They're probably the most over-named group of people in history.
North America's current twentysomethings. Also known as Generation Y, the Millennial Generation, Millennials, Generation Next, Net Generation, and Echo Boomers.
Good grief - if anybody is entitled to an identity crisis, it's these folks.
Of course, in every generation, whether it was in 411 BC or 1972, older people usually cast aspersions at twentysomethings. They're fresh out of college, or otherwise "on their own" for the first time in their relatively young lives, and they tend to act in ways older generations don't consider entirely appropriate. That's one reason, for example, car insurance rates are higher for twentysomethings than sixtysomethings.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that of all the worries older generations have of our Millennials, one of them involves church attendance. And why so many young people have begun leaving the organized church.
That was a question posed recently by Relevant magazine, a publication geared to today's religious-leaning twentysomethings. Why aren't young adults coming back to church when they graduate college? Whereas in previous generations, a reliable percentage of churched teens disconnected with church after leaving home, these days, that reliable percentage is increasing dramatically. Some church growth experts fear this will soon spell a drastic decline in church attendance, and have begun wringing their hands over how to stop it.
From the Mouths of Babes
Perhaps some helpful perspective on the situation can be gleaned from this generation's church drop-outs themselves, twentysomethings who responded to Relevant's article in feedback comments. Here's a brief sampling of their opinions, typos and all:
"I think our generation seriously questions the validity and effectivness
of institutions in cultivating community, accountability, teaching and
worship. As such, we're disenfranchised with such institutions and
desparate to find any alternative."
"God's Church is not a Denomination, a Building, or an institution, or a
big business with a CEO fulfilling his vision....We are His
Church...God's Church is His Bride, The Ekklesia, One Body in Intimate
Relationship with Jesus, finally getting to Know who God really is and
Just how much He Loves us, smothered in Grace and Love ,not man made
religion or mans agendas....These things can only keep people locked in
for a time... a Hunger for Freedom will hopefully always break through
"I suppose the criteria for choosing whether to stay or leave a local
parish has not been whether the majority of parishioners agree with me;
but whether they respect my freedom to respond to God's Grace as my
conscience dictates even when my convictions pose a challenge to their
psychological comfort zones."
"i think it's as simple as making friends. watching movies together.
having bbqs. just hanging out. without the pressure to shake hands with
those around you right before offering is lifted. once the relationships
become intimate enough you feel comfortable to read and pray together."
"Please don't stay frustrated with us, but be thankful that we care SO
MUCH about Jesus and following him that we aren't willing to 'stick it
out' in the institution that we believe has more of a focus on budgets
and fancy programs than on the basic aspects of community and our
relationships with Jesus."
"I think the number one reason that many young adults leave church is
because a 'up front show' style of church doesn't mesh with their
priorities of intentional relationship... This generation wants relationship and they want to see
the gospel 'work' practically in real life - community is what they are
looking for and can't seem to find on Sunday mornings."
"I left because of people who are constantly judging my life, and what I
do with it. (Not gently giving wisdom, but judging. The difference is
subtle but important)."
Oddly enough, some of the excuses sound just like the ones people in every generation have used for not going to church. One young woman bluntly complained, "I'm not a morning person and I've never gotten much out of Sunday
Perhaps it's proof that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same!
What Are They Saying?
Then too, it may be that today's twentysomethings really are the first generation of socially-disenfranchised automatons. So individualized by years of cultural dissonance that they can't grasp the concepts of community, shared responsibility, sacrificial love, extending grace to others, or even the definition of grace itself. Life is entirely about them.
Generally speaking, they think they know what intimacy is, but they don't. They're too narcissistic and impatient to be deferential, which is what genuine intimacy requires.
Reading these responses, the dearth of Biblical knowledge betrayed by many of these young people who claim to have grown up in church is depressingly striking. For the past twenty years, many churches and churched parents apparently have completely wasted their opportunity - and privilege - of teaching their children from and about the Bible. All these Biblically illiterate twentysomethings provide painful proof of that.
And while an intellectual immaturity has always seemed to exist in young adults, simply because of their relative inexperience at life, perhaps that immaturity has been exacerbated in today's iteration of this cohort by public education's emphasis on test-taking instead of acquiring wisdom and extrapolating information.
Meanwhile, reading these responses with a Reformed perspective reveals the same old misunderstanding about what church is supposed to be that has permeated conventional evangelicalism for the past 50 years. The same twisted purpose for church that spawned the seeker-sensitive travesty and many rock-concert trappings of contemporary "worship." Corporate worship is no longer oriented towards the worship of God but the entertainment of an audience who can write off the experience on their taxes. To the extent that most of today's evangelical churches perpetrate these fallacies, it shouldn't surprise anybody that today's twentysomethings - the first generation to be weaned on technology and artificial stimulation, and desperately seeking legitimacy - avoid them.
