A Reluctant Millennial On The State of Church

Everyone is talking about “millennials” and the church. What started with a short piece on CNN by evangelical Rachel Held Evans feels like it has inspired every protestant in the blogosphere to get on his or her own soapbox in response. What is the big deal about so-called “millennials,” and why are they supposedly leaving the church?

It’s tempting to just say, “Oh, shut up already!” Everytime I hear the word “millennial” I cringe. “Is that what I am?” I wonder. “Thanks for clearing things up for me.”

I come to the topic as a theologically educated young woman who doesn’t identify with much of what’s been said about “my generation” lately. Sure, I wear skinny jeans and I’m technologically proficient, but I’m not very cool. I go to a tiny church that really loves the bible and sings hymns a capella. I do crazy things like pray and study theology. I actually believe in God, which is about as uncool as it gets in many circles.

The main reason I didn’t leave church? Someone made me read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in college, and someone else suggested I think about seminary. So, even though I was (and am) a flaming liberal feminist, I stuck it out, and entered into a lifelong lover’s quarrel with God and the church.

The thing I find difficult in the slew of articles published recently is that they seem to be trying to talk quantitatively about something deeply personal: a human being’s relationship to the divine. Talking about an entire generation, the infamous “millennials,” holds people at an arm’s length by relying on broad generalizations, and while some of what has been written lately is useful, none of it will ever tell me why a particular someone left the church, just as it can never tell you fully why I stayed. Even my own reasons are barely the tip of the iceberg—a few tangible details that hint at a longer story.

Still, it can be useful to paint some broad brushstrokes, to understand a certain demographic, and make sense of the world in which we live and worship. It can help us understand who we are as people, and how to be church. That is an old question, though, and one we’ve needed to ask ourselves for years. It’s not that the answer has changed so much as that we still haven’t figured it out, because it is too hard or too uncomfortable or because these “millennials” (like other generations before them) seem too different, somehow.

One assertion is that the reason for this exodus is that young people are looking for Jesus, and when they don’t find him in the church they go elsewhere. Fair enough. But if we’re looking for Jesus, one place we are supposed to find him is in the gathered body of believers, and while I am the first to say I have not always seen him there, it is too easy to point to one simple issue and to ignore deeper problems. We’re not only supposed to be looking for Jesus, but being his presence for one another. People come and go from the church, but perhaps we were never supposed to “go to” church in the first place, because we are actually supposed to be the church. Those are different things.

And so, it doesn’t make much sense to leave the church for no community, or for a community that doesn’t identify with a specific faith, or—more often than not among the middle class, white Christians these articles are mostly talking about—for other, slightly more progressive mainline protestant churches. Is it the millennial distrust of institutions, you ask? If so, why are so many people leaving one institution for another?

Is it because your church’s Jesus doesn’t look like us? To that, my “millennial” answer is, “Well, duh.” Christians worship a homeless middle eastern guy as God. It should go without saying that he doesn’t look like most of the middle class North American young people this conversation is really about. It’s easy to leave church looking for, or to create, a community in which Jesus does look like us, though. That is the age old human problem from one generation to the next. We are always creating God in our own image, when it is supposed to be the other way around. We try to shape the church around our generation, instead of trying to be the hands and feet of Christ.

If you consider Tyler Tully’s article about the race and class dynamics of this conversation, what you might see is that we’re talking about a bunch of privileged white folks who expect that church, like everything else, is something they consume, rather than something they are called to create together. This, however, is not actually unique to “millennials.” It’s a perspective on church most of us learned by watching adults choose churches when we were children.

When we leave church we are not doing anything new. We are reenacting the story of modernity, the one where “man” is an island, where the individual is paramount, where free choice is an end in itself and self-sufficiency is God. When we say we don’t need institutions our actions imply we also believe we do not need each other. We’re not looking for Jesus, we’re looking for our own personal God. “We” in this instance isn’t “millennials”; it is, arguably, the human condition. Or, at the very least, a typical ideal among people in the United States today. 

Yet I don’t think that is the whole story. Perhaps because I went to divinity school, and thus have a lot of clergy friends in their 20s and 30s, these conversations always seem to be missing an important question. Instead of asking why some people leave, can we ask why some stay? And not just why they stay, but why they give their entire life over to the service of God and God’s people?

I have a hunch that part of it is that instead of being put in a box labeled “millennials” those of you who stayed felt included. Maybe someone asked you to teach the fourth grade Sunday school class when you were a high school student, and you got your first taste of mentoring and educating others. Maybe, instead of shoving you into a “singles” group, your church invited you to hang out with the babies and the middle aged folks and the old people, as if they hadn’t noticed (or didn’t care) that you were a twenty-something in skinny jeans. Maybe someone asked you to preach. Maybe someone brought you a casserole when you were sick—or asked you to make one for someone else.

Maybe the punchline is that the whole conversation about “millennials” seems fruitless to me, because though you could assert that the church failed us, we’ve failed her, as well. Nonetheless, we stick around when we realize that we need each other, when we experience the support of the community in hard times, and when we are called upon to support others, as well. If we stay—all of us, young, old, and in between—we do have to learn that Jesus doesn’t look like us. He looks like all these other women and men around us, the ones who are sometimes harder to love, the ones who don’t always understand us, the ones who are going to mess this thing up just like we do. And he looks like the other churches down the road from us, too, worshipping separately on the most segregated morning of the week—a reality that is as much our fault as anyone else’s.

The thing that I miss most in this flurry of articles? Mention of the holy spirit moving in people’s lives. Encounters with the living God. That is why “looking for Jesus” isn’t enough. At the risk of being a typical Duke grad, I can’t resist quoting Stanley Hauerwas, who says, “I don’t have any faith in myself of living a virtuous life; but if I am surrounded by other people who are also formed by the same commitments, then we’ve got a better chance.

We need one another to live up to the wonderful invitation we’ve been given.” If we are honest, many of us would probably prefer to do this thing alone if we could. You have to admit you need other people in order to have a reason to stick around when things get tough. You have to have faith in someone or something besides yourself.