Church on Our Terms

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Millennials are a hot topic right now. Everyone seems to be buzzing about the generation of young adults who are waiting to marry, finishing school with loads of debt, living in their parents’ basements, playing loads of video games, and abandoning their childhood faith. The media loves a good sky-is-falling story, and they’ve been happy to help spread this bad news. But it’s not all accurate, especially what you’ve heard about Millennials leaving the church.

When you look at the large, nationally-representative studies  the ones the academics trust  you find a different story. Research monoliths like Pew and the GSS (General Social Survey) report that about 18 percent of young adults are leaving church altogether and another 20 percent are switching  moving to a church across town. When you break down the data even further, you find most are leaving Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. Conservative evangelicals are seeing much less movement from their young people, but seem to be the most hot and bothered by the leaving.

Last week, The Washington Post ran a piece by Brett McCracken that may be one of the best I’ve read on this topic. In it, McCracken responds to a post by Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s Belief Blog. In her article, she ignores the best research mentioned above. Her recommendation:

“I would encourage church leaders eager to win Millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”   

McCracken aptly fires back that instead it’s Millennials who should stop and take a listen to what older, wiser believers think they might need. He warns against a version of church leadership that goes chasing after a younger audience by asking only what they want out of church.

“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.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s easy to drift into a consumerist mentality where we look for what makes us most happy, but not necessarily most holy. The Christian life is often a difficult road, and choosing a church that softens the edges and bends to our tastes and preferences may not be what’s best for us. Christ often calls His followers to do hard things, to go into hard places and count the cost of being His disciple. And so a church that coddles and coos and makes everything as inviting as possible might very well get people in the door, but may not prepare them to maintain faith through the challenges and difficulties which lie ahead.

Christ prepared His disciples to face opposition and maintain a rugged faith that wouldn’t waiver when things got hard. The Holy Spirit told the Apostle Paul imprisonment and afflictions awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). Can you imagine Paul requesting a different style of worship service, shorter sermons, or more contemporary songs?

What we’ve forgotten is that it is the Lord who saves souls. Churches and pastors must faithfully proclaim God’s Word and pray fervently that God would open the eyes of the blind and raise the dead to life. Everything else is secondary. Once saved, we labor in discipleship until Christ is fully formed in us and returns for us.  

The risen Christ continues to proclaim, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Let’s come to Him on His terms and seek deep, rugged faith that doesn’t need a certain type of music or service, but rather longs for more of Christ. We must let the Gospel proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit be our greatest draw, because when we give Millennials a deeply-rooted faith in Christ, they will only leave if and when Christ leads them away.