Why This Phenomenon Likely Won't Matter Much
At the same time, however, a Reformed perspective also provides some rationale for dismissing virtually all of these excuses from today's twentysomethings for not attending church. Because after all, aren't these opinions by Relevant's readers merely petulance disguised in false piety?
Are these twentysomethings so much better than the Baby Boomers and thirtysomethings who love the rock-concert worship services? Are they that much more grounded in their desire for an Acts-type early church experience? They so crave a sense of community that they're willing to obfuscate the methodologies which helped nurture previous generations of saints in the Faith and punish us by not attending.
Spare me such impertinent overtures of sanctimony! I don't like rock concert worship any more than most of these Millennials, but I don't loathe the Boomers and Busters who do, or claim their faith is inferior to mine. Misguided, yes; but not intrinsically inferior. Aren't these insolent cries of a purer faith from Millennials nothing more than another way for the Devil to wiggle into the hearts and minds of people to further undermine the Body of Christ?
Nevertheless, while I scoff at much of the entitlement expressed by these commenters, I don't fear it. God's Elect will always be claimed by Him, regardless of whether - or where - they go to church. A lot of the people who stayed in church after college in previous generations may have done so out of obligation or some other compunction other than true faith in Christ. So perhaps what we're seeing now is a literal weeding out of the chaff from the wheat, as today's twentysomethings perform in our faces the divestiture of the unsaved from the saved.
Not that church attendance proves a person is saved. Or that not attending church proves they're unsaved. It's just that if you don't have faith to begin with, and you don't have the cultural proclivity to attend church just because its the socially-acceptable thing to do, then I don't blame you for not wanting to go. And it's not a crisis for the church if you don't.
No matter how you slice it, the evangelical church is probably shrinking not because fewer people are being saved, but because God's true church is simply losing a lot of the hangers-on that have traditionally occupied pews and deacon boards - and even pulpits - in congregations across North America.
Seeker Church Is No Longer Contemporary
And yes, I admit finding some satisfaction in seeing how the defiance of non-churchgoing twentysomethings supports some of my own contentions about North America's contemporary church. Many of Relevant's readers complained about the polished rock concerts, the drive for performance perfection and the amount of money it costs, the vapid praise music, the trite sermons, the fashionably beautiful worship leaders, the impersonal campuses, and everything else that creates more of the dissonance between faith and community that I join Millennials in loathing about contemporary churches in general and seeker churches in particular.
You know the popular saying in these contemporary churches that "we strive for perfection in all we do to honor God?" I've known since day one that it was code-language for "our pastor is a type-A micromanager who wants to impress as many people in as many ways as possible." And sure enough, it's been an exceptionally off-putting dogma for today's jaded young adults who think they want perfection, but know it's too elusive to be real.
So to hear these things from the very target audience towards which churches have been tilting for years now - the young hipsters - is actually refreshing. Chasing the youth market is a never-ending - and ultimately, ineffective - battle, since that market is always shifting away from you. Youth is forever racing into the future, while all of us - even today's youth, and tomorrow's - incessantly age. It was interesting to note how one Millennial scoffed at the 1990's music in the church he left, music which was cutting-edge during the early frenzy of the seeker movement, but awkwardly dated today. It proves what I've claimed for years: church based on a singular demographic simply doesn't work, particularly if that demographic is all about youth.
The Take-Away From this Paradigm Going Forward
The value of listening to these twentysomethings lies not in their imperious snubbing of the hypocrisy in church - hypocrisy to which they're inadvertently contributing by their duplicitous estimations of their own spiritual condition, since they think they're actually benefiting from abandoning church - but in the proof that it provides regarding the purpose of church.
If you're attending church to make friends, to feel significant, to check off a religious activity for your works-based salvation, to help solve social ills in the world, or to be validated no matter what you think or do, then you're going to church for all the wrong reasons. No matter how old you are. And no matter the congregation you're proud of dismissing as irrelevant.
Corporate worship is for the unadulterated adulation of the Trinity by its redeemed Elect. Then it's for instruction, then for service and discipleship. In the process, worshipping alongside like-minded saints who are also on their journeys of sanctification, you'll probably become friends with some of them, and you should be placing yourself under the leadership of disciplers in your congregation who are also helping you disciple others. And so on, and so on.
In fact, it's at the point where you're not thinking about yourself, but about God and others, that you'll probably find yourself less concerned about why church may not be relevant to you, but more encouraged that it's become an intrinsic part of your life. Because when all is said and done, not forsaking the assembly of ourselves together may be a bit messy at times, and not always edifying, yet it's something the Bible instructs us to do. It's a way we demonstrate to God and the world that we worship because He loved us first.
Corporate worship is all about Him. Not you, not me, or anybody else.
And if you can't believe that, then maybe the Holy Spirit is not in you. Because there's no other valid reason to attend church. It could just be that we've hit a generation of unsaved twentysomethings who are too calloused by pretense to care about putting on a charade in church and lack the Holy Spirit's urging to attend anyway.
And you know what? That's OK. Because now, the rest of us have a clearer understanding of who our mission field is.