EEK! The Millennials Are Leaving the Church!

| 08-08-AD2013 | [12]

Anthony S. Layne - Millenials

Christianity has not been tried hard and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

From Rachel Held Evans’ CNN Belief Blog post, “Why millennials are leaving the church”:

 What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities. We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. 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.

Actually, they sometimes do … he’s just not the Jesus they’re looking for.

Sociological data shows that many people go through a period of religious “unpacking” during the early years of their adulthood, and that period may see change of communion or abandonment of church attendance. Repacking follows unpacking; between the ages of 25 and 40, around 4 of every 5 people return to their faith community, usually to the one they grew up in or one closely aligned.

In this the millennials are really no different than their parents or grandparents were at the same ages. Indeed, in a follow-up post Evans, who identifies with the millennials “despite having one foot in Generation X,” admits she returned “because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us.” So the sky isn’t exactly falling here.

This doesn’t take much away from the bulk of Evans’ criticisms. “Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates — edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”

Frankly, a priest or minister who wants to bring young people into the Church should put on full clericals every Friday night, go to the local hangouts (where he’ll be sure to draw attention) … and be prepared to answer tough questions honestly and thoroughly. Theology on Tap — lectures and spiritual talks held in bars and restaurants — is a particularly notable program geared to people in their 20s and 30s that is slowly spreading to Catholic dioceses throughout the US and overseas, and is backed by such lights as Cdls. Justin Rigali, Francis George, Donald Wuerl and Sean O’Malley.

However you choose to engage the younger crowd, though, you have to address their minds as well as their hearts. Going for a cooler service won’t do it; in fact, Evans states, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions — Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. — precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

Nevertheless, the religious experience that millennials desire, according to Held, isn’t beholden to authenticity.

  •  “We want an end to the culture wars” — but a church that doesn’t on some level challenge the culture is not being faithful on that level to the one who came to “cast fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49).
  •  “We want a truce between science and faith” — but the war isn’t between science and faith; rather, it’s between science’s honest practitioners and those who misuse it to advance agendas.
  •  “We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers” — but many questions have predetermined answers, whether millennials want them or not.
  •  “We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation” — but even as she writes her posts, Evans unconsciously echoes a political platform rather than authentic Christian beliefs.
  •  “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities” — but the Church has a prior, overriding obligation to God’s truth, elements of which many in the LGBT community find hard to accept and are often at some pains to rewrite.

Simple living, caring for the poor and oppressed, reconciliation, ecological justice and peacemaking are all admirable pursuits; it often seems that in the culture wars they either get pushed out of the limelight or sneered at by those who conflate political conservativism with Christian orthodoxy. But holiness is not achieved by dumping unpopular definitions of sin any more than one becomes a scratch golfer by allowing herself more mulligans.

 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. … In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5,7-10).

What’s the takeaway here?

For one, it’s more important that youth ministers and pastors be honest, knowledgeable and patient with young adults than that they be down with the latest slang, fashions and music trends; ministers must acknowledge that the Church teaches things our culture tends to reject, and be prepared to defend those teachings fully. For another, it must be realized that the threat of “losing the millennials” is largely an empty threat, though the unpack-repack cycle is no excuse for complacency.

Finally, as the saying goes, the gospel message “is what it is”. Priests, deacons and ministers are under an eternal obligation to present the gospel message in its fullness, not to tailor it specifically to get millennial butts in the pews. The parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20; cf. Matthew  13:1-23, Luke 8:1-15) reminds us that many things conspire to kill faith in Christ, and most of them are outside the Church’s control.

While Pope Francis is teaching us that style of presentation does matter, so do the hard teachings. If you think Jesus never lost disciples through hard teachings, I invite you to read the “Bread of Life discourse” (John 6:24-71, esp. vv. 60, 66).

We have only one Jesus to offer. If he’s not the kind of Jesus millennials are looking for, that’s ultimately their choice.

© 2013. Anthony S. Layne. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.
Education, Faith Filed in: Education, Faith
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  • Strife

    “A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice.” – G.K.Chesterton

  • Strife

    Jesus; A Cause of Division.

    “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.” – Matthew 10:34-36

  • Strife

    “Instead of looking at books and pictures about the New Testament I
    looked at the New Testament. There I found an account, not in the least
    of a person with his hair parted in the middle or his hands clasped in
    appeal, but of an extraordinary being with lips of thunder and acts of
    lurid decision, flinging down tables, casting out devils, passing with
    the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a sort of
    dreadful demagogy; a being who often acted like an angry god — and
    always like a god.”

