On Millennials Leaving the Church (in which I consider the problem with talking about the problem)

Four years ago, David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith was published. What followed, and follows still, is a steady stream of opinions about what has become The Single-Most Definitive Problem of Christendom. That is, countless people have offered any number of reasons (3, 5, 7, 11, 13) about why they (the Millennials) are leaving it (the church).**

Here’s the problem with our discussions and rants and musings about this issue: lumping such a large population of people (everyone born between 1980 and 2000) into a single demographic (The Millennials) essentially reduces all of them into a single it. One of the reasons some people claim Millennials are leaving the church is because it neither welcomes nor fosters a sense of meaningful unique identity. Surely if opiners lump-sum Millennials it is no less depersonalizing than if the church lump-sums Young Adults in the Pews (or chairs, or couches, or whatever).

In the same way, lumping such a large number of congregations (of every denomination and size) into a single entity (THE church, or the CHURCH, depending on who’s lumping) essentially reduces all of them into a single it. Some people claim Millennials are leaving the church in part because it too often paints with broad strokes, invoking simplistic generalizations and damning judgments about infinitely distinct things that are much too nuanced for such narrow pigeonholing. Surely if opiners lump-sum The Church it is no less broadstroked and simplistic than if the church lump-sums Sexual Sin and Being Really Mean (or lying, or cheating, or whatever).

There is an abundance of lump-summing all around. There is also an alarmingly confident presumption of guilt that has taken center stage as opposed to, oh I don’t know, humble dialogue. On both sides.

While it might be helpful for whoever it is that makes all the decisions for all the people to know why all the Millennials are leaving all the churches – which is how the opining is often framed – I think it might be more helpful, and far more important, to know why 24-year old Shane is leaving First Community Church because if in fact Shane is leaving that church then Shane already has left that church. It’s a done deal. It is not present progressive. It is present perfect. It is not theoretically general. It is specific.

I would suggest that “Shane has left First Community Church” is far more significant and worrisome than “Millennials are leaving the church.” Shane is a real person. First Community Church is a real congregation. Something real has happened. Mightn’t it be helpful, wise, and progressively Biblical for Shane and those of First Community Church to talk about this?

I fear that we have so lump-summed the larger demographic and the larger institution that we have lost sight of individual souls and particular congregations, which means we have also bypassed any hope of specific resolutions.

It is easy to have an opinion about Why All the People Are Leaving All the Churches. One can comfortably opine and diagnose from a distance. It carries no responsibility, no investment, no humility, and no commitment – on either side.

But when it is Shane and he has left a specific church, the time for opinions and judgments is past, regardless of whether Shane is 13 or 25 or 39 or 54 or 71 and regardless of whether First Community Church is big or small, mainline or non-denominational, pewed or chaired, sanctuaried or auditoriumed, hymned or chorused, organed or guitared.

If your own church preaches a gospel other than Jesus Christ, that is reason to leave.

If your own church boldly exhorts people to gossip, lie and steal, that is reason to leave.

If your own church condemns people for loving their neighbor, that is reason to leave.

If your own church encourages you to serve your own desires before all else, that is reason to leave.

If your own church sometimes struggles to balance love and exhortation, sometimes fails at demonstrating unconditional compassion, sometimes tries too hard to please everyone because it forgets that the gospel is offensive, sometimes offends because it forgets that the gospel is love incarnate, sometimes falls short of being all that we want and expect it to be, sometimes disappoints because it is so very, very far from perfection – then before leaving, might it not be worth first asking, “How can I be part of helping my church better express and demonstrate its true mission and identity?”

The church is not perfect. Neither are Millennials – or the middle-aged, or retirees, or children, or clergy – which isn’t an excuse, but is important to keep in mind. Really, it’s a miracle beyond measure that the church – both collective and specific – manages to limp along at all. That anyone stays and sinks deep roots into a community of quirky, distinct, unpleasant, incorrigible, narrow-minded, irritating, enchanting, engaging, off-putting, and wholly undeserving humans is more miraculous yet.

But that is the gloriously difficult joy into which we are all called.

The collective Church is here to stay. The embodied church of congregants is here to stay.

So I have questions, not about the “problem” of Millennials leaving the church but about the problems with how we talk about the problem.

If (some) Millenials are leaving the church for profoundly insightful and authentically heartfelt reasons, shouldn’t we also ask for what profoundly insightful and authentically heartfelt reasons some other people are staying? Or do we assume that those who stay are merely too stupid to recognize and too unsophisticated to acknowledge the weaknesses and faults inherent in every congregation?

Why do we talk of people leaving the church – a broadly general signifier that can be vaguely and theoretically applied by both the leavers and the stayers? Why don’t we talk of people leaving a congregation (that is, other people) – a specific signifier that requires both the leavers and the stayers to engage in honest self-evaluation and gracious other-centeredness?

