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.]