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A Response to Rachel Held Evans and the Millennial Exodus from the Church

Rachel Held Evans, popular blogger and best-selling author, has an article on CNN.com that’s created quite the frenzy on the interwebs. The last time I checked, the article had been shared 163,000 times on Facebook. The piece is titled, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” and it’s striking more chords than a youth worship leader. Evans has also invited people to join in the conversation, hence my blog post.

In the article, Evans seeks to diagnose why so many young adults are fleeing much of America’s churches. She believes the cause of the exodus is because millennials are finding less of what they value in the church—and please don’t suggest to her that it’s found in “hipper worship bands.”

Evans states:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

In short, the church needs to change or it will become obsolete.

Personally, I’m smack in the middle of millennial generation (24). I’m also pastor at a church, so I have some stakes in this game. I know my voice is just a drop in the blogosphere ocean and that there have already been some great responses to Evans herehere, and here, [and here] but I wanted to add my two cents.

WHERE EVANS IS SORT OF CORRECT

Not everything Evans has to say is incorrect. I agree that many churches do need to change but not because millennials are leaving. They need to change because they’ve wandered from the truth of the Bible.

Many churches rely on the power of politics to save them, not the Gospel. Many churches rely on emotional experiences to fuel their worship, not an intelligent faith. Many churches care more about preserving their own comfort, not the souls of those around them. Many churches believe they are without sin, not sinners saved by grace. Many churches care more about the amount in attendance, not the individual.

There are many things wrong with the churches in our country and in the churches around the world. In my own church. People sin, therefore the church is full of sinners. Sinful people will jockey for positions. Sinful people will gossip and commit adultery. When a church is full of sinful people then the church will be full of sin. But then again, that’s kind of the point. Isn’t it? Jesus didn’t marry a spotless bride. He married her to make her spotless. We are all in process of healing and the church is the hospital.

Does that excuse the sin that occurs in the church? No. Churches should continually evaluate themselves and repent of sins committed. When repentance does not happen in a church, that’s when you can tell something is really off.

When I talk to people who have left the church, millennial and all other, many times it turns out because they were never shown that church was worth it. They were always preached to about the truth but they never saw the truth actually lived out.

I have friends who have grown up every day of their lives in church, hearing that marriage is sacred. Then they get to college and find out their parents are getting divorced because the father or mother had an affair. It’s no surprise that they are repulsed by all the traditional marriage talk. All they’ve seen are empty words. In their minds, all this church talk is pointless.

Enough with empty words. The church needs to first believe that the truth does work—that the Gospel has enough power within itself to save anyone (Romans 1:16). It’s a message that has sparked revival regardless of persecution or zeitgeist. Jesus promised that if the church was built on the Gospel, then the gates of hell could not even prevail against it (Matthew 16:18-19). I think it can survive a few angst-filled twenty-somethings.

WHERE EVANS IS INCORRECT

I think one of the biggest problems with Evans’ evaluation is she doesn’t recognize that millennials are at least partially responsible for their own exodus from the church.

Yes, I know many have been hurt by people in the church. Yes, I know the church can be frustrating at times. But millennials need to stop playing the victim. Regardless of what’s happened to them in the past, they still get to make their own choices. They have the same Bible that their parents have. And millennials are willfully leaving the church.

Why are they leaving? Whenever I talk to someone who has vacated the church, they typically voice one of the reasons that Evans states in her article. But I’ve found there’s usually something deeper going on. Even if all those things Evans listed in her article were found in a church, I still don’t think a large majority would go to church. This is proven by the fact that there are whole denominations who meet her criteria and they’re actually seeing a decline in attendance across the board.

Millennials are not leaving the church because they have no other choice but to desert the sinking ship. They’re leaving because they don’t care about the church. They don’t like being under authority or having someone call them out for their sin. They want an institution that looks just like them and when they can’t have it, they huff off the basketball court, ball in hand. It’s individualism and consumerism to the core.

This is quite the pickle, if you think about it. Millennials are choosing to abandon Jesus’ bride. They’re leaving the only institution Jesus said He would build (Matthew 16:18-19), the people Jesus chose to die for (Ephesians 2:16), the family they were adopted into (Ephesians 2:19-22), the body they were called to function in (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), the pillar of truth for the whole world (1 Timothy 3:15), and the bride Jesus is coming back for (Revelation 21:1-7). Most of the New Testament is about Christ working in and through the church. Most, if not all, of the epistles were written to churches or their leaders. If you look at the New Testament, I think you’d have a hard time justifying that you can love Jesus but not the church.

Perhaps it’s the millennials who need to change.

If millennials truly love Jesus and want to please Him, they should choose to stay with His bride, not abandon her. If not at their current church, then they should dedicate themselves to find one they can at least tolerate to be in. If they see problems, instead of whining about them, they should do something about it. They should be the change they want to see (to loosely quote someone millennials love to quote). We always talk about making a difference. Here’s our chance to impact the only organization Jesus promised to build. In His mind, there is no plan B to reach the world.

