Handwringing (or not) over Millennials and “the church”

Rachel Held Evans has started another conversation about millennials and “the church” (whatever “the church” may be).

The debate interests me because of the participants. There are progressive Christians (Episcopalians) who read stories like Rachel Held Evans and see an opening for us to gain new members. Then there are the Evangelicals (who are largely her audience). And finally, there are the atheists, or permanently unaffiliated. Held Evans has written eloquently about the pain caused her by evangelical Christianity, and that pain is expressed by many of the comments in this piece: Why we left the Church:

We are an entire generation with the broken pieces of our religion scattered on the floor around us.

We are the children who learned fake smiles too early, who found all the right answers dissatisfying, who know what it’s like to sit in a pew with our hearts a thousand miles away. For us, Sunday morning is the loneliest hour of the week.

When I think of “Millennials leaving the church”, these are the voices I hear. If you haven’t left the church, please just listen. Listen closely.

Cole Carnesacca sees a problem in how Held Evans frames her argument:

This statement is at once true and not true. It’s true in that there is obviously much that churches can do to better engage with Christ, with the fullness of who he was and what his message required. But it also reflects the astounding arrogance of individualism. The assumption underlying that statement is that the individual is the arbiter of truth in the world. It implies that millennials would know Jesus when they saw him, and the church needs to change itself until they can see him there.  What it leaves out is the idea that millennials need to conform themselves to the church to find Christ there—which is, after all, the point of the very liturgies RHE references.

Millennials, we are reminded, have children, too.

Meghan Florian has this to say:

The thing I find difficult in the slew of articles published recently is that they seem to be trying to talk quantitatively about something deeply personal: a human being’s relationship to the divine. Talking about an entire generation, the infamous “millennials,” holds people at an arm’s length by relying on broad generalizations, and while some of what has been written lately is useful, none of it will ever tell me why a particular someone left the church, just as it can never tell you fully why I stayed. Even my own reasons are barely the tip of the iceberg—a few tangible details that hint at a longer story.

But it may beyond the expertise and power of religious institutions to reach millennials (and later generations. More and more Americans are being raised in religiously unaffiliated households, and remain unaffiliated as they age.

Along that line, Hollis Phelps suggests:

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.

But it’s not just millennials leaving the church! Empty nesters are doing it, too!

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