Today I read an article about why millennials are leaving the church and it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s not everyday I come across something that I have a visceral reaction to (and not in a good, Sara Bereilles kinda way), and it’s left me feeling like there’s a lump in my throat, itching to be coughed out all afternoon. Which is why I’m here. Maybe if I word my discomfort it will dissipate.
I’m referring to the article titled 59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why (see http://faithit.com/12-reasons-millennials-over-church-sam-eaton). The Christian writer essentially gives an impassioned critique of the failings of the modern church and the incidental exodus of young people from its community today. It cites how church attendance is at a drastic low, especially amongst 22 to 35 year olds, and gives us 12 reasons why the church has failed. Let me first put it out there that I don’t disagree with everything he says. He does make some valid points, and I agree that the church should do more to engage the youth, e.g.: to serve on leadership teams and to employ a young adults pastor who can reach this age group better. I agree that the church should be transparent with its spending and to channel more resources to evangelism, service to the community, and helping the poor, instead of building glitzy compounds. I agree that the church should talk to young people about controversial issues and shed some light on how to navigate the increasingly grey areas in culture. All these things are well and good. But there are still many problems with his article because of the copious generalisations he makes and his overall tone which reveals an underlying belief that the church is primarily about us; its members.
Even though the writer condemns the church for being too inward looking, his choice of words reveals a double standard and points towards a consumerist mindset as well. A lot of emphasis is made on how ‘millennials value voice and receptivity above all’, how ‘nobody cares what we think’ and how ‘we want to feel valued’. Simply put, ‘you [the church] aren’t reaching the millennials’. He adopts a If-You-Don’t-Change-Don’t-Blame-Me-For-Leaving attitude, and hidden under his self-righteousness is a belief that the church exists for its members’ needs and desires. I do understand that the church is not perfect and has lots of room to grow, but its imperfections do not justify our leaving. The church is about God. It exists for God. It comprises individuals coming together to become a worshipping people of God, where His presence and glory dwells.
In 1 Peter 2:4-5 it says, “As you come to him [i.e.: Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house [i.e.: the church], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Church is about its people shifting and adjusting so that the house of God can be properly structured. It is about contributing to the bigger picture. It is about learning to lean on each other. And this means that even if things get messy or difficult, we choose to participate in corporate worship. We choose to submit to the authority of the church (insofar as the decisions made are not contradictory to biblical principles). We choose to put the interests of the church above our own. We do this despite of how we feel, or whether we get what we want. I do not want to undermine the hurt that some people may have experienced by members or leaders of their church. But instead of leaving the church and living with our resentment, perhaps we need to commit our disappointments to God, pray for strength and wisdom to iron things out, and stay. The church IS the body of Christ, and it needs every organ to function well to achieve its purpose. God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation (of God reconciling the world to himself, 2 Cor 5:18-19). How then can the church carry out this ministry, if we ourselves are not reconciled to each other?
It is very easy to make it about us, especially in this selfie generation (trust me, I know, I like selfies too). The church herself is not exempt from the temptation of consumerism. I feel like the danger for our culture today is not so much about religious legalism as it is about treating the church (and God) as a vending machine (which is the other extreme; all grace and gifts). And if this vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we move on to the next one. But that’s not right. Sometimes our churches may take on projects we are not personally excited about. They may preach difficult sermons that offend our egos. They may rebuke us and correct us in love. In these instances we are still called to humbly submit to the authority we are under and participate in community life. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17) As Christians we need to embrace this running theme of submission, not just in the church but in our whole lives – wives to husbands, servant to masters, the young to the elders, civilians to rulers and authorities. Jesus himself embodied humility in submission to the Father’s will. Nothing less will be expected of us, his followers.
The last thing I want to talk about is how the writer seems to downplay the importance of deepening our foundation in the word of God (i.e.: bible study). He says the church should not waste time on the religious mambo jumbo that is mission statements, nor create more bible studies but instead use the time to serve the poor, and focus more on mentorship than on preaching. At one point he says, “the currency of good preaching is at its lowest in history”. I would like to argue that God calls us to focus fully on both, not one outweighing the other. We are called in the Great Commandment to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength and all our minds, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. How do we love God and His people without first knowing His commandments? How do we be Christ-like in our actions if we do not have a clear understanding of who Christ is? We need to take care to seek Him through the primary way He has chosen to reveal himself to us – the Bible. In Scripture we are commanded to love, treasure and uncover His Word. The Great Commission likewise calls us to make disciples of all nations, to teach them to observe all that Jesus commanded – this cannot be done if we ourselves do not have a clear understanding of who we should be discipling after. Our God wants us to invite more people into His kingdom, but he too wants His people to bear resemblance to their King. We need to do this both with discipleship and evangelism.
I guess I am writing this because I am concerned with my generation’s attitude towards the church. I pray that we will truly let God examine our hearts to reveal any pride and self-righteousness that is in us (and I say this about myself too), and to learn to be persevering even in what seems like dire circumstances. Our God is able to do so much more than we can ever bargain for, so let us trust in His redemptive work in our lives, and in His church.
“And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in us will see it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.”