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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Millennial Musings

Thanks to the interweb, we live in a world where the reactions to words and events often get as much press as the original things themselves. I have been surprised at the uproar over Rachel Held Evans' post on CNN.com last week over why millennials are leaving the church.

On christianpost.com, author Brett McCracken was quoted as saying that "instead of telling church leaders what the church should look like, they should be the ones listening to the wisdom of pastors, parents and older believers. '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.'" 

Christianity Today posted three responses from noted female writers, perhaps as a counter to Rachel Held Evans. One of them, Caryn Rivadeneira reflects on her own young adult prodigal experience and basically says, "been there, done that," ending with these words:
So, even though I prefer Christians welcoming the messes and the masses to church, it seems we would do well to tell the sick-and-tired, church-weary millennials: We get it. We've been there. Go do what you need to do; go where you need to go. God'll go with you, and we'll save you a seat.
The other two writers bring slightly different takes, but overall, all three essentially say that this "I'm over the church" problem with young people has been happening for decades, and we just need to chill out. C'mon people, they'll wise up and come back, just like we did.

But will they?

Evans' article was posted on July 27, and since then 207,000 people (as of today) have recommended this article to their Facebook page. That tells me something. Sure, people forward kitten videos too, and that doesn't mean much. But when it comes to caring for others, I think my main job at as a Christian leader, pastor, and believer, at least at the outset, is to listen to people. Rather than point out the weakness of an argument or come back with a pithy rebuttal, I want to pay attention to what is being said, and try to tease out some of the metamessages hidden within and behind those 207,000 forwards. And let's not miss the fact that this was on CNN, not some backwater newspaper!

Is it hypocritical of me to rue the fact that we are all over-reacting to RHE's post while at the same time I want to put in my own two cents? Perhaps. Before I continue, I should explain that I have worked with this age group (now called Millennials, those born between 1980-2000) for over thirty years. When I started, they were called "Gen X" back then. And in some ways, I agree with some of the responses I've read. Yes, we all tend to go through that cocky stage where we push back on authority, and yes, in the past I have noticed some of my former students have wandered away from the church during college and then come back when they start making babies.

But I have to say that things feel a little different this time. I think there are two new dynamics at play, which perhaps are one and the same:

  • "Nones." As noted in recent research by the Pew Foundations in 2012, "One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling." Put more plainly, 20% (1 in 5) of the U.S. public claim no religious affiliation, and for those under age 30, the number swells to 1 in 3 (32%). As the Pew Foundations says, this is the highest percentage ever seen. It is becoming more "normal" for young adults to have no particular religious faith.
  • "Choice." I was listening to a podcast called "On Being," which seeks to talk about "the big questions at the center of human life, from the boldest new science of the human brain to the most ancient traditions of the human spirit." (Remember, I'm trying to listen, right? If this is what many in culture are talking about, I want to hear what they are saying.) In an episode from May 2013, the poet Christian Wiman was interviewed about faith and doubt. The host of the program, Krista Tippett, in response to Wiman's own testimony of coming back to faith as an adult after a fundamentalist upbringing in Texas, says, "Your story to me is very much an example also of this phenomenon of our time where we choose these things, where we create our spiritual lives, which is really new, you know. You were given this religious world as a center of gravity in your childhood, which a lot of people were until just a decade or two ago." In other words, it has been the case in America where most of us grow up immersed in a Christianity that surrounded us like water does for fish. Tippett acknowledges that this is becoming less and less the case. She even cites recent conversations with 80 year-olds who are making spiritual quests.
So I guess I am not as convinced as Caryn Rivadeneira, who said (somewhat patronizingly, if you ask me), "Go do what you need to do; go where you need to go. God'll go with you, and we'll save you a seat." I am not sure that our beloved Millennials will "come back" unless we listen well to them. More than any other time in our history, they have the complete freedom to walk away. 