Why do we so reduce and restrict our analysis of the situation to “the church always” or “the church never” or “the church did” or “the church didn’t”?

Do we care enough about both the people who leave and the congregations from which they leave to go deeper than “you should” and “you shouldn’t” so that we might build a sacred space of mutual humility, trust, and love?

After four years of frantic angst and strident rhetoric, do we really want meaningful dialogue between Millennials (both those who stay and those who leave) and congregations (both those that are imperfect and those that are even more imperfect), knowing this will necessarily require difficult self-assessment on both sides? Or do we just want to keep wallowing, bemoaning, and wringing our collective hands in pathetically gleeful misery?

After four years of Millennial-centric discourse, has the embodied church failed to carefully notice and intentionally know distinct individuals of other age groups?

I believe the current crisis of the church is real – but the church is always in some state of crisis. It is the nature of being broken yet redeemed humanity living in the tension of the now and not yet.

Unless we decide to move past talking about the situation in generalities and determine to talk with real people in real churches about our mutual commitment to the broken, struggling, fragile, imperfect, precious embodied church, we all run a very real risk of betraying our costly redemption, no matter how much we each blather to the contrary.


**[Here is where I should include lots of links to the best, worst, most popular, most debated, and most egregiously pompous posts about this subject. But there are simply too many of every category. And since most people have probably already read at least one or two or seventeen or forty-three of those posts, I’m foregoing the standard list of Really Important Links You Absolutely Must Read. I sometimes wonder whether if we all read fewer up-to-the-minute posts about Pressing Problems and more old books about Theological Truth we might not all be better off. In that spirit, I include this link to C. S. Lewis’s introduction to De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, thereby fulfilling my blogging obligation.]





People worth knowing (in which I consider the active obedience of YoungLives childcare workers and Young Life work staff)

In a world full of bad news, broken lives, battered souls, and bruised hopes, there are still plenty of reasons to rejoice and be glad. Here are 80:

Childcare Workers: Young Lives Camp 2014 TWL (Photo: MKirgiss)
Childcare Workers: Young Lives Camp 2014 TWL (Photo: MKirgiss)

In July 2014, these people paid their way to a week of camp (which they also paid for) to watch the babies and toddlers of over 100 young mothers. Some drove an hour. Some drove a day. Some flew a ways. Some flew more than halfway across the country. All spent 6 days cuddling, cradling, strolling, rocking, soothing, reading, playing, singing, and all manner of actively humble and obedient things in order to love beautiful, wondrous, and miraculous living souls so that those souls’ mothers could live and laugh and play like other teenage girls.

While that group of people was taking care of the babies, these people were taking care of everything else:

TWL July 2014 Workstaff (Photo: CKirgiss)
TWL July 2014 Workstaff (Photo: CKirgiss)

The baking, the cooking, the setting, the serving, the clearing, the cleaning, the washing, the folding, the mowing, the raking, the weeding, the wiping, the working, the lifting, the hauling, the carrying … if it was a task of any sort, then these people did it. Over and over and over again. For a month. Without pay. Because Jesus has done something beautiful deep down inside their hearts.

These two groups of people – plus so many more all across the world, at all manner of camps and schools and centers and businesses and homes –  are who we should be reading about in the news. They are the ones who should be held up as the model of humanity, as the picture of humility, as the image of community, as the example of possibility.

All of the world’s bad news needs an antidote of good news. The cult of celebrity needs an equal measure of homage to humility. The buzz of headlines needs a revised tune of faithful daily living.

For just a moment, let’s stop and collectively consider the amazing wonder of such mundane and quiet things as integrity, hard work, faithfulness, honor, commitment, contentment, service, and sacrifice.

And Love. Love that comes first from God and – if we allow it – then spills over onto those around us. Onto young mothers. Onto babies and children. Onto co-workers and campers of all ages. Onto colleagues and neighbors and family and friends.

It’s a wonder, really, that such Love manages to pierce the hate-filled darkness of the world. But pierce it, it does, sometimes in large swaths of a brilliantly blinding light and sometimes in small pinpricks of a persistently gentle glow.

We are all, each one of us, invited into this piercing Love – both as a recipient and as a conduit. The people in these pictures have experienced both. The people in these pictures have been changed by Christ. The people in these pictures have helped change the world – not by their own might or power (which is the stuff of temporal headline news) but rather by humbly surrendering to the Only Almighty and Powerful One (which is the stuff of eternal selfless being).

We would do well to seek out such people. We would do well to know such people. We would do well to be such people.

Lessons from the Tree

Photo: CKirgiss
Unlit by day

I love my book tree just as much unlit by day as lit by night. It’s gracious like that.

