Thursday, August 01, 2013

I'll Have My Church with a Side of Authenticity, Please

Lately the idea of keeping the Millennial generation in church has made the rounds of popular blogs, magazines, and online newspapers. As the parent of three young women who happen to fall under that distinction, I find the discussion more than a little interesting.
Millenials” are primarily young adults born anywhere from about 1985 to about 2000. They came of age during a technological explosion, a shrinking world, and a philosophical divide between generations that rivals the one of the 1960s.  

Millenials are better informed that any generation preceding them, yet often lack the emotional, intellectual, or ethical tools to understand what they know. A comic recently on Facebook summed up that particular element: Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex; Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea (source not known). The Millenials have grown up believing science is the key to the future, and even recommended college majors support that concept. (I have yet to read an article proposing more students study English or History.)  They typically like yes or no answers to questions, and philosophy is regarded as little more than fodder for social media debate.  Disagreements are generally settled by “agreeing to disagree” with both sides claiming victory or with both sides turning to ad hominem rhetoric that completely destroys any logic ever input.

Millenials seem to want everyone to have the right to identify individual truth and ignore any attempt to demonstrate that truth is anything but relative. This is hardly new; it’s been an issue with most young people until they start raising children—at which point parental “truth” is final. Even then, however, there is no modern “Dr. Spock” to teach people how to parent, so once again, couples determine for themselves what their family truth is and how they will apply it.   Many Millenials have never attended church regularly, and even more have left the church behind with their ‘N Sync posters and Pokémon.  

The modern evangelical church has had two divergent reactions: become more centered on tradition or try to become more appealing to “seekers”. Seeker churches in the early part of the 21st century tended to be small, casual, and experiential. Traditional churches generally emphasized action or knowledge over experience. Over the last ten years, the Seeker movement grew, and churches became “cool”, offering a coffee house atmosphere and a come-as-you-are philosophy.  Traditional churches grew older, grayer, and resistant to change. Appearance still mattered, almost more than anything else. Millenials are now rejecting both approaches, often turning now to the High Church Liturgies or venting their frustrations in blogs all over the Web (which, by the way, is one thing they cannot even imagine living without.)

What do Millenials want from church? Authenticity.  Millenials respect a Pope who shuns the grandeur of the Vatican apartment for a small guest house nearby. Millenials listen to pastors who walk away from the pulpit and work side by side with parishioners. Millenials respond to musicians who use technology to accentuate the message rather than promote a concert.  Brent McCracken, in a Wall Street Journal article from 2010 summarized it well, As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real.

It makes sense, then, that many Millenials are finding solace in traditions established a thousand years ago. The knee-jerk reaction of the contemporary church to be “appealing” rather than real is a mile wide and an inch deep. And Millenials, who recognize a put on better than any preceding generation, see through the façade to the lack of substance behind it. Rachel Held Evans, in a recent blog wrote, “But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.”

Millenials, perhaps more than any other generation, long for stability in a world rocked by terrorism, protests, and natural disasters.  They want to be connected to something more substantial than social media. No one can carry on a relationship in 140 character conversations. There is something about the formal traditions of High Church that connects people to the Church of the Ages, rather than the experience of the now. Evangelical Christianity is so watered down in many cases that it has no depth or passion or real understanding of WHO God is. Jesus is a friend to sinners, but not in a “buddy” kind of way. Modern evangelicalism has made Jesus too superficial to have real meaning. The prayers and fastings of High Church are a reminder of the Holiness of God that’s hard to capture in a theatrical smoke filled coffee house with rockin’ music.  Evans says, “…the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Of course there are evangelical churches with a solid Biblical base that does challenge its members to live a life worthy of the calling, but they are getting harder to find in the midst of an evangelical experience that may mimic worship, but never really transcends the self. What the evangelical church is missing is its heart.
The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them.  The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs -than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

So, where does that leave this mother of three Millenials, one of whom left the evangelical church in high school? In a word: concerned. If my girls choose a High Church for the liturgy and traditions, I will support that decision because I understand that need for something beyond a show. I hope and pray they will seek out churches where love dominates over dogma. Pope Benedict XVI said last October:
Technical advances have given us unprecedented possibilities for interaction between people and nations. But the globalization of these relationships will be positive and help the world to grow in humanity only if it is founded on love rather than on materialism. Love is the only thing that can fill hearts and bring people together. God is love. When we forget God, we lose hope and become unable to love others.  Dear friends, never forget that the first act of love that you can do for others is to share the source of our hope. If we do not give them God, we give them too little! 

He is entirely correct. The heart of the Church is supposed to be love. It is love that caused the Father to send the Son. It is love that sent the Son to the Cross. It is love that brings the Holy Spirit as comforter. And it is not a flashy or noisy love. The love of Jesus brings hope, peace, and sanctuary to hurting people.  And the love of Jesus insists that His followers become more like Him, not by pointing out flaws, but by loving “what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 128).   Paul wrote to the Corinthians the importance and the picture of love:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

                                                                              1 Corinthians 13:1-7
(New American Standard Bible (NASB)Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation)

If I may paraphrase (loosely), Paul might write to the modern evangelical church today:

 If I have the smoothest voice, the hippest hair stylist, and the skinniest jeans, but I don’t love my brothers and sisters in Christ, I am nothing better than a drum set out of tune.  If I can incorporate current events into a sermon while balancing an iPad in one hand and a latte in the other, but I don’t really love the people who hear me, nothing I say matters. If I talk about all the ministries I do and all the people I serve but I can’t love the person next to me, all my work is useless.  Love lets people learn at their own pace. Love demonstrates itself without wanting something in return. Love doesn’t think itself better than anyone else. Love is never ugly toward others, avoids cliques, doesn’t retaliate, and doesn’t hold a grudge. Love loves Truth, the real deal, not a superficial experience without substance. Love endures through hard times knowing Hope is real, Truth endures, and the Substance of the Creator is forever.

When the evangelical church returns to its first Love, and begins to live out that same love, then it may find that the Millenials return. Until then, God will continue to call out to them through other venues, whether it be a High Church, the Catholic Church, or a small home group that desires nothing more than to love the Lord with all its heart, soul, mind, and strength. One thing is certain, God will move to accomplish His will, with or in spite of the evangelical church.


Anonymous said...

I am a Millenial. And honestly, I began seeing a lack of authenticity in my church at a young age. I went "in search" and found exactly what you said - connection to history, a Savior that may or may not be "cool", and authenticity that is REFRESHING and genuinely reaching into the origins of Scripture. My answer? Torah - teaching and instruction of God. Biblical truth, not denominational truths.

I enjoyed your blog, thank you for the clarity.

Rebecca Erwin said...


I have struggled with this since I left BCLC (church) at 19. So many years of "copy-cat church" trying to be hip Baptists like the Vineyard. While I will say that God worked and his word never returns void; there is a problem when changes happen to be "relevant" and not following Holy Spirit's call.

While many Evangelicals can error on the side of offense, in my experience they error on the side of works and same. No Love. No motivation for process. Simply: are you producing fruit others can see. If you are not, then sin must be involved.

Whenever I hear leadership talking about adopting changes like (fill in the blank) I run for the door. The latest landing place is within the Lutheran denomination and surprisingly: we ALL find it refreshing.