We’ve all read the headlines that millennials are peeling out of church parking lots and not coming back. Why? Reasons range all over the map, from their view that churches pay insufficient attention to the poor to the complaint of bad signage once they’re in the building.
The overriding argument is that Christians blame the culture too much for problems that are ours to own. Which is to say, the primary culprit for millennials ditching church points one direction: to people like me, the over forty-year-old believers. If we would do church differently, millennials would take another look.
What could we do different, specifically?
#1: Engage critical thinking.
Professor L. Gregory Jones, a senior strategist for leadership education at Duke University, said, “Christianity in the United States hasn’t done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection.”
Instead, the church today is struggling with a heritage of, as mega-Manhattan Redeemer Presbyterian church’s Kathy Keller puts it, “pious babble.”
We need to shift this paradigm. How?
Start with these questions: how does one marry the values of Scripture with the data of science? Also, how did we wind up with so many denominations and what are the differences and do they still matter and why? Also, what was God’s intention with the Abraham & Isaac sacrifice story or other controversial stories? Also, what’s up with Paul telling women to shush in this line over here, then calling Junia a fellow apostle in that line over there?
Then ask yourself: if I can’t answer these questions, yet I’ve been in church for decades, what have I been doing all this time?
Then, stop doing some of that. It isn’t growing us up.
Instead, find resources that refrain from using the same churchy jargon that has shown up over and over on Sunday mornings. If we want millennials to stick around, we need to graduate from milk to solid food ourselves first (Hebrews 5:11-13).Millennials still tend to have a high view of Scripture and will respond to mentors who are willing to look at their questions and say, “Let’s walk through this together. We’ll take it one page at a time.”
#2: Stop trying to seed prejudice against other churches.
Churches handle the Bible differently, and we choose accordingly. That’s reasonable. However, taking a dig or even using acceptable, but low-grade slur language about other churches comes back on us from millennials as hypocritical, because, well, it is.
None of us has a leg to stand on in terms of having arrived in the “right” church. We choose our churches based on traditions as well as Scripture and none of us can lay claim to Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura when it comes to how we “do” church. We all – all churches - have add-on traditions that were not part of the first century church.
#3: Understand where the practice of human rights comes from and the mechanism by which it has spread.
Did you know that the practice of human rights was borne out of Christianity?
Mastering this talking point and having methodical, analytical conversations about worldviews would go miles with millennials, who have a renewed attention to social justice.
Start with the fact that atheists are admitting this on the public stage.
Jürgen Habermas, world renown atheist, said, “…the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”
Also, Yale Law School Sterling Professor, Anthony Kronman, said he was for some years an Aristotelian pagan. “That didn’t do the trick for me,” he said, because he couldn’t find there, “my deep, deep, my bone deep belief in the infinite value of the individual…so I asked myself where does the idea of the infinite preciousness of the individual come from? That’s a biblical idea, invention, discovery, however you wish to characterize it.”
The problem is, historically, we Christians dropped the ball.
“No wonder they kicked us out,” said NYC Redeemer Pastor Tim Keller, pointing to the times that the church has given “…the idea of individual rights and the idea of individual freedom and the idea of these things, but then not executing on them.”
Create opportunities to discuss this (and other) issues with millennials.
Prepare yourself to discuss where the church has done well on the matter of social justice and where the church has failed miserably.
Don’t know any examples? Here are a few to get us started. There’s Oliver Cromwell’s ragingly prejudiced and bloody conquest of Ireland, but also there’s triumph-over-prejudice-via-Christ’s-love Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s the church inflicting house arrest on Galileo for saying that Copernicus was right about the earth rotating around the sun, but also there’s Desmond Tutu, who took his Jesus-loving ideals of doing “little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world,” to restrain, resolve and ultimately end South African apartheid.
4. Grow Stronger in Our Own Faith
Millennials are not necessarily ditching church because they want to, but because church is not doing what it claims to do. Growing up ourselves in the faith will be the greatest single motivator to change millennials minds about church. It will not be easy.
Then again, there’s no reason to think that it would be. It’s not as if the first church started off perfectly either. Although they were first on the scene, in short order they needed to “wake up” (Rev 3:2) and were prone to “forsake their first love (God)” (Rev 2:4).
Church has never been perfect because, God knows, we’re not perfect and we’re the church. Getting millennials to commit to a concept that has inherent flaws is…well, frankly, the way God set this thing up.
As theologian NT Wright says, “For too long we have read Scripture with 19th century eyes and 16th century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and 21st century questions.”
It’s time we set out to do just that, and watch millennials begin to reassemble with us for the conversation.
Images from Thinkstock.com, Unsplash.com
Janelle Alberts spent her early career in PR departments for Microsoft and UPS, boiling down logical, clear corporate messaging. She now attempts the same for Scripture, often featuring bits we’ve never heard, but wish we had, since knowing things like even Noah got tipsy & embarrassed his kids can help a girl rally to the end of the day. Find out more about Alberts here.
Originally published Friday, 29 September 2017.