Why we should care that Millennials (me?) are leaving the church.

Last week, Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece for CNN called Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church. And then, everyone read it and wrote their own opinions about it (I guess like I’m doing now).

These took a range of stances, from “Rachel is spot on,” to “Rachel is wrong and Millennials are lazy and self centered and need to come back to the church because it’s good for them,” to what I thought were more helpful discussions like “you know so called ‘church decline’ is mostly a white issue embedded in cultural privilege, right?”

I like this conversation, even as I don’t really like all the arguments involved. For instance, I don’t think the reason we need Millennials is to pay the bills and put people in the pews. Nor do I agree (at all, really) with Brett McCracken’s piece that we should be telling Millennials to sit down and shut up (keep trying that method, see what happens).

In this conversation, I’m actually a lot less interested in the Millennials themselves. They’ll come to church when they feel they need it, and hopefully the church will continue to try to figure out how to reach more people (like we in the church should be doing at all times anyways). What I’m much more interested in is the way the conversation challenges the status quo in the church.

Take, for instance, the common assertion (for comfort, maybe) that people who leave the church is their 20’s will come back when they have kids. This, along the trend that Millenials are putting off marriage longer, means that all the church has to do is wait a few extra years, and we’ll get people back.

For me, there are two problems with this that are intricately related:

First, this implies that church is for those who have settled down, who have found the ‘one,’ who are ready to enter into the part of their lives in which they are ‘productive’ members of society. At least the way I (a millennial myself) hear it, church exists as another symbol in the American dream, participation in the middle class. Which I don’t find anywhere in the bible. Even when I look at the household codes (you know, the terrible “women submit to your husbands” nonsense) they come in the midst of communities not integrated into some perfect Roman society, but forming resistance and facing persecution. It’s like the church took the part where we’re supposed to live in perfect little family units (which I’m not convinced the bible actually says) integrated into society and left out the part about resistance and struggle against injustice.

Second, the idea that the church will be OK because Millennials will come back when they have kids implies that Christianity has nothing to say to people in arguably the most formative years of their lives. A religion founded on resistance to an unjust social order, that preaches peace, compassion, love, forgiveness, and on and on, has nothing to teach someone figuring out how they are going to participate in the world, what they are going to study in school, or how they should view their place in their first job? When I was in college I was introduced to great ideas of meaning and justice through the church. I learned that rather than compete in the rat race that is the job market, I should seek out ways to dedicate my life to service, to peace, to justice. It was the church the taught me that instead of seeking a well paying job, I should look for joy (which may or may not pay well). This isn’t stuff we should be starting to teach people after they have kids.

All of this is to say that I don’t want this blog to be taken as advice on what we should do to attract Millennials, or an opinion on how the church should change. It’s to say that even if we can live without Millennials for a while, we should still engage in the questions their exodus brings up. Because the church is in constant need of critiquing. We get complacent if everything is always in its ‘right’ place, and if the gospel is anything, it’s the emergence of something new, something more just, something more open. If we need this whole Millennial conversation to identify places to grow, then so be it. We’ll be better for it if we throw ourselves into the conversation.

(note: I didn’t mention my two favorite responses to Evan’s post. First, this article by Meghan Florian about how she got pulled into a lifelong struggle with the church. Second, this blog by a friend writing about her experience with the church, with community, with members caring for each other, with concrete acts of service and love that come when you fully participate in the church (perhaps the best kept secret the church has).)


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