The Millennial Obsession

How do we get more millennials into church? In the ecclesial world I live in, this seems to be the question of the day, and there is no shortage of answers.

I’m not a millennial. Many have been my students. I count several as friends. There are even a couple of professors on my faculty who fall into this generation. And guess what? They’re not all exactly like one another. This is one reason I am so consistently puzzled by Rachel Held Evans. She speaks on behalf of millennials as their religious spokesperson, sounding the bell for a new kind of Christianity, one that will appeal to her and her millennial friends. Unfortunately, as Drew McIntyre has pointed out, this new kind of Christianity is really a retread of mid-twentieth century liberalism.

My own experience with millennials is that, like other generations, they are a diverse group of folks. While it is possible to identify generational trends, we should not oversimplify the complex set of beliefs and values within a particular generation, nor should we assume that these beliefs and values will remain static over time. Some millennials I have encountered are indeed as Evans describes. I think it’s safe to say that she speaks for a particular subculture within the millennial generation. Others of this same generation, however, are quite different. According to the recent and much-ballyhooed Pew study on Religion Among Millennials, 22% of millennials affiliate with evangelical traditions, whereas only 12% affiliate with mainline traditions. Another 8%  affiliate with historically black churches, and 22% are Roman Catholic. That 12% number is the one that should jump out at us. To listen to some of the rhetoric among church leaders today, one would think that number should be much higher. Millennials should be sprinting to the nearest Episcopal church where they can combine high-church liturgy, doctrinal relativism, and a progressive social ethic. The thing is, they aren’t doing this. Mainline traditions claim only 3% more millennials than “secular unaffiliated.” By contrast, more conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic traditions combine for a total of 44%.

The idea that we can paint in such broad strokes with regard to the millennial generation–or any other generation, for that matter–is only part of the problem. Another problem, I fear, has to do with the motives behind much of our millennial obsession in the church. I suspect that often what’s driving this is not evangelistic zeal, but institutional preservation. I don’t remember churches engaging in such frenetic activity to reach generation X’ers when I was coming up. At that time, most of the mainline traditions were still firmly fixated on baby boomers.  They inhabited virtually all of the positions of influence within the church, and they created churches that appealed to the cultural sensitivities of middle-class, educated, liberal North American baby boomers. Generation X? Um… sure. You can come in, too… I guess… if you want to. Try not to break anything.

But then the looming collapse of the mainline became apparent, and all of a sudden we rediscovered evangelism. At least, we’ve been trying to. We have created advertising campaigns like “Rethink Church” that are supposed to appeal to the millennial demographic. Our evangelistic efforts are most often targeted specifically at millennials. Why would this be? Has God put a special burden on our hearts for people who were born approximately between 1980 and 2000? What about people younger than this? Shouldn’t we be worried about this group, too? My oldest son is thirteen. Does his generation even have a name? Could all this focus on millennials in fact be related to the sheer number of them?

Do I want millennials to receive the Gospel? Absolutely, but not so that they can save the church. I want them to receive the Gospel so that they can receive salvation through Jesus Christ. I want them to know and love God. I want them to experience new birth. I want them to know the peace of Christ and receive the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The mission of The United Methodist Church is not “to preserve and protect The United Methodist Church.” It is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I certainly recognize the value of institutions. I am heavily invested in both The United Methodist Church and United Theological Seminary. I care about these institutions and I want them to thrive. But if we as a church begin to exist for our own sake instead of existing for the sake of our mission, if we begin to think in terms of self-preservation instead of reaching the lost and preaching and living the Gospel, we’re done for. That’s it. It’s over.

Evan Rohrs-Dodge has recently urged us to refuse the temptation to be “relevant.” I agree with his post wholeheartedly. Rather than trying to re-create the church into the image of a certain segment of society, let’s try this: offer them Christ. That was Wesley’s advice. Offer people Christ. It’s a pretty straightforward message:

Jesus is Lord.

He gave his life so that you and I can be made right with God.

After three days he rose from the dead, and he is alive still today.

He will change your life.

In 1998 Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong wrote Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A lot of people believed it. And the denominations that embraced the principles Spong set forth are dying ever more quickly. I’m starting to hear that refrain again from many who claim that we will lose the millennials if we don’t become more progressive, if we don’t become relevant, if we don’t get with the times. But we aren’t going to lose them, because they were never ours to begin with. They are God’s, and as Christians our calling is to help them–and people of all other generations–understand that they were created to know and love God. Christ makes this possible, and the Holy Spirit leads us on the way.