Like all beautiful and bookish things, there’s more to this book tree than just a tapered stack of tomes. There is truth. Loads of it. Mostly about the Church and her people.

Lesson 1: If one book falls, they all fall. (Really – is it too obvious to state?)

Lesson 2: Each book brings something unique to the tree – colors, textures, topics, covers, authors, views, titles. The variety is astonishing.

Lesson 3: The tree is made entirely of books that were either destined for the trash pile or stacked in a junk shop before being rescued, bought for a price, carried home, and given new life.

Lesson 4: Some of the books have divergent views on such things as history, humanity, and society, but they all agree to play together nicely and be part of this particular tree.

Lesson 5: Together, these books make something bigger, better, and more beautiful than they do alone.

Lesson 6: Even the smallest amount of book tree light pierces the surrounding darkness.

Photo: CKirgiss

Lesson 7: The inner book tree lights radiate the space within, then spill out the cracks, tumble over the pages, and radiate the space without.

Photo: CKirgiss
Inner light, outer glow

Lesson 8: The seemingly ordinary books are quite as necessary as the fancifully decorated books.

Photo: CKirgiss

Lesson 9: The tree stands tall and true only because it is built on a foundation that is strong and level (and also happens to be made out of an old shed door decorated in crayon by the neighbor girl).

Photo: CKirgiss
On this table I will build my tree.

Lesson 10: The tree brings me joy. Great, great joy.

So should the Church. And so can the Church. But often she does not because (sometimes) each of her books determines to write its own story, construct its own foundation, and be its own individual tree.

And yet the Lord loves her (and her books) still. Glory be, that is Good News indeed.

[Just one more thing…]

My particular book tree has its own peculiar mix of doctrines that I discovered only after constructing it. (NOTE: The views of my tree do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog or its author.)

My book tree:

is ecumenical

Photo: CKirgiss
Dante and Catholic Philosophy

embraces teaching that is both didactic and narrative

Photo: CKirgiss
Pinocchio and English-French Dictionary

is evangelistic

Photo: CKirgiss
Billy Sunday

wallows gleefully in human depravity

Photo: CKirgiss
The Seamy Side of History

is egalitarian – or maybe complementarian?

Photo: CKirgiss
Call of the Wild and A Girl of the Limberlost

is confidently heaven-bound

Photo: CKirgiss
The Country Beyond

warns against backsliding

Photo: CKirgiss
The Danger Trail

deals with behavior lapses simply and swiftly (and – let’s hope – privately)

Photo: CKirgiss
It Never Can Happen Again

encourages daily surrender and sanctification

Photo: CKirgiss
Little Journeys

puts a high priority on children’s ministries

Photo: CKirgiss
Complete Cheerful Cherub

cares for those in need

Photo: CKirgiss
The Sick-A-Bed Lady

follows a congregational form of government

Photo: CKirgiss
The Little Minister

and lastly, has a definitive view of baptism.

Photo: CKirgiss
Water Babies

We, the people

Tuesday, 6 November, 2012:

Four years ago, I drove six miles south and voted on the campus of a sprawling Big Ten university. Walked past blocks of election signs, banners, and posters. Entered a stately building of architectural interest. Stood on marble floors between panelled walls. Waited in line for over three hours, along with hundreds of other Americans, mostly of the academic intellectual demographic. Listened to students discuss the meaning of life, unfair grading policies, and next weekend’s hottest parties. Listened to faculty analyze the economy, current social policy, and various threats to higher education. Voted my conscience. Went back to work.

Today I drove three miles east and voted in the city buildings of a small town. Walked past this single cardboard sign on the dew-dropped lawn.

Photo: CKirgiss

Entered the built-for-a-practical-purpose fire station.

Photo: CKirgiss

Stood on concrete floors alongside an impressive fire truck. Waited in line for eight minutes, along with 14 other Americans, mostly of the small-town senior-citizen demographic. (Lots of seed company logos blazened across the jackets. And the hats.) Listened to women  discuss dropping temperatures, holiday plans, and next weekend’s church pot-luck. Listened to men analyze harvest yields, fuel prices, and various threats to local farming. Voted my conscience. Went back to work.

I live on the border of two worlds. Two disparate worlds. Two vibrant worlds. Two worlds that, for all their quirky distinctions, are inhabited by fellow Americans – “socially constructed identities of gender and class” in the first; “neighbors” in the second – each and every one uniquely privileged to vote their individual conscience for what they sincerely believe to be the collective good.

I’m not a card-carryiing flag-waver. But today I remember why I am proud (and grateful) to be an American. Not primarily because of the political and pragmatic republic it represents, but because of the breathtaking and beloved humanity it embraces.

It’s really quite something indeed.

Photo: CKirgiss