Young people are leaving, but why?

Meredith Flynn —  September 3, 2013

Tuesday_BriefingLeaders debate disconnect between millenials and the church

THE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

“Some millenials, like many from generations before us, want the church to become a mirror – a reflection of our particular preferences, desires, and dreams,” Trevin Wax blogged earlier this summer.

“But other millenials want a Christianity that shapes and changes our preferences, desires, and dreams.”

Those words from Wax, managing editor of LifeWay’s “The Gospel Project,” succinctly explain the debate sparked in July by a blog post by Rachel Held Evans. At issue: the millennial generation (generally defined as those born around and after 1980), the church, and the perceived distance between the two.

Evans, a 32-year-old author right on the edge of the millenial divide, shared on CNN’s “Belief” blog that too often, church leaders think they can bridge the gap with better, cooler style choices in music, technology, and the entire worship experience. But, “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,” Evans wrote.

She gives to church leaders who want to appeal to young Christians: “…I explain how 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.

“I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.”

Evans’ column lit up social media and garnered thousands of comments on CNN’s site, where it’s still getting feedback more than a month after it posted. Other Christian leaders responded too, agreeing with some of Evans’ points but also offering their own take on the problem: 59% of young people disengage from the church for an extended period of time or for good, according to Barna.

It’s an important conversation to have, said Chase Abner, IBSA’s collegiate evangelism strategist. “Like it or not, Millenials will soon be at the helm of our churches, schools and governments. Let us labor that they might hear and respond in faith to Christ.”

It’s the in’s and out’s and how to’s of that labor that had leaders talking about Evans’ blog post. Trevin Wax noted that although Evans says Millenials long for Jesus in the church, the ideal church she describes may not look like Him.

“When I read the Gospels, I’m confronted by a Jesus who explodes our categories of righteousness and sin, repentance and forgiveness, and power and purity,” he blogged. “I see a King who makes utterly exclusive claims, and doesn’t seem to care who is offended.”

Wax writes later, “Rachel says Millenials want to be ‘challenged to holiness,’ but the challenge she appears to be advocating is one on our own terms and according to our own preferences.”

Several leaders who commented on Evans’ post turned the focus away from the church and took a harder look at Millenials themselves. Are today’s young Christians giving the “me generation” a run for their money when it comes to self-centeredness?

“I’m sorry Millenials, but I’m going to have to throw us under the bus here: we do not have everything figured out,” wrote author Brett McCracken on The Washington Post’s On Faith” blog. “And if we expect older generations and well-established institutions to morph to fit our every fickle desire, we do so at our peril.”

In response to Evans’ suggestion that church leaders sit down with young Christians and talk about what they’re looking for in a church, McCracken proposed the opposite. “Millenials, why don’t we take our pastors, parents and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them?”

Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, echoed that idea in a column on Baptist Press, but took it a step further by calling on church leaders and parents to help young people experience the church as a member of the body, rather than just part of various age-graded programs.

“When they are disconnected from the congregation, it should not surprise us that young adults, who have never known the church as a whole, are disinclined to embrace it when their age-graded group has run its course.”

Allen wrote he wants his children to get to know people at all stages of life in the church – from young couples to senior citizens. That focus on relationships is increasingly important to young Christians, Abner said. In a day when technology can make anyone an expert on anything – even Christianity – young people want to know whether the information we have is making a difference in the world.

“They can’t see that just from shaking your hand before or after a service. They can’t see that just because you teach the Bible well,” Abner said. “But they can see it in the way you love your spouse and children. They can see it in the way you follow Jesus at work. They can see it in the way you refuse to compartmentalize your devotion to the Gospel.”

Read more about young people and the church in the next issue of the Illinois Baptist, online this Friday at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.

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Kazakhstan’s Council of Baptists don’t seek state registration, maintaining that the country’s constitution and international human rights commitments forbid requiring government approval for worship. Read more at BPNews.net.

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With Pastor Appreciation Month coming in October, the North American Mission Board is providing churches with resources to encourage and support their leaders. NAMB is encouraging churches to pick one Sunday to lift up their pastors during a worship service. The web page NAMB.net/honoring_pastors offers posters and bulletin inserts with 50 practical, specific ways lay leaders can encourage their pastors and their families year-round. Read the full story at BPNews.net.

Meredith Flynn

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Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.