Why Millennials Are [Really] Leaving The Church


What a debate this has turned into. A couple of weeks ago, an article by Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s Belief Blog went viral. Evans, a self-proclaimed adopted Millennial takes aim at the “attractional” church model that squeezes preachers into skinny jeans, strives for “hip” worship and puts coffee in the lobby.

Twenty-somethings nationwide wore out the “share” button. They stood up and applauded, and lauded Evans as the new voice of the new Christianity.

Out with the ways of our parents and grandparents, in with a new, “real” portrait of faith.

Now, I think Evans has articulated incredibly well what millennials want church to be. That is why it got spread so quickly. But—as a member of the generation myself—I must take some issue with some of her conclusions. The question is not, “did she convey the zeitgeist of our generation correctly,” but rather, “are the things our generation is seeking beneficial?

For example, take this statement from Evans:

“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.”

The aim of this post is not to offer a point-by-point criticism of Evans’ article. But creeds like this one are where I begin to feel uncomfortable. While I agree with what these statements say, I think if millennials were granted all these wishes, it would be detrimental to the Church. “Being known for what we are for rather than what we are against” is a great aspiration. Unless, of course, you are not actually against anything. In that case you are denying scriptural commands to “test every spirit,” (1 John 4:1) and other calls to be diligent in sniffing out false teachings (Romans 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 Timothy 4:13, 15; Titus 1:8-11, 2:1).

Another problematic statement is that millennials “want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.” The root cause of this comes from the fact that millennials have grown up in a largely post-modern and subjective world. In our reality, the world tells us that truth is relative and that personal experience is the ultimate authority in moral/ethical decision making. Biblical teaching, however, tells us that truth is objective, there is a God, and he has already spoken authoritatively through his word. In reality, the questions we ask have been asked – and answered ­– in the past, and biblically so.

The word “doctrine” comes from the Greek word meaning “to teach.” Therefore, doctrines are the teachings of the church. We shouldn’t be scared of having doctrines that have been thought out and scripturally backed. Why must we demand of the church that they act as if we are the first ones to struggle with the issue of homosexuality, or the balance of culture and holiness, or the need for social action? Why the arrogance that says, “We’ve finally got this figured out, and since the church won’t listen, we’re out of here.”

The arrogance comes from what I believe is the real reason millennials are leaving. Because they are human. Not only are they human, they are sinners. You. And Me. And all the millennials. And all the Pre-millennials. And all the post-millennials. We are humans who desperately struggle to submit to God because our egos get in the way.

When we get down to it, every generation – every person – wants a God that pats him or her on the back. We want a God that agrees with what we agree with and condemns what we condemn – a God who values our own areas of strength and condemns the areas in which others struggle.

This can be seen repeatedly throughout the biblical record. Approximately seven milliseconds after being rescued form Egypt, Israel cast shrines of gold in the form of a calf (“Make us gods who will go before us.” Exodus 32:1) in hopes that their gods would suit their needs. One author points out that Satan’s first deception was to suggest to Eve that “she knew as much about reality and morality as God did.[i] (Genesis 3:4-5) Jesus was crucified because he was the Messiah that was prophesied but not the one the Jews wanted. More recently, the products of the sixties and the Jesus People movement wanted hipper worship in their churches. Today we want acceptance of things the Bible clearly condemns and the freedom to begin our belief statements with “I kind of feel like . . . “

Evans, along with many Millennials, would connect the “Jesus” with “social justice” in some way. “Being authentic” to many means serving like Jesus served. And while I agree that the church can grow a great deal in this area, Jesus’ message was not just about social justice. His first words in ministry were, “Repent!” (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15).

Interestingly, Evans makes the statement, “We aren’t leaving because we don’t find the cool factor, but because we can’t find Jesus.” But is it possible that millennials are leaving because the Jesus they find is not the Jesus that would condone everything they think to do? Is it possible that the church portrayed in the Bible cannot be harmonized with the relativist, permissive church for which millennials are screaming? Could it be that our churches have done a fine job of bringing Jesus to the forefront, and that a young and one prideful generation after another just doesn’t want to be told what to do?

[i] Jack Cottrell, Solid! The Authority of God’s Word. WIPF and STOCK publishers. Eugene, OR, 1991. p. 85

“Luke, I Am Your Father”

The groom’s cake at our wedding was a house split down the middle with a Detroit Lions logo on one side and a Pittsburgh Steelers logo on the other. It read “officially a house divided.”

