Maybe Millennials Are Just Realizing That ‘God is Dead’

The last time I taught Introduction to the Study of Religion, I began the class with a question, “What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘religion’?”

The question was partly, of course, an obvious ploy on my part to generate discussion and a little “critical thinking” from the get go. But I was also genuinely interested in their responses, since I’ve found that knowing where my students are coming from makes me a more effective teacher. In a class of thirty, I was able to get about three-fourths to respond. With the exception of one, each expressed a negative view of “religion.”

I don’t teach in some secular bastion of higher education, where such responses to “religion” might be par for the course. I teach at a small, church-affiliated school located deep in the eastern quadrant of the Bible Belt, in rural North Carolina. The college is understood as a ministry of its founding church, the Original Free Will Baptists. The majority of my students, including those enrolled in my Introduction to the Study of Religion course, grew up in religious, almost invariably Christian, households. Clearly, the negative valuation of “religion” in my class can’t be chalked up to misunderstanding.

But it also can’t be chalked up to the tired apologetic that distinguishes “religion” from “real” Christianity. My students weren’t expressing the view, common among more conservative evangelical Christians, that Christianity “isn’t a religion but a relationship with Jesus Christ.” In fact, when my students criticized “religion,” they often seamlessly replaced the word “religion” with “Christianity” or “church,” which is largely consistent with the polling data that show increased dissatisfaction with religious organizations and a decline in church attendance and membership.

All of which leads me to Rachel Held Evans’ recent piece on CNN’s religion blog, titled “Why millennials are leaving the church” which has gone viral this past week—at least to the extent that the term “viral” can be applied to posts about religious trends in the United States. Evans, author of the popular A Year of Biblical Womanhood, expresses her frustration with church leaders who think that getting millenials back to the churches involves little more than “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.”

Citing polling data, Evans notes that the problem is one of substance rather than style: “young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” In Evans’ view, millennials want a church that’s more progressive and less confrontational on such issues. But more than this, what millennials really want is an authentic faith, a faith focused on Jesus and him alone. “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus,” Evans concludes. “I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”

In a response of sorts in The Washington Post, Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity, finds much to agree with in Evans’ piece. He takes issue, however, with Evans’ conclusion and what it implies: that millennials should determine what Christianity and its churches should be. McCracken’s solution to growing dissatisfaction and disaffection, then, is the opposite of Evans’:

“Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?

[What millennials really need] from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.”

Although Evans and McCracken disagree on what to do about millennials leaving the churches, at root they share a common assumption. Evans and McCracken are, to be sure, savvier than many, but they both assume that deep down what millennials really want and need is what Christianity, at its best, offers. For Evans it takes the form of a stripped-down, no frills Jesus, while for McCracken the appeal is to a more overriding sense of tradition. That is, they both repeat in their own ways the distinction between “religion” and “relationship.” And in the end, both tend to interpret the so-called exodus of millenials from the churches as a crisis of faith that can be remedied by a more authentic faith, whether millennials know it or not.

It’s precisely this assumption, I would suggest, that is the problem. That is, it’s not merely the case that millennials—or anyone else for that matter—are leaving the churches because of a lack of authenticity, a lack that can be remedied by appeals to Jesus or “something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me.” Sure, some may leave over such matters, but they’re likely to land in a church that better suits them.

Rather, it seems to me that “authenticity” itself is the problem; the assumption that the churches know and can provide what millennials really want and need. That’s what I’ve observed among my students, many of whom aren’t criticizing an inauthentic faith set against an authentic faith but the notion of faith itself and its Christian articulation.

Nietzsche referred to this in another context as the death of God, and mainline denominations have felt the effects of this death for some time, a fact written in a steady decline in membership and attendance since the 1960s. Nietzsche also knew that word of God’s death takes a little while to get around, and it seems that it’s just now getting around among evangelicals. Contra Evans and McCracken, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.