I’m a Millennial. Probably. Or at least a member of Generation Y, I think. It’s hard to keep track of the definitions and Date of Birth requirements for these things. It’s 2013, and I’m gradually cresting from “mid-twenties” down to “late twenties”, so I know I’m not a member of Gen X, whose membership is eye-balling their 40′s and consoling themselves with Pearl Jam CDs and re-runs of Friends. And I am most certainly not a Baby Boomer.
And there’s been a huge argument online, lately, about how to keep me in church…
People my age are leaving Christianity, and there’s no end to the discussion of what to do about it. Rachel Held Evans gave the debate a kick-start last week with her CNN piece “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” She discusses why she thinks members of my generation are leaving churches in droves in the West, and what she thinks ought to be done about it. And she has some good things to say. For instance:
“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.
But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances….
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…”
Absolutely true! I disagree with a lot of what she has to say in the article, but this point was well-made.
She got a host of responses, on websites both famous and obscure. Among the most widely read was from Brett McCracken, a twenty-something Evangelical who’s made a name for himself as an enemy of “hipster Christianity.” And Brett, too, makes a few good points in his article, “How to keep millennials in the church? Let’s keep church un-cool“:
“If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that ‘cool Christianity’ is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.”
Alright, so we’re all agreed that trying to be cool has been disastrous for Evangelicalism (and for Catholicism, too, so I do hope that the aging promoters of contemporary Christian music at Mass are taking note…).
But here’s where Brett loses me:
“Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?”
I’m sure that I’m about to come across as an entitled, bratty millennial, but here’s the thing: I tried what Brett is suggesting. As a young Evangelical in high school and then college, I desperately looked for older Evangelical Christians to glean wisdom from. I took pastors, youth pastors, campus ministers, and Bible study leaders out for coffee. Most of the advice I got was garbage. If I didn’t recognize it as garbage as soon as I heard it, I very quickly discovered it to be garbage once I tried to live it out.
Here’s where I’m going to start to sound really bratty… most American Baby Boomer Protestants, after a lifetime of rebellion and innovation, simply haven’t accumulated that much wisdom to pass down to people my age. We are, after all, talking about the generation that invented “cool Christianity.” And I speak here in very broad terms– I know there are counter-examples; I know not every member of the Baby Boomer generation is that bad–but the reality is, age is no guarantor of wisdom, and most of the older folks I knew growing up in the church were still trying to figure things out, just as much as I was.
But you know, I can’t really blame them all that much: rebelling against tradition is just about as close to a sine qua non for Evangelicalism as you can get, right? As I’ve noted before, I was raised in churches that were desperately trying to recapture New Testament Christianity. I know for a fact, when they were my age, that as they rocked out to Larry Norman and wore bell bottoms to church and ditched what little tradition was left after 450+ years of Protestant iconoclasm, they really thought they were just following Jesus.
But something wasn’t quite right. And now, my generation, no longer enthralled by the prospect of wearing jeans to church and listening to lead guitar solos and “relevant” sermons, is simply walking out the door, having not found much of Jesus there.
So what’s a boy to do?
Personally, I eventually stopped taking my fathers out for coffee, and started hanging out with the Church Fathers. That is, I started going to Starbucks by myself, with a volume of Church history or a copy of “City of God” tucked neatly under my arm.
And it was those older generations–St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, St. Ignatius and St. Irenaeus– that led me to realize that the Eucharist was the authentic experience of Jesus that I had longed for all my life as an Evangelical, but never realized could be had just around the corner, at the Church that the Baby Boomer Evangelicals had always warned me was heretical and deadened by tradition…