This past week, I shared on Facebook a number of articles I read on why Millennials have left the church and although I am still in the church (in fact, working in a paid position at a church), I really resonated with a lot of what was shared. Even though the articles all took a slightly different spin, at the foundation, the reasons were the same. Young adults felt cheated out of this monstrous religious institution, they felt it was a farce and inauthentic, they desired to see the church put its hands where its mouth and money were, and they resented the fact that organized religion didn’t know how to properly handle or discuss hot-button topics.
All of these are valid points. Whether we’re talking about a person with Down Syndrome who was never fully included in worship opportunities despite the church boasting a huge sign reading “all are welcomed”, a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock and became a social outcast even though the pastor preached every Sunday about “loving others”, or a high school graduate who never did feel part of the church, but only part of programs, it’s fair to say that the church has let a lot of people down. The church, as an institution, has failed to properly show love and support to single young adults. The church has failed to know how to address the inevitable questions of gender and identity that are constantly before us, and the church has neglected to see abused, battered, and assaulted people as PEOPLE rather than as statistics or “projects” that need to be worked on. The church has not always been good at engaging with those who share opposing beliefs or worldviews, seeking harmonious relations with those who suffer from mental illness, or helping people to really wrestle with their disappointments and frustrations rather than writing them off with Christian clichés. And for that, I apologize on behalf of the church and I am grieved that we, as Christians, have not lived up to the fullest potential of being the people Christ has called us to be.
Nevertheless, although these articles all present invaluable information which should be heavily considered, I feel it would be grossly unfair to only rely on them. So what I would like to offer you today, is a different story. The story of why I, a 20something Millennial remain in the church even despite its many imperfections.
#1: I remain in the church because I have had a personal encounter with Christ, not just with religion.
A common phrase you hear amongst people in my age bracket is “I love Jesus, but not the church.” People feel like it’s possible to be “spiritual but not religious,” to enjoy ethereal moments without a hint of commitment to a certain worldview. However, this viewpoint is not only erroneous, but it actually makes no logical sense. The Bible describes the church as being God’s bride, she is decked out with jewels and wearing a lovely silver tiara, and yet, we feel like on her wedding day we can compare her clothing choices to rags and refuse to stand to pay her honour. This is the equivalent of telling my brother, “Hey bro, I love you, but I hate your wife.” (Don’t worry, I would never actually think much less say that). I’m sure there are people out there who have this type of relationship with their siblings, but it’s definitely not ideal. When your sibling gets married, the spouse and her family come as a packaged deal. She may be imperfect, but because you love your brother and because your brother loves her, in turn, she is part of your family and part of your life.
I believe a large reason millenials leave the church is because they were never truly taught how to love Christ, let alone His bride. Many people think they grew up on Jesus, when in fact, what they sadly grew up on was useless controversies, endless genealogies, legalism, and rigidity. These same young adults never formed a personal connection with Christ. They may have thought they did – they may have made a confession with their mouth in Sunday school or even been baptized, but in reality, what many of them had was an emotional bond with a certain teacher, a liking for a specific pastor, or the enjoyment of a certain club or activity.
There are, of course, exceptions. There are many stories of one sibling embracing the Gospel while the other goes a different path despite the fact that both had the same upbringing. There are sincere people who embraced the Gospel, but just like the parable of the sower fell upon hard times and had no roots. These people truly believed they were saved (and perhaps were), but the church failed them by watering the petals rather than cultivating roots.
Sadly, this is a trend we continue to see today especially in “seeker sensitive” churches. There is nothing wrong with wanting to market your church so that non-Christians want to attend, in fact, that’s a great evangelical opportunity and strategy; however, we must be cautious that in our desire to embrace newcomers, we don’t neglect the spiritual needs of those who are already there. More than anything, there are two key things that people crave today: truth and relationships. If a church can cultivate both of those rather than simply pouring endless resources into “flashy” appearances, it will go a long way. We often think that people are drawn to the latest hype: an engaging pastor, strobe lights, acrobats, and jugglers, but while those things help (and are certainly not bad in and of themselves) anyone who has stuck around church for more than one session will tell you it all comes down to the HEART. People crave that personal connection – knowing that someone cares and is deeply involved in their lives – not just that this is another avenue for after-dinner entertainment.
#2: I remain in the church because even though the church is imperfect, I realize that I also am imperfect and yet God can (and does) use both the organization and myself to reach out and help others.
