CTW Conference Part 4: Millennials and the Church
In this post, I will be writing about the final three sessions of the conference, since they all revolve around one question: why are millennials leaving the church? Of course, as someone right in the middle of the generation labeled millennials (who are generally considered to be people born between the years 1984 and 2002), this conversation is very pertinent to me, and I found the discussions concerning this topic to be very enlightening.
The morning breakout, titled “Vanishing Acts”, discussed several key “felt needs” that the church should be addressing if it is serious about creating a space that is inviting for millennials. The breakout was led by Nick Cunningham, the young adult pastor at Ginghamsburg Church.
The first felt need Nick talked about is the need for relationships. He cited a study which revealed that 60% of millennials who have chosen to stay in the church do so because of the friendships they have developed. Often, however, churches can make this environment difficult by structuring small group gatherings as classroom lectures. When a group leader spends a whole hour teaching a lesson, it creates an environment that prioritizes lessons over relationships and gives people the perfect opportunity to leverage curriculums as a shield against forming genuine relationships.
Another felt need we discussed during the break-out was the need for authenticity. Nick used a pop-culture example to illustrate this need: Anne Hathaway, whose image has traditionally been associated with the smiling, sweet girl next door (think The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted, and Bride Wars) didn’t gain the respect of the public until her role in Les Miserables. In this film, her life is tragic, and her distressed emotional state is revealed for all the world to see. In short, Anne plays a role that is authentic.
Millennials today are looking for an oasis from the hype—a place where all the gaudiness and unrealistic representations of life are blessedly absent, and we can be real about our dreams, fears, doubts, and hopes about our faith and our future. We are looking for a place where the truest, hardest questions in our hearts will be handled gently yet seriously, instead of being glossed over with an oversimplified answer that doesn’t really hold water when we step outside the doors of a church and into real life.
Admittedly, vulnerability is hard; revealing our authentic feelings is hard. But it is also the truest way to form meaningful relationships, and in that way, the first and second felt needs we discussed are inextricably interrelated.
Nick concluded his break-out with an appeal to millennials. Of course, the work to reconcile the lost generation of young people back to the church cannot be a one-way street. He encouraged our generation to challenge ourselves in three ways: first, to stop being cyncial, and look for the hope that is the kingdom of God instead of dwelling in wariness at every turn. He also encouraged us to not be reluctant to make decisions and step outside our own bubble of comfort. And lastly, he acknowledged that it is often so easy for us to become ensnared by shallow, trendy approaches to church. He encouraged us to continue seeking that authentic community which is so important in the body of Christ.
After the morning sessions, we broke for lunch then continued on to the final two sessions of the conference—the two I had been anticipating greatly during the weeks preceding the conference. Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and author of two books, delivered the afternoon keynote entitled “Keeping the Church Weird.”
She started with the sobering statistics: today, 59% of millennials have stopped attending church. Rachel contended that the reasons for this are varied and complex, but at the heart of it is grace. We wrap the gospel in so many layers of theology—so many principles for “right belief”—that we make Christianity more exclusive instead of more inclusive.
Rachel also talked about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which you can read in Acts 8:26-40. Traditionally, pastors use this story as a framework for evangelism: this is how you reach people who are seeking after Jesus. However, to connect this story back to Nick’s point about authenticity, reading the story that way overlooks the absolute scandal of what Philip was doing.
As a eunuch, the Ethiopian was ceremonially unclean. He was a outcast of the religious right, deemed unworthy to participate in temple worship, let alone be baptized. Yet when Philip explains who Jesus is to him, he does not hesitate to ask Philip to baptize him. Rachel points out that alarms must have been going off in Philip’s head: “But this guy isn’t clean; how could he understand the gospel?” “This man is the last sort of person I would expect to baptize!”
Yet when the rubber met the road, and Philip was poised with a simple question, he did not hesitate. He led the eunuch down into the water, and he baptized him.
It is a beautiful example of the truth that the Gospel isn’t offensive because of who it keeps out; it is offensive because of who it lets in. If we get out of the way, and let God do his work in the world, he might use methods we don’t approve of, and that thought can be terrifying for those who have the methods—who have the theologies—all hammered out.
Church, Rachel reminded us, needs to be a place where the outcasts, the eunuchs of today, feel just as welcomed as the middle-class “acceptable” people. It needs to be a place where everyone can pass within the doors of church, breathe a sigh of relief, and lay out the real and true baggage of our lives before our fellow believers.
In short, church needs to start looking like an AA meeting.
After Rachel’s enlightening discussion, there was time for Q&A, and of course one of the first questions asked was what church leaders can do practically to demonstrate that they are serious about implementing this sort of change. At this point, Rachel bravely shifted the conversation from the eunuchs of the ancient world to the eunuchs of today: the LGBTQ community.
She talked about the many changes we can make in order to demonstrate genuine compassion for them: first, use their language. Learn what the acronym means, and why they use it (and as a side note, don’t ever use homosexual as a noun!). Create room for their voices to be heard, and listen to their stories in the same way that Philip listened to the eunuch as he explained his fascination with Isaiah 53.
Rachel concluded her talk with reminding us that solidarity is not the same thing as conformity, and people rarely fit into the categories that we try to assign them. She offered the idea that the best way to establish that solidarity despite the differences is confession. Confession drops our guards and puts us on level playing ground as equally broken human beings. When we are honest about what hurts, honest about our own shortcomings, we pave the way for others to do the same.
The Q&A with Rachel continued into the afternoon break-out session, where we returned to the broader discussion of evangelicalism in the United States. Rachel discussed how it is troubling that those who are most committed to the evangelical label are also the ones who define it most narrowly.
This is very problematic in the Church today, because our narrow theology has led to what Rachel called the “cost of false fundamentals”: people are leaving the church because the feel they must make choices that aren’t central to the Gospel (i.e., believe in creationism or evolution, be gay or be Christian). And when their reading of scripture and their experiences of the world lead them to embrace a view contrary to the conservative one, that rejection is equated with rejecting the Gospel.
Yet, for every rule we create, for every stipulation we place upon what constitutes a faithful follower of Jesus, there will always be someone for whom the rule doesn’t fit. There will always be someone who is walking unashamed in the grace of the Father, yet who seems to our limited vision to be living a life contrary to our idea of Christianity. Embracing these people and accepting that sometimes God accepts those we deem unacceptable is the epitome of grace.
This, Rachel suggested, is the direction the church must turn. We must embrace those who seem unlovable. We must be willing to step out and speak an honest word, even when we fear upsetting other or losing their respect. Sometimes, our capacity to love despite our differences is more resilient than we expect.
Thank you for listening along with me as I write out my experiences at the Change the World Missional Conference at Ginghamsburg Church. I learned lessons there that I will never forget, and I hope you learned a little something as well by reading about the teachings of these incredible men and women of God.