Thus brings up the tension of whether we seek after the lost, as described in Jesus' parables in Luke 15, or shake the dust off our feet (Luke 9, among other places) and move on, knowing they will come back when they figure things out. And while it is tempting to use the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) as our model, I think that limits our vision. You recall that when the younger son wants to stomp off in independence and rebellion, the father in this parable allows the son to do so, all the while waiting for him to return, running feverishly down the road to greet him when he does. However, the other, older son gets very little press in this parable. He has remained, faithfully working for his father and following through on his obligations. Nevertheless, he is frustrated and dare I say it, rather cynical? As the Asbury Bible Commentary states
The second son is a self-righteous, law-abiding person, like Jesus' critics. And Jesus may well have told the parable primarily as a challenge to such people. The parable is a story without an ending. Although the younger son has been received into the house, the elder son stands outside complaining. It is not clear whether he accepts or rejects his father's invitation to step inside. But it is clear that the father extends the same love and mercy to both his sons.
The young adults I talk to nearly every day have a lot of spiritual interest, but as one told me last week, "our BS detectors are tuned really high, and we can tell when someone is being phony." And the second that happens, they are gone. Like the older son, I see them standing outside the church, complaining. Perhaps some see me as enabling or codependent, but I cannot just pat them on the head with an "oh-you're-just-being-a-snarky-Millennial" remark and let them go on their rebellious way, clucking my tongue knowingly.

My favorite line from RHE's post was this (speaking for Millennials):
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
As the Asbury commentary says, "it is clear that the father extends the same love and mercy to both his sons." For me, the big question is not whether or not Rachel Held Evans is "right," but whether or not the church will remain engaged in conversation and relationship with young people, even in their wilderness wanderings. Put another way, what does it look like for us to keep extending love and mercy?

I especially ask that because right now what I see is that the church, by and large, is still trying to create some sort of "thing" (cafe, event, conference, book, whatever) that will draw in those darn Millennials. Like the prodigal son, the young people have to come back to them, and we are just upping the ante with our "if we build it, they will come" approach. Instead, I want to encourage believers to leave the brick-and-mortar buildings and wander out into the wilderness too, listening and learning. Why? Because that is what Jesus did. He did not sit at the synagogue every day and wait for people to come to him. He was always "on the road," healing and listening and touching and laughing and arguing and praying. I really do not like Rivadeneira's "God'll go with you, and we'll save you a seat" approach. Are we to sit smugly in our church pews, "knowing" we are right, letting others just wander off?

Do I think there has to be some level of personal responsibility for every person, where they have to pay attention to the conviction of their souls and repent, as did the prodigal son? You betcha. But I will say it again, I want to pay attention to Evans' assertion that for some churches, "Jesus has left the building." I have far more questions than answers, but I am at a point in my life where I believe the church needs to go back out into the "fields," just as John Wesley and George Whitefield did, reaching out to men and women, young and old, who will not enter our churches. I'm not just talking about the cynical Millennials; I'm also talking about those who live on the streets, the immigrants, the unemployed, the elderly, the professionals. 

May we emulate Jesus, who understood that "equality with God" was not something for him to cling to (Philippians 2:5-8). Instead, he shed his prestige and power and entered the lives of others. 


  1. Love this, Kelly! And agree that it's not enough to just say "see ya" - we need to follow your example and engage where people are :)

  2. Well-written and well-thought out. Thank you for publicly reflecting on this. I had a discussion 1 1/2 weeks ago with a new friend about Evans article. What disturbed me most was not the article (though I didn't swallow everything she was espousing), but the comments I read in response to the article. I seriously got depressed by what I read. But I did read on because they do indeed reflect the thoughts of a lot of Millennials. Whether I agree with their assertions is not the main point- if I want to be able to reflect Jesus into their world, it's important I know where they are coming from. As you know, my life has been about being a "go to the highways and byways and fields" sort of witness, so thanks again for writing about this. And by the way, since I am an APU student, I came across your podcast from when you spoke at their chapel, and it took me down our mutual UCSB memory lane. Well-spoken my friend.

  3. Thank you to you both... I wish everyone "got it" the way you two do. The church tends to have such a need to be "right" rather than truly listen to what is being said. We don't love others by being right or wrong...