Monday, July 29, 2013


Oh how I wish each of our congregations would read, mark, and inwardly digest this article!!! Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church by Rachel Held Evans.

I wish it so much because the things I see our churches doing “to attract young people” are flat wrong. Our no-doubt well-intentioned efforts are shaped by what we imagine would have attracted us (usually Boomers) when we were young. Evans and her peers are trying so desperately to tell us, “It’s over, people!” but we still have the 70s ringing in our ears so loudly that we can’t hear them.

There is a great deal of hand wringing, lamentation, and despair in our Church about having lost the next generation. I often hear people, including Nevadans, say, “the train has left the station.” The church is just waiting for the great Jurassic die-off. Then we close shop.

 It is a proven fact of cognitive psychology that facts don’t do much to change perception. But for those who love the Church and want to see the Kingdom Mission advance, I hope it will be possible for us to overcome our natural cognitive resistance to truth so we can do a little reality check. So let me challenge the fixed assumptions about our relationship with the Millennial Generation.

1.    The exodus of the Millennials is exaggerated. Robert Putnam’s American Grace is an objective sociological study of religious beliefs and practices. He demonstrates that there are both generational variables (as in young adults of the 50s as compared to young adults of today) and stage of life variables (as in people in their twenties as compared to people in their forties). The dramatic exodus of the Millennials is a sociological exaggeration because it combines some real generational variable with a big stage of life variable. People in their 20’, whatever their generation, have long been minimal church attenders. That doesn’t fully account for the absence of Millennials from the pews but it’s a big part of it and it will pass in a few years. Or it may pass if we don’t do something unwise – as we are so apt to do.

2.    It’s not all about us. To the extent, there is generational shift; Millennials are not particularly abandoning churches because we are doing something wrong. People today are far less likely than the WW II generation to be affiliated with civic institutions, including religious institutions like synagogues, political institutions like the NAACP, and service institutions like the Kiwanis. But here’s the kicker. That happened with the Boomers and with Gen X. If anything, the Millennials seem to be more open to building community than their more individualistic elders. Everywhere I turn, I see civic life beginning to come back. World Café processes, Community Organizing, Socrates Café, etc. etc. etc. all point toward a return to the civic life. In an earlier book, Bowling Alone, Putnam showed that historically civic life (voluntarily associating for a shared goal) is cyclical. It sometimes comes together in a big way as it did in the 50s, then disintegrates as it began to do in 60s and has continued to disintegrate until recently. Then it comes back. The introductory section to Behavioral Covenants In Congregations by Rendle is a neat short summary of how that has played out in our lifetime. But the point is: it is cyclical and we are just beginning the upswing. That doesn’t mean we ignore Millennials. It means this is a moment of evangelistic opportunity, not despair.

3.     To the extent Millennials are “leaving the Church,” it isn’t our church. If you read only one thing in Evans’s seminal article, please read this:

Many of us (Millennials) including myself are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Roman Catholicism, 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. (emphasis is the young author’s)

Let’s try that again with a different emphasis:

Many of us (Millennials) including myself are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Roman Catholicism, 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. (emphasis mine).

The moral: our gimmicks “to attract young people” are not only ineffective; they are throwing away the one thing we have that really does attract young people.

So what is the truth about “Millennials leaving the Church?” After all Evans is writing about it. Well, Putnam’s sociological studies – these are facts, not anecdotes or personal opinions  – show that religion boomed in the 50s (especially among us mainline Christians). There was an anti-authority libertine cultural revolution in the 60s and early 70s, then a backlash of The Religious Right in the 80s and 90s. That’s when the Evangelical Churches and Mega-Churches all grew so dramatically. The real generational shift today is that the Millennials are leaving those churches in droves. The largest evangelical denomination is losing the equivalent of our entire denomination each year. There is a massive repudiation of the social conservatism and emotional hype of the days of Falwell, Robertson, et al.

Ironically, I hear Episcopalians, including Nevadans, saying, “if only we were more like (fill in the blank with the name of a Christian Right congregation) we could survive.” But those are the churches that the young people are leaving. Adopting fundamentalist theology and a pop worship style would have been a successful (albeit wrong) strategy 20 years ago – not today!

4.    The Myth Of The Decline Of the Episcopal Church. The prevailing assumption about the decline of the Episcopal Church is largely a case of bad math being used for political advantage by some of our own factions and sects within the Church. This humorous, accurate, insightful, and inspiring speech by Dean Ian Markham of Virginia Theological Seminary exposes the fallacy of it all. (There are two URL’s because YouTube has his speech as parts 1 & 2). and

Liberals say we are declining because we are too religious; conservatives say we are not religious enough. Here I will step on the third rail. The emergent church movement (sell the buildings, meet in bowling alleys, talk about spiritual stuff when you feel like it, and make up rituals to express how you really feel) promotes anti-institutional “spirituality” as the way to reach Millennials. The thing I notice is that most of the emergent church folks are Gen X, not Millennials. Despite my sardonic description of emergent church, I’m actually for this as a way to connect with disengaged members of Generation X. Let’s do what they propose – but as an evangelistic outreach to people in their late 30s and early 40s – not Millennials.

It turns out the dismal numbers are quite wrong (except about stewardship – that is a problem – but for another article). Our church attendance and other signs of vitality are strong, especially given the anti-institutional disintegration of civic society downswing of the historic cycle we have just been through. Ian Markham says we are 3 to 4 years away from the upswing. The question is: are we going to be ready? Or are we going to have leapt so far into the past (meaning the 60s or 80s) that we miss the future?

5.    Why do we want Millennials anyway? Relax. I don’t mean we don’t want them. But I am dead serious about asking the question. I fear we want Millennials in the pews for all the wrong reasons – like our fear of mortality, or our need to feel cool. We want the Millennials to save us from extinction and boredom. Well, they do bring gifts. They will bless us beyond measure – but not if our agenda is to use them. We need to stop selling a product. We need to stop trying to seduce and manipulate people into joining our club. The agenda has to be connecting people to Jesus because he is our hope and salvation. He is their hope and salvation. Our mission is sharing blessings, not recruiting fresh meat.

So, if we intend to be the Body of Christ here in Nevada, let me urge you to take to heart what Rachel Evans says about Millennials in specific and what Ian Markham says about the Church more generally. Stick to what the business leadership folk call our “core values.” That would be Jesus. Be who we are – liturgical Christians committed to infusing gospel into the world around us. But be willing to embrace the new and even the strange. Connect, connect, connect with the community outside our walls including the young and the old alike, the rich and the poor alike, the in groups and the out groups, people of different ethnicities and traditions, people who speak different languages (both literally and figuratively). Commit body and soul to the Kingdom Mission and trust God to make us flourish.

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