The Millenial generation is often typified by their overwhelming sense of entitlement and consumerism. Please don’t misunderstand me, I know that Millenials also are doing far more than many people give them credit for. For example, we are perhaps the generation with the greatest communal investment in the environment, global affairs, and social justice endeavours. We are a generation characterized by deep-seated passion, advocacy, and a keen sense of fairness and these are all things that we can use to our advantage to make a better world. Nevertheless, our downfall is in thinking that because we are so involved and give so much of our time and efforts the world somehow “owes” us something and so does the church. We think that because we are consumed by a certain cause, the church should be also, and thus, we use the church as a key place to pedal and solicit attention and funding to our “pet projects.” And when the church fails to get on board with whatever we think is the single greatest service opportunity, we somehow feel failed and resent the church for being a bunch of hypocrites who speak about God’s love without loving others or who proclaim the need to serve when we perceive they are idly watching from the sidelines.
I would like to suggest that this is not at all the reason we attend church. The Biblical understanding of church is a place that meets to honour and glorify God. It’s an opportunity to give God worth and ultimately seeks to be an hour or two that takes the attention off us and places it on God. Everything we do – whether it’s a chili cook-off, an Alpha course, or a worship sesh needs to loudly proclaim the splendor of His majesty and glory. Yet, too often, by pushing our own political or social agendas onto worship that gets lost.
There is definitely something to be said about the value of helping others realize how important the environment is for worship. There is a place for rallying together for women’s rights or ending poverty and a church that is truly glorifying the Father must also have a budget for outside global missions and local projects. However, this is not the foremost responsibility of the church. At the very crux of organized worship is simply that – worship. And when Millenials forget that, they are quick to complain about all these little things that truly are inconsequential in the end of the day all the while mocking the elderly people who they perceive as getting defensive over things that don’t really matter.
#3: I remain in the church because I believe things won’t get better by just complaining, we have to actually get out there and make them better.
I know, I’ve heard the old “I tried to tell them, but no one would listen” approach before. 20somethings often feel like the church is not interested in their opinion and so they don’t go. Yet, although this may be true in some cases, I feel like it is often used as nothing more than a “cop-out.” Why do I say that? Because usually the people who have dropped off are those who never bothered going back to church once their parents no longer forced them, many of them have never served a term on a church council, and many of them have never actually ASKED their church if they could be involved.
Those of us who are heavily involved in church have our disappointments and frustrations for sure. Like I said earlier, we are a generation made up of passionate minds. We also tend to be “go-getters” if not a little hyperactive and because we grew up in a “three-minute” (which has since turned to a “thirty-second”) culture we are used to getting what we want almost immediately. So when things take time we can easily grow bored. Many of us haven’t learned the art of delayed gratification. We don’t realize that church is like a pot of slow-cooked stew. Instead, we open up the slow-cooker every other minute, letting the heat escape, and then wondering why decisions are taking even longer than we think they should.
However, the difference is, that someone who actually has served a term as a church chair usually has a much broader understanding of the inner workings of the church itself. Don’t get me wrong, I often wish we didn’t have to go through so many hoops and red-tape. And while I understand the increased need for caution and protection from a legal point of view, I also believe it has its downfalls because less people will volunteer when volunteering gets more and more complicated.
However, I would like to submit that the reason we attend church is not just for US. Church is a community and community is made up of a number of imperfect people. Everyone needs to know that their opinion is being valued and considered and this takes time. It’s easy for us to think that people should just go with whatever we have in mind, but we really need to take the older people into consideration. They’ve generally been around longer and know the church much better than we do (even if we grew up in that church) and there is something we can gain from their wisdom because what might seem like a frustrating NO at first, might actually turn out to save us from a heap of embarrassment by avoiding doing something that’s been tried before that didn’t work that time either.
When Millenials understand this crucial juncture it helps us all to appreciate the older generation that much more. Instead of complaining that the church isn’t filling OUR needs, we ask how it is filling the needs of others around us. We want the church to not only take care of 20somethings, but 60somethings, 80somethings and even 100somethings.
Conclusion: I am an imperfect person who grew up in an imperfect Christian family attending an imperfect church. I’ve made my rounds. I’ve attended Baptists, Pentecostal, Mennonite, and Free Methodist churches. I’ve gone to school to learn how to make the church better and tried to implement some of those ideas into my teaching, leading, and children’s ministry. But ultimately what I’ve learned through it all is that even though the church will never be a “spittin-image” of what I’ve had in mind, that doesn’t mean God isn’t using it right now in incredible ways. For me, success has become less about approaching the buffet table and picking and choosing whatever I want and then complaining that calamari wasn’t served and more about having a nutritious home-cooked meal. It’s less about getting involved in the latest fads and trends and more about getting involved in truthful authentic relationships. I’m not justifying the many ways organized church has failed our generation, but I’m also not excusing millennial scapegoats that point to nothing more than consumerism, entitlement and a materialistic mindset. My hope is that we, as 20somethings will begin to see the vital role we play in the life of the church and thus to encourage others to also take hold of it.