It's no secret.
Millennials are noticable by their absence in many churches.
It's been something church folk have been discussing for a couple of years now, more amongst ourselves than out in the open. Most recently, I've seen several friends and bloggers commenting on a CNN report by Rachel Held Evans entitled "Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church," which means the trend has finally hit our secular media. And, for the most part, surprisingly, everybody seems to be hitting some good points. Things like a lack of authenticity in the church, or, as Gospel Coalition writer Trevin Wax supposes, a watered-down liberalism that actually characterizes more mainline churches than some thriving evangelical ones.
After all, it's the churches bent on bending doctrine to societal norms that are hemorrhaging parishioners of all ages - not just Millennials. Methodists, Lutherans, liberal Presbyterians, and moderate Baptists have been scrambling to staunch the losses. Even the ordination of women and gays, meant to widen their faith communities, have only served to ossify them. Frankly, it's been odd to hear socially-liberal Christians blasting conservative Christians for being hateful and intransigent; even as mainline churches mimic the derision modeled by society at large towards evangelicals, they can't win the affections of the young. Meanwhile, even in such hard-core liberal cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, at least a couple solid, Bible-believing churches in each one are managing to at least attract - if not retain long-term - Millennials with basic Gospel preaching. The kind of Gospel preaching that mainline churches shun because it's actually more "relevant" to life than the humanistic pablum over which they wax eloquently, yet thinly.
Still, evangelical churches have noticed the Millennial drop-out rate, too.
What's up with that?
Both Held Evans and Wax point out the thing about how politicized churches have become. Or, to put it more accurately, how right-wing-Republican most evangelical churches have become. By now, it's common knowledge that Millennials, whether genuinely, or simply because they're young and idealistic, want to save the world through compassion projects. Unfortunately, however, even Republicans who genuinely want to help their fellow man can't seem to do so without blaming people poorer than themselves for the hardships they face. This is where liberal churches think they should have the upper hand, but their thin theology isn't very fulfilling. They don't want to hold anybody accountable for anything, except Republicans, who are as easy a scapegoat for liberals when things go bad as Democrats are for Republicans. And libertarianism of the Ron Paul variety seems to be making politics worse by alienating everybody.
And then, yes, there's sex. Or rather, our culture's infatuation with it, and the evangelical facade of purity, mixed with eternal optimism that legislating morality can keep marriage heterogeneous. Evangelicals like to think they know how far they can go with enjoying sexual innuendo and licentious behavior in popular media, and even flirting with adulterous themes in their personal lives. Unfortunately, the young people who've been raised in this dualistic potpourri have been blunted to its dangers, and are befuddled by seemingly contradictory dictates from pulpits.
Pulpits whose occupants seem almost as stubbornly ambivalent about practicing what they're preaching as the people to whom they're preaching.
Indeed, eternal truth about sex - and everything else - has managed to be preached and believed throughout the millennia, but how much of that orthodoxy has survived despite the church, rather than because of it? That we're still worshipping Christ today around the world is a testament to the Holy Spirit's power to reveal, rebuke, bring redemption, and reform God's people. It's only been those times when we've let ourselves be led by the Spirit for Christ's glory that the church has truly grown. Sometimes even in the worst of persecutions.
We like to think that today, as society seems to be crumbling down all around us, we're the last bastion of truth. However, we evangelical Americans often like to preach the truth without the Christlike love that's supposed to go along with it. We've let heathen pontificators like Rush Limbaugh chart our public discourse, instead of He who puts rulers in power and removes them. Exercising our voting rights is one thing, but abusing them with rhetoric and vitriol is quite another. If there's anything young people hate to do, it's follow orders or conform to particular ideologies expounded by aging, balding, overweight white men smoking stogies. The way many evangelicals have wrapped the Cross of Christ with the Stars and Stripes (with the exception of cigars, which are experiencing a weird renaissance), no wonder Millennials seem disenchanted.
Of course, there's considerable irony in the fact that the conversation we're having today about young people leaving church is the very conversation we weren't supposed to be having. Back when Bill Hybels and his seeker-sensitive movement at Willow Creek was sweeping the nation, we were told that relevance was the key for church vibrancy. Young people wanted to see in church the same things they saw in the world around them; things like videos, commercials, rock music, and theater seats with cupholders. Churches were told that choirs and hymns and crosses were driving young people away, and that even the names most churches had were too inhibiting. Shucks - even calling yourself a "church" was too inhibiting! Young people wanted fellowships, and communities, and gathering places - not something that reminded them of the steepled, pew-choked worship buildings their parents dragged them to as children.
So, how's the Willow Creek model workin' out for ya these days? Held Evans points out that most pastors want to attract young people today by being even hipper and trendier, thinking that driving Hybel's failed model further to extremes is the trick. Meanwhile, Millennials who are doing church are doing so increasingly in pre-traditionalistic, high-church environments, something the post-seeker Emergent church model has captured and tweaked to alarming proficiency.
Are today's young people doing the same thing their parents did a generation ago? Boomers ditched conventional church for the seeker format, and now that the seeker format has become conventional, the kids of Boomers are jumping ship for something they think they can claim as their own. If you look closely, kids' ideas about charity today aren't the total-immersion, pious-poverty variety, but swoop-into-the-soup-kitchen-from-Starbucks-with-my-smartphone variety. A lot of observers try and credit Millennials with a new degree of sophistication and charitable intensity, but if anything, isn't it at least equally likely that today's young adults are simply the most spoiled generation our country has ever produced? And desperate for purpose? Attention-deficient and commitment-averse, materialistically saturated and technologically addicted, Millennials may be the first-ever crop of human beings who truly don't know what's good for them, or have no clue where to find it.
But maybe that's too cynical a view. Maybe Millennials really do know something about what's missing in church that the rest of us need to find for them. Maybe, in addition to what Held Evans and Wax have described, there's these areas of infidelity with the Gospel that we've known about for years - generations, even, but that we'll now feel the impetus to make substantive changes in how we do church. No, it won't be just the music, or what the preacher wears, or even how much sex is discussed from the pulpit. Then again, maybe the perfection Millennials seem to expect from church will appear to them as attainable as it is for each of them individually in their own lives, and they'll be more realistic in their assessments of the churchified landscape.
Regardless of what happens, is there really any reason to be anxious or scared over what appears to be an historic exodus of young adults from our churches, both mainline and evangelical? God will save His people in whatever generations He providentially allows to accrue on this planet. The nexus of His Holy Spirit's activity may be shifting, from the Mediterranean, across Europe, and now through North America to Asia. But even if, in a worst-case scenario (as we'd see it), things came down to a similar "remnant" here as the one God spared of the Jews in Old Testament times, the true "Church" will endure until Christ comes again.
If you and I are confident that we are in that holy community of true saints, our faith should always be alienating us from the society around us to some degree. God never promises us popularity, but He does promise us His presence. The younger any of us are when we acknowledge the promise of that presence, that's the "youth" that matters most.
Actually, it may not be that Millennials are leaving the church at any greater rate than the generations that have come before them abandoned the faith, even as they sat in the pews. Assuming that church attendance equates to the faith that's been authentically believed by the church since the Book of Acts probably isn't wise.
Perhaps we're about to find out.
Want more proof about how spoiled some Millennials are? Consider this article on how wealthy Millennials - and there are a lot of them - spend their money. Hint: it's not on the traditional trappings of wealth, but on personal experiences.