Paul warned the Christians in Rome not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom 12:2). The claim that Christians should become more like the world around them has been around for a long time. It’s the age-old temptation: to blur or erase the distinctions between our faith and the values of the world. We’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.

13 thoughts on “The Millennial Obsession

  1. If I understand the Bible correctly, a person cannot come to Christ unless God’s Holy Spirit leads that person to Christ. Further, faith is not something a person can develop on his own, rather it is a gift from God. Therefore, it stands to reason that those people leaving the Church might be led by God to leave (even unbeknownst to them) and those Millennials not coming to church might not be called by God to attend. In fact, God Himself may actually be leading them away. If so, the question is why? Here is my thought: it seems to me that throughout the Bible there is a ongoing struggle between those who believe that returning to purity and doubling down on the old ways will return us to God’s favor vs. those who believe that compassion for others is what God wants. In the long run it appears that compassionate group always wins. If that is true, then the question becomes does everything the Church does reflect compassion or does it reflect something something else?

    • Seems to me, if I am reading you correctly, Britt, you base your theology on a mixture of Calvinism and some unknown… let’s call it subjective meism. You ask leading questions not really pertinent to the post.

      • ejoelwatts – My questions are extremely pertinent. The post is about the Church’s pursuit of Millenials, is that focus a good, and how efforts to make the Church more relevant have failed to stem declining membership. The implication is that returning to a more pure or “truer” message is the solution. In my comment I state that perhaps people are being led away from Church by God himself and a return to tradition and purity won’t change that. Rather, when people see Church as a place that extends God’s compassion, then God will lead them back to Church.

  2. Britt, you base your question on your self-made hypotheses. There is no right way to answer because I believe your thoughts leading to them are wrong.

    • ejoelwatts, my questions were rhetorical and all hypotheses are self-made. If you disagree with my premises there’s no need for you to answer.

  3. This is a great article. The truth of the matter is that as I come to retirement after having been modestly used by God to proclaim the faith, make a contribution, and experience church growth, I remember when I was the younger generation. Churches were scrambling to “keep” us interested. Alas, we all mature, or at least grow up, change, and very often reclaim our heritage. The generations with which I have had experience all contributed to and became the Church best when we/they realized we were not oh so unique and special, and instead realized the Gospel was unique and special. That being said, it has also been my observation that each new generation really believes they are unique. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but those who would cater to it soon find themselves bypassed in a yet another state of “contemporary” irrelevancy.

  4. Great post, David. You are totally right that we should not stereotype one generation. There is this tendency to talk about millenials like they are all middle/upper class snarky white people. But what about Hispanic millenials, African-American millenials, Asian millenials and so forth? And of course, there’s all sorts of other sub-cultures of millenials.

    I just wanted to offer a couple of more points.

    1) A lot of the talk in the UMC about “attracting” millenials is not authentic. That is, it’s not about proclaiming the gospel to people from that generation in a way that they will clearly understand it. No, the call to “attract” millenials is part of a larger argument on why we need to do away with sexual ethics and other traditional doctrines that have been passed down to us for hundreds of years. And that’s why I’m done with these so-called “conversations.” There’s just no honesty or authenticity in such statements about reaching millenials.

    2) I am someone who “emerged” from the emerging/emergent movement and there were two very clear paths that people walked out of that time on. Some chose to stay in the conversation without ever coming to conclusions and these folks now practice a form of “attractionalism” (seeking to attract people by pleasing them instead of proclaiming the Good News of Christ with conviction – Brian McClaren and all of his emergent ilk). Others followed a different path and chose missional orthodoxy (going back to the roots by means of tradition, scripture, prayer/listening to the Spirit, and AUTHENTIC/REAL conversation – Alan Hirsh, “friends of missional,” etc.). Those two paths went in two very different directions and the same is going to happen in the UMC. I know what path I am on and I hope others do as well because we are all going to go somewhere in the coming years – that’s for sure. Currently, the leadership in the UMC is so out of touch . . . it’s unreal. The best thing for us who serve in the UMC is to pray that God would raise up some authentic missional leaders in the church and that groups of like-minded people would come together around authentic mission. This world needs a powerful REAL Wesleyan movement in the worst way.

  5. Yes to “Generation X” being short changed yet again. I do wonder how our generation’s participation in mainline Christianity compares to both the boomers and millenials.

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