Following different teams has not typically caused any issues for us, but that all changed when we found out we were expecting. Which team would we raise our kids to follow? After all, I am the bigger football fan, but the Steelers are clearly the better franchise. This has been played up so much that on our son’s first Christmas, my parents bought a Lions AND a Steelers onesie, and had a tailor split them down the middle and create TWO Lions/Steelers combination onesies. What it comes down to is that we love our teams and want our son to love them, too.

Isn’t that the case with all of us? I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone make the statement, “Yep, I’m going to raise my kids right. Three years old and already quoting Star Wars,” or “My parents raised me right, on good music, not that stuff that we had when we were kids.” In the past I may have even given our toddler decaf coffee to start training his palette early! We all want to raise our kids to value what we see as valuable.

But somehow, our culture values “non-imposing” parenting. Somehow the message has sunken in that we are to “not impose” our beliefs on our kids. We are to let them learn and let them think for themselves. Despite the fact that we obviously don’t carry it out consistently (see above), I wonder how helpful this mentality even is. I truly believe kids are much sharper than any of us grown ups give them credit for, but I can’t help but question whether this is poor logic.

Seemingly, the only place we apply this “thinking for themselves” mentality is in the most important areas of life. We are more than happy to impose on our kids superficial preferences. After all, our generation’s music is always superior to our kids’ music, and we want them to appreciate good artistry. I even heard one parent lay out the plan for exposing his child to Star Wars. “Well, I want him to be old enough to appreciate it, so I will start him when he’s four. And I also want him to see how the series developed, so – at least at first – I’m going to start on ‘the original three’ and then go back for the newer prequels…”

Confession: We have had many conversations about when is an appropriate time to expose our kids to Harry Potter. Because it’s awesome.

Let’s face it, these things, as much as we love them, are superficial. (I know, I know. Except Star Wars).

The things that really matter in life are the areas where we are just more prone to let our kids “figure it out.” We refuse to shape the way they approach the nature of man, the way the world works, what they expect from people and life. We let them figure out their own views on sexuality and relationships because we wouldn’t want them to think there were too many rules and rebel when they grow up. We fail to be good examples of money management. We fail to show them what a vibrant faith in God looks like and just hope they find “spirituality” somewhere.

If all I have to show for my parenting relationship with Cade is a similar affinity for the teams I like and the music of my youth, I have failed him as a parent. My job as his Dad is to reveal to him how to navigate the world. In my case, that begins with a strong conviction that there is one God and that he has revealed himself to his creation through the Bible. It means teaching him humility and repentance as a default heart state. It means teaching him that sexual activity is only to be enjoyed (and is enjoyed best) in a monogomous, covenanted marriage with his wife. It means showing him that men are fallen but that he is too, so not to think he’s better than anyone. It means showing how to love a creator that first loved us.

Whatever your worldview is, chances are you have come to it with some thought and have some conviction about it. Our job as parents is to lead our children to have accurate views of the world (*whatever you have assessed that accurate view to be*) and let their preference fall to things like entertainment, food and fashion. Except Kentucky Basketball—because I have to raise my kid right.

A Toddler, Duplos and the Pride of a Father

Exciting examples of engineering excellence. That’s what I see when I watch my 22-month old son play with blocks. His affinity for building began early, and blocks have now become his favorite toys. I’d wager that we could throw out almost all other toys and he would hardly notice. Duplo blocks are king.

The other day I was sitting next to our son on the floor, blocks strewn about, looking more like a WWII bombing zone than anything with a form. Of course, the chaos of it is what makes it fun. As I sat there and watched our architect-in-training try to make sense of the craziness before us, he decided to engage me in his work.

“Look, Daddy!”

What he held out was a rudimentary structure with blocks out of place and almost certainly substantial stability issues. It was clear he had a low regard for building codes. But in that moment, there is only one response a father could give:

“Oooooooh, I see that! I’m proud of you!”

His face lit up and he smiled his big, gappy, toddler-toothed smile at me, and he said simply (but with an unmistakable satisfaction), “Uh-huh!”

Yep, Dad being proud of him was not only appreciated, it was expected. Praise from Daddy was so satisfying that for the next ten minutes, with every block or two, he would hold out his tower and a similar exchange would follow. It never seemed to get old to him.

Nor did it get old to me. With each step along the way, I saw him learning new skills, trying new things, and basking in the approval of his father. He was entirely in the moment, not concerned with other things, fully confident that his dad would take care of any needs he had. He had a genuine desire to please me.

And as I sat there, the world’s worst construction inspector, I saw again one of my favorite things about being a parent. The way kids are with their parents teaches us so much about how God wishes we would be with Him.