One final thing I think Evans missed is all the millennials who haven’t left but are instead trying to make a difference in the church. I get to see them every day.

The overwhelming majority of the 1500 person church I serve at (named Ekklesia) is made up of millennials. And we are in Eugene, Oregon, one of the most unchurched states in the nation. Ekklesia is also a diverse crowd. Some grew up in the church but many didn’t. Many got saved through hearing the Gospel preached day after day. We are racially diverse (especially for Oregon, one of the whitest states in the Union). We are economically diverse.

And we do do just about everything society would advise against. Get this, we preach the Bible for 45-60 minutes every Sunday and Wednesday—and they’re expository sermons. We believe in the exclusivity of the gospel. We believe in traditional marriage. We believe in the inerrancy of the Word. Yet millennials come. And it really has nothing to do with us because we haven’t tried anything special—unless you count our hip, Greek, one-word name. Both our campuses meet in middle school gyms. We don’t use formal liturgy. We don’t have wine for communion. We didn’t have strategy meetings and focus groups to try and figure out how to best reach the young crowd. We just opened the Bible. They just showed up and never left.

There are churches reaching young people. I could name off more in our city and more in Portland who are doing the same thing. They are faithfully preaching the Bible and wondrously seeing people changed.

As we look at trends like the one Evans has pointed out, we also have to remember that being a Christian is not going to be considered cool. Persecution is guaranteed all throughout the Bible (John 15:18-20, 1 Peter 4:12-19). The Gospel is going to be seen as foolish to most people (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). We don’t need to freak out when these verses are realized in our lives. Instead of capitulating to the spirit of the age, we need to hold fast even stronger to the truth, trusting that Christ will see His church through.

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7 thoughts on “A Response to Rachel Held Evans and the Millennial Exodus from the Church

  1. A certain percentage of the population is capable of trusting God without allowing their intellectual doubts to cause them to stumble. The issue is that there are thousands of Millennials who could be attending your church who are not, most of them because their university experience has persuaded them that science and Christianity are not compatible and that Christianity is not intellectually viable.

    The intellectual challenge to the Church as a whole cannot be ignored. God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus and John was successful. Jesus said the fields were “white unto harvest.” They are not white unto harvest today. In 2007, 25% of Americans under 30 were unchurched. By 2012, 32% of Americans under 30 are unaffiliated. If the growth of the unaffiliated continues at the same rate, by 2017 41% of Americans under 30 will be unchurched. Allowing this to continue is not a viable strategy for the church.

    My church holds an “Apologetics Weekend” once a year and we have a variety of speakers talking on the scientific evidence for the existence of God or the reliability of the Scriptures. We also have an apologetics ministry that meets once a month to help strengthen the faith of Millennials who are college graduates and who still struggle with intellectual doubts from university. This is not enough. We need to do more to prepare our high school students for the intellectual challenges they will face in college. And we need to reach out to those in college now.

    Despite the comments of some, it is possible to see science and Christianity as compatible and still hold to an inerrant Bible.

    I have written a short booklet titled “Is Christianity True? Why Three Brilliant Atheists Became Christians.” It tells the conversion stories of Dr. Francis Collins, Dr. Allan Sandage and Lee Strobel. If you would like to read it, email me your address and I will send you one free.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I definitely agree that the intellectual challenge to the Church cannot be ignored. The truth should be defended and people’s questions should be answered. Most of the people I’m addressing, and I believe the people Rachel Held Evans was writing about, are millennials who are Christians but do not want to be a part of the church. I think many of them do have intellectual problems but they should be bringing them to the church instead of leaving because they think their needs are not met.

      • Kyle, the thing is that I don’t think Rachel is very informed about why Millennials leave the church. She has talked to some of them who have given their own viewpoints and she may have read David Kinnaman’s book “You Lost Me” (the book is much better than Rachel’s musings, by the way), but she has not done any serious on her own.

        Even Kinnaman underestimates the role of intellectual doubt among Millennials. The reason is that his mission was to determine what people who are leaving the church think of the church. So those were the type of questions he asked. If he had asked what the Millennials leaving the church thought about the truth claims of Christianity, he would have gotten different answers.

        In a Pew Forum poll published in 2009 and revised in 2011, 44% of respondents say they do not hold to the faith of their parents. Most of those changed their faith before age 24, during the university years.
        In the same 2009 poll, when those who had become unaffiliated were asked if science had proven religion to be superstition, 32% of former Catholics and 32% of former Protestants said yes.

        I’m creating a plan to change this. I’m looking for people who care about the intellectual challenges Millennials face and giving them the tools to strengthen their faith. If you are interested in learning more, email me at ron@sequoiapt.com.

  2. Dead center, Kyle. Cultural drifts are infecting us disguised as wisdom and courtesy. Unfortunate many believers don’t get to see and experience what we are seeing. Jesus, please keep building.

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