    “We have all heard people say that the Jesus of the New Testament is
    indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church
    has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas till it has taken
    on an inhuman character. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in
    the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image
    of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. [...]
    There are a great many things about the Gospels which nobody would have
    invented, things which have remained rather as puzzles. It is anything
    but what these people talk of as a simple Gospel. Relatively speaking,
    it is the Gospel that has the mysticism and the Church that has the
    rationalism. It is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is
    the answer.”

    -G.K.Chesterton

  • Traditium

    I just heard the term “millenials” for the first time this week. A few weeks after the waitress at Chilis told my wife and I we looked like her parents. Bah :).

    • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com/ Anthony S. Layne

      Did she say whether it was a compliment? :^)=)

  • johnnyc

    Interesting….nothing in Miss Evans post about wanting the Truth.

    • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com/ Anthony S. Layne

      Quelle surprise. I couldn’t tell you if Evans even wondered whether millennials were interested in Truth, or if she simply took it for granted that they don’t believe such a thing exists, or if she’s convinced they already know the Truth and it’s we old farts who need to change our minds.

  • Pingback: St. Dominic: The Hound of the Hounds - BigPulpit.com

  • Jeff_McLeod

    The paradox of the millennials.

    They value empowerment and moxie and whatever is extreme, bold, and brash, and all those other adjectives having to do with toughness.

    They’ll skateboard down the steps of city hall or through hoops of flames, they’ll ride dirt bikes through a swamp filled with alligators, they’ll slam dance in the night clubs.

    But they want a bunny rabbit Jesus they can play with and put back in the toy chest at night.

    Kids: you want to be edgy and tough? Get to know the actual Jesus.

  • http://sailorette.blogspot.com/ Foxfier

    Frankly, a priest or minister who wants to bring young people into the Church should put on full clericals every Friday night, go to the local hangouts (where he’ll be sure to draw attention) … and be prepared to answer tough questions honestly and thoroughly

    YES!

    Ignoring the various folks claiming “the Church is old, so kids are leaving” stuff– what do folks expect to happen when my generation was never “introduced” to Christ’s Church?
    The same thing that happens to relatives we’re dragged over to “visit,” but never get to know anything about– you stop visiting when you have a choice. The answer isn’t “don’t take kids to relatives,” it’s “teach kids how to know and properly interact with relatives.” You don’t have to be buddy-buddy to do that.

  • WSquared

    Excellent, Mr. Lane. With what you’ve written about LBGT, however, while I agree, I would also put in another way: the real welcome– for all of us, just as much as it is for our LBGT brothers and sisters– is Jesus Christ as He truly is. They are loved in the Catholic Church, because God loved them first, no more or less than any of the rest of us.

    The Real Presence matters; that the Eucharist is truly Jesus matters: because what it says to all of us is that love is way more than the emotions between two people and way more than a romantic relationship. God is Love: there is no “couples over here and singles over there” when it comes to that love. It’s why the witness of the priesthood is so powerful, not only to single Catholics, but to married ones as well. And yet, we do such a poor job of communicating even that. We need to regain a sense of the sacred in order to do so effectively.

    “For one, it’s more important that youth ministers and pastors be honest,
    knowledgeable and patient with young adults than that they be down with
    the latest slang, fashions and music trends; ministers must acknowledge
    that the Church teaches things our culture tends to reject, and be
    prepared to defend those teachings fully.”

    Agreed. I attend both the EF and the OF, and I find that at the EF, priests tend not to be the most “dynamic” preachers in the world (…whatever that means, and anyway, it’s about time we realized that priests aren’t primarily there to preach and teach; priests offer sacrifice). But they humbly give us the truth of the Catholic faith. When was the last time most of us who attend the OF heard a sermon on the Four Last Things, for example? Furthermore, regarding what the Church teaches that our culture tends to reject, it’s also important for priests and Catholic youth ministers of any kind to be clear that the Church also gives us the Sacraments; they’re what enables us to live what our culture likes to tell us is “too hard”: “without Me, you can do nothing,” and “My grace is sufficient for you.”

  • enness

    Meh. She can speak for herself. I probably defied the odds by becoming more orthodox than my upbringing would suggest. Maybe it would be more productive for them to ask people like me why we stayed.