Just as my child desires to hear me say I’m pleased with him, God wants that to be the leading desire in our lives.

Just as my son built what he could, with what skills he has, and had no shame with the fact that it was yet imperfect, God wants us to be the same with him: putting our all into pleasing him and having no shame when we still are imperfect.

Just as I expect for Cade’s abilities to grow over time, for him to keep trying new things and to keep moving the bar because he will have grown and matured, so God expects us to grow continually closer to him, to continue pleasing him by living lives that increase in grace, love and holiness.

Just as my love for my son won’t change if he doesn’t grow as I think he should, God’s love for us doesn’t change simply because we fall a step or two back from time to time.

We don’t expect skyscrapers from novices. God doesn’t expect perfection, especially from those who are toddlers in the faith.

So all we can do is to aim to please him, building our “godliness” skills, one duplo block at a time, each step of the way laying our lives before him, saying, “Look, Daddy!” If we’ve been genuine, he will smile and say, “I see that! I’m proud of you!”

Judge Not…Yeah Right

Being the pastor of a small church for the past year, here’s one I heard a lot: “Matthew 7:1 says, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.'” In fact, it wasn’t just in that setting. Regardless of the setting, any time a discussion of value judgments and lifestyles comes about, someone in the conversation is quick to throw out Matthew 7:1. They may not know the difference between Matthew and Psalms, between Moses and Paul, but by golly, they have memorized Scripture, and the verse they chose to start with was “judge not, lest you be judged.”

Here’s the issue: no one lives this way. No one actually lives it out.

One of the most universally crucial skills in life making value judgments. We decide all the time to do what we calculate to be the best thing in a given situation. Despite the fact that this is reality, when people quote this verse, it is with a mentality that it is *wrong* (note inherent value judgment) to make any sort of judgment based on anything anyone else does, ever.

It’s a personal thing. It’s relative. Nothing is universally better than anything else, and to suggest so is equivalent to High Treason. But again, no one lives this way. Some things are just better than others. Let me give you some examples:

  • Clean is always better than dirty. You might disagree, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue. If dirty were better, people would “dirty up” when they have company coming over. But no one does that, because clean is better than dirty.
  • Nonviolence is better than violence. When stories of domestic abuse come out, no one rushes to the defense of the abuser. “You know, judge not. You don’t know what he meant by it. Maybe it’s how he shows he loves her.” Bull. No one assumes that. Because it is less virtuous to be violent than it is to express yourself through nonviolence.
  • Bravery is better than cowardice. No one ever honored a victim of a terminal disease by saying, “it was a cowardly and timid fight to the very end.” Rather, every fight against terminal illness is “strong,” “determined,” and “brave.” Why? Because even if it were true, the former would not honor the person, because bravery is better than cowardice.

When we were in Muncie I got drawn for jury duty. I was genuinely bummed when I was not selected to be on the jury, because a) I am a nerd, and b) I have enough of an ego to think I would have been an A+ juror. It’s okay to admit you feel the same about yourself!

As the lawyers questioned potential jurors about their responsibility should they be selected, I couldn’t believe how many had “religious objections” to what they were being asked to do. The task of a jury is to determine whether the defendant did in fact (in this case) possess what the District Attorney alleged she possessed.

Time and again what I heard was, “My religious beliefs tell me not to judge.”

Here’s where the insanity lies. The lawyers were not asking for a moral judgment of the person, but rather a decision on whether the person did, in fact, commit the crime. She did or she didn’t. The jury’s task was to determine the likeliness of that fact. NOT determine if she was a bad person because of it.

This is a poor interpretation of this verse that is damaging to our culture, and it is unreasonable to ask anyone to live it out. Jesus said, “Judge not…” but then he judged many people. He condemned sinful action and praised holy action. In the vast majority of his parables, he made a moral judgement upon the characters therein. In one instance, Paul told the Corinthians that he judged them for their passivity without even needing to be there to hear the case, and then told them to cast out the sinner in question. As Christians, we are told to be “wise as serpents,” to “be on our guard,” and to “test every teaching.”

Clearly, we are meant to judge.

So what does Jesus mean when he says, “judge not?” A better way to say it might be, “condemn not.” Don’t condemn someone. We don’t have the power to judge someone’s heart and say, “because of ___________ you are going to hell.” We also are not above any other people, and don’t have the standing to act like we are better than they.

