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EEK! The Millennials Are Leaving the Church!

August 8, AD2013 12 Comments

Christianity has not been tried hard and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

From Rachel Held Evans’ CNN Belief Blog post, “Why millennials are leaving the church”:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities. We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

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.

Actually, they sometimes do … he’s just not the Jesus they’re looking for.

Sociological data shows that many people go through a period of religious “unpacking” during the early years of their adulthood, and that period may see change of communion or abandonment of church attendance. Repacking follows unpacking; between the ages of 25 and 40, around 4 of every 5 people return to their faith community, usually to the one they grew up in or one closely aligned.

In this the millennials are really no different than their parents or grandparents were at the same ages. Indeed, in a follow-up post Evans, who identifies with the millennials “despite having one foot in Generation X,” admits she returned “because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us.” So the sky isn’t exactly falling here.

This doesn’t take much away from the bulk of Evans’ criticisms. “Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates — edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”

Frankly, a priest or minister who wants to bring young people into the Church should put on full clericals every Friday night, go to the local hangouts (where he’ll be sure to draw attention) … and be prepared to answer tough questions honestly and thoroughly. Theology on Tap — lectures and spiritual talks held in bars and restaurants — is a particularly notable program geared to people in their 20s and 30s that is slowly spreading to Catholic dioceses throughout the US and overseas, and is backed by such lights as Cdls. Justin Rigali, Francis George, Donald Wuerl and Sean O’Malley.

However you choose to engage the younger crowd, though, you have to address their minds as well as their hearts. Going for a cooler service won’t do it; in fact, Evans states, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions — Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. — precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

Nevertheless, the religious experience that millennials desire, according to Held, isn’t beholden to authenticity.

  •  “We want an end to the culture wars” — but a church that doesn’t on some level challenge the culture is not being faithful on that level to the one who came to “cast fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49).
  •  “We want a truce between science and faith” — but the war isn’t between science and faith; rather, it’s between science’s honest practitioners and those who misuse it to advance agendas.
  •  “We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers” — but many questions have predetermined answers, whether millennials want them or not.
  •  “We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation” — but even as she writes her posts, Evans unconsciously echoes a political platform rather than authentic Christian beliefs.
  •  “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities” — but the Church has a prior, overriding obligation to God’s truth, elements of which many in the LGBT community find hard to accept and are often at some pains to rewrite.

Simple living, caring for the poor and oppressed, reconciliation, ecological justice and peacemaking are all admirable pursuits; it often seems that in the culture wars they either get pushed out of the limelight or sneered at by those who conflate political conservativism with Christian orthodoxy. But holiness is not achieved by dumping unpopular definitions of sin any more than one becomes a scratch golfer by allowing herself more mulligans.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. … In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5,7-10).

What’s the takeaway here?

For one, it’s more important that youth ministers and pastors be honest, knowledgeable and patient with young adults than that they be down with the latest slang, fashions and music trends; ministers must acknowledge that the Church teaches things our culture tends to reject, and be prepared to defend those teachings fully. For another, it must be realized that the threat of “losing the millennials” is largely an empty threat, though the unpack-repack cycle is no excuse for complacency.

Finally, as the saying goes, the gospel message “is what it is”. Priests, deacons and ministers are under an eternal obligation to present the gospel message in its fullness, not to tailor it specifically to get millennial butts in the pews. The parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20; cf. Matthew  13:1-23, Luke 8:1-15) reminds us that many things conspire to kill faith in Christ, and most of them are outside the Church’s control.

While Pope Francis is teaching us that style of presentation does matter, so do the hard teachings. If you think Jesus never lost disciples through hard teachings, I invite you to read the “Bread of Life discourse” (John 6:24-71, esp. vv. 60, 66).

We have only one Jesus to offer. If he’s not the kind of Jesus millennials are looking for, that’s ultimately their choice.

© 2013. Anthony S. Layne. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works as an in-home caregiver, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council and as a Minister to the Sick, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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