible because the person was convinced that I meant them ill. There are a lot of people who only trust themselves and will not entrust themselves to relationships with others.
Gen Xers and Millennials are generations full of nonconformists who have become convinced that the seat of wisdom is found in their youth and that they see things clearer than those who have come before them. Actually, their parents and grandparents thought the same thing when they were in their 20's and 30's. It comes with the territory.
When I was 22 years old, I was on the phone with a friend of mine and I was slamming the church, saying how terrible it was, how it was full of hypocrites, how it didn't care about people, how it refused to seek God or love people - I was on a good little rant. I sounded like a lot of Rachel's writing. Then, right as I was really getting wound up in indignation, a little voice inside my head stopped me in my tracks. "What if everyone in the church was just like you?" I realized that the church would be full of critics, cranks, know-it-alls, and people who saw the negative in everything and constantly focused on how everyone was falling short of the standard that I had set for them. In reality, the church would be full of pharisees. Now, lots of churches are this way and these churches definitely exist and if that is what Rachel is attacking incessantly, then I see the merit. But, I decided that day that I didn't want to be in a church like that or contribute my bad attitude to make a church become that way through my influence. I haven't always been perfect in this and I have definitely been critical since (just peruse my own blog), but I have also noticed the love, service, faithfulness, beauty, peace, and justice present in so many groups of believers in local churches that I have been amazed. Hopefully, I am becoming a person who is more aware of the good that God is doing in common people instead of building my life and ministry on telling everyone how they are falling short of the standards that I have set.
I think that the reason that Millennials are leaving the church in droves is that, as a generation, they were taught by our sick culture and their parents that they are at the center of the universe and that everything should revolve around them, their feelings, and their desires and when they are with a group of people who see things differently from them on issues, then they find it impossible to remain in those relationships. We think we have a corner on what is the right way to see life and anyone who sees things differently is a Neanderthal or a maniac. That type of polarization is not only found in religious fundamentalism. It is everywhere in our culture, including the most progressive environs. I know that I was taught this. Most everyone I know was taught this. And, it is a deadly virus. We are narcissistic to the core.
A 1977 manual for teachers stated as its central philosophy, 'I am a self and you are a self and I don't want to be made to feel guilty if I am not like you nor should you be made to feel guilty if you are unlike me.' Amanda, 22, says that one of the main lessons in her Girl Scout troop was 'being different is good.' It's a mantra GenMe has heard over and over and over. We absorbed the lesson of tolerance with our baby food - not just for race and religion, but for sexual orientation, beliefs, feelings, and all kinds of other intangibles. Just about the only difference that wasn't good? Someone who was prejudiced.
And, I would add to Twenge's analysis that a difference that is unacceptable is anyone who claims absolute truth, revelation from God, a way to live that is counter to prevailing cultural attitudes, and that tells people that they need to change and that they are not okay just how they are. People, when they are full of themselves, do not want to hear that and they think that that message is oppressive and intolerant, even if it is accompanied by the message of grace and the love of God in Christ. We want to do what we want to do and we will reconstruct our religion to help us feel better about it - if we ever even feel bad about our decisions in the first place.
A June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, a---kissing, s--t-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.
70% of Americans hate their jobs or have checked out of them? Is that a problem with 70% of the jobs or with the expectations, mentality, and desires of 70% of Americans? I get that people don't like to work, and would rather do something else, but perhaps the problem is with our state of mind instead of every environment that we find ourselves in (remember, almost 50% of marriages still end in divorce). Millennials and GenXers are not just checking out of church - they are so miserable that they are checking out of all forms of stable life! Is this misery their fault or is it a result of the lies that they have been told about what life is and what it is supposed to be? Of course, the breakdown of community, of commitment, and of satisfaction with life, jobs, family, neighborhood, government, and every other social institution has been on the rise since the 1960's. Robert Putnam illustrated this well in his book Bowling Alone (2001) and Bill Bishop located the loss of trust in institutions all across America to around the year 1965 in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (2009).
In reality, there are lots of theories as to why Millennials and GenXers are dropping out of church. It is easy to say that the church is getting everything wrong and that Millennials are so wise as to see through the evil church and to long for something more real and authentic. They have every right to be disappointed with the church as it is made up of people that are, well, disappointing. We all want authenticity and this longing isn't really particular to young adults and teenagers. But, what if our narcissistic, consumeristic, individualistic America has also done such a number on young adults that they do not have a clue as to what they want, how they can live in a healthy way, or what life is really all about? When you have a generation of people delaying marriage into their 30's, that are stuck in school, cannot find work at an alarming rate (not entirely their fault, of course) and are having to move back in with their parents at rates higher than the generations before them (a record 36% of Millennials, or 21.7 million people, are still living with their parents), perhaps there is more that they are upset about than the idea that their Evangelical church is not progressive enough?
Levine, in his Salon.com article quoted above, went on to talk about how young people have been diagnosed with mental illness, depression, and emotional disorders at a much higher rate than previous generations. Much of this has been illegitimate, but it still comes from a culture telling everyone that they are simultaneously special and sick at the same time. No wonder commitment is hard. Levine says,
In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago. . . the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. . . .Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”
I am not saying that all Millennials are depressed or mentally ill or that there is something wrong with them if they leave the church. Not at all. I am saying that there are MANY factors right now that contribute to breakdown in society across all levels. Why would we think that the Church would be immune to what is happening or that when a narcissistic generation (and I include my own Generation X in with this) leaves the Church it is ONLY because of the failings of the Church and not because of a deeper sickness that is also at work in our culture? Rachel Held Evans' diagnosis is far too simplistic - and considering her own presuppositions - far too self-serving.
Rachel Held Evans makes some good points and they are things that many of us have been saying for a long time. The Evangelical Church often misses the mark because it is made up of people who are often selfish and who focus more on promoting their own Way of Life instead of laying down their lives for others. This has been happening since the beginning of the Church, by the way. But, then again, all people do that everywhere and that is why we all need a Savior. We all need grace and truth together and that can only be found in Jesus. How about if instead of constantly pointing the finger at each other (and I realize that by addressing Evans' critique, I am also guilty), we point to Christ and our own desperate need for forgiveness, grace, mercy, and salvation found only in Him? I do not know if Millennials will return to the Church in droves, but I do know that we will be faithful to who Christ is and what He wants us to be and do.