The fact is, life necessitates value judgments. We do it with our kids all the time. You tell them what is good for them and what is not. Again, we are supposed to do this. We are supposed to challenge teachings that the world throws at us, and lifestyle choices and world views and philosophies! We are supposed to be “wise as serpents.”

But what Jesus himself would not do is to make the final judgment. He didn’t come to condemn the world (although he did make plenty of value judgments). God the Father will be the ultimate judge, and our job is to put our trust in Jesus because he is the only counsellor with access to the judge’s chambers.

Fatty Culture

My wife tells me I’m fat on the inside.

I’m a thin guy. In fact, I have always struggled to put on weight (I know, cue the world’s smallest violin for the skinny guy that has it so rough). The truth of the matter is that I am relatively healthy and haven’t had any health problems. Yet. But I have sustained some pretty unhealthy eating habits until recently, and I exercise very little.

So the medical condition I suffer from is “fat on the inside.” I think that’s the clinical term.

The real issue is that I consume, and consume and consume food (some of which is terrible for me but so delicious) and don’t balance it with enough physical activity to use the energy the food supplies. I am just a consumer. In fact, that is the problem with all obesity in general (chemical/hormonal issues aside). At the risk of being simplistic, the issue with obesity is taking in more and more energy, but letting your physical activity level atrophy to death. Boil it down and it all comes down to calories in, calories out.

But this isn’t primarily about food.

I may be fat on the inside, but it’s not my only area of fatness. In fact, I’m a pretty fat guy all around.

I consume and consume on the internet and don’t spend nearly enough energy exercising the energy or knowledge that it gives me. I read news, I check my favorite blogs, and I read blog articles about effective blogging. But I don’t invest the energy I need to into contributing, writing and exercising. I check facebook repeatedly to “keep up with things.” I mindlessly hold my phone to my face as I surf around my favorite sites. In other words, I’m also a tech-fatty.

The result? Lethargy, and a tendency to copy whatever method out there seemed to “help” others get past their tech-fattiness. My connectedness causes a gap between what I want to get done and “researching” how to do it.

Why all this talk about being a fatty? Because I’m worried that I’m not alone, and that society is moving more and more toward being obese — not just physically — but being tech fatties and mental fatties and entertainment fatties.

There is a weird paradox around the information age. The more information we have at our fingertips, the less productive we seem to be with it. We talk about an article that discussed a study, rather than picking up some books and doing studies of our own. Mental fattiness in action.

We consume and consume and consume and never expel any of the fuel we receive. We store calories. We don’t exercise. We get fat in all kinds of different areas. We have become a fatty culture.

The bible has a word for this pattern. It’s called, “gluttony.”

Gluttony goes beyond food. It is a total lack of discipline in how you consume. It is “greedy or excessive indulgence,” according to Webster’s. And more and more it is a symptom of our culture’s ethos, a condemnation of the posh wealth that even this nation’s lower classes enjoy (in perspective of global poverty), much less those of us who don’t need to “struggle” to eat each day.

We have become a culture of gluttons. The fatty, salty and sweet flavors that were formerly mere morsels  now flood our food. So much so that much of our culture cannot stomach vegetables unless they are drenched in butter, or “southern-style” (soaked in sugar), or dipped in ranch dressing, or drizzled in velveeta. We have indulged in these flavor “treats” so much that they are now the new norm.

Cable packages have a bajillion channels, and TV viewing rises at alarming rates. Average home sizes have exploded in the last 50 years. Enough is never enough and I hereby confess that I am an all-around fatty in much of my life.

If this is so pervasive, what is it affecting that we don’t realize? Where else are we guilty of gluttony? Where else we might have a blind spot to our constant consumption and lack of exercise? Could it be that we have also become spiritual fatties? Could it be that we have been too worried about “what we are getting out of” church? Could it be that we have spent too long simply going to church to get?

The Gospel is inherently action-based, and yet church has become consumer-focused. Churches are in a race to have the hippest worship bands, the best coffee for service or the best atmosphere. Sounds more like a coffee shop than worshipping the all-powerful God of the Universe.

We go to worship where the pastor is the funniest or most captivating, or choose a church based on “what they have to offer.”

It’s time we stop consuming and start exercising some of what we have learned, putting action behind the spiritual calories that we come to church and take in. It is time for Christians to step up and see church as not a place to be served but a place to serve – a place to proclaim the gospel rather than to receive it.

What’s worst is that those regular attenders that are always in church are commended as being spiritually fit.

In reality they may be spiritually fat (at least on the inside).

It’s time to balance our spiritual diet and exercise.

How will you get some Spiritual Exercise this week?

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