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.]

 

 

 

 

A single thanks for a Single Life (in which I consider Thanksgiving and redemption)

I suspect that God’s view of such things as injustice, hatred, war, murder, dishonesty, lying, greed, pride, bitterness, anger, gossip, selfishness, abuse, stealing, and vengeance are not of a single kind or degree.

I believe that his reactions to the vast range of shortcomings and sins of humanity cover an equally vast range of disgust, wrath, disappointment, grief, sorrow, regret, and mourning.

Certainly this week there has been plenty for Him to mourn, plenty for Him to decry, plenty for Him to denounce, and plenty for Him to reject. On all sides.

I know for certain that each and every one of us, if we dig deep enough, has done things, said things, and thought things that do not reflect the image of God in even the smallest degree or measure.

And yet, against all odds and in spite of all our manifold undeservedness, He loves humanity and ushers in redemption for all who would claim it. And though His views and reactions to our individual and communal sins may be broad, the cost to forgive them is the same: a Single Life, sacrificed willingly and completely, bearing the weight of an entire world’s less-than-image-of-God-ness.

It seems as though there are a thousand reasons to not be grateful today, a thousand reasons to question humanity’s soul, a thousand reasons to selfishly ask where God is in the midst of sorrow and pain, and a thousand reasons to begrudge others, whether for their fortunes or their foolishness.

But those thousands upon thousands upon thousands of reasons crumble away into less than dust when held up against this single reason to give thanks: we are beloved by God Almightyoffered new life – real life, embraced with the powerfully just and gentle arms of Abba, Father. 

And oh, sweet Jesus, how much we need Your love and life and grace.

For this one thing – this single, immeasurable, infinite, boundless, incomprehensible (and entirely undeserved) gift, we give thanks. Thanks upon thanks upon thanks.

Now thank we all our God…

9/11 (in which I consider life, loss, pain, God, love, forgiveness, and hope)

I wrote these words 13 years ago but could have written them yesterday – not just about the events of that day (because the events of that day are repeated over and over and over again throughout history, in a thousand places and in a thousand ways) but about all of life when it is lived outside of God’s immeasurable, forgiving, majestic, jealous love. (And please do silence your outcry regarding God’s jealousy, for it is not humanly petty. It is gloriously divine. It is for us – all of each one of us – and nothing could be more breathtakingly astounding.)

Some say that 9/11 forever changed our world. God says that today (and every day) He will forever change me. I choose the second.

______

Regarding September 11…
I have a thousand questions I want answered.
I have a thousand fears I want quelled.
I have a thousand thoughts I want sorted out.
I have a thousand concerns I want soothed.
I have a thousand things I want changed.
I have a thousand people I want saved.
I have a thousand places I want seen.
I have a thousand songs I want sung.
I have a thousand steps I want walked.
I have a thousand prayers I want uttered.
I have a thousand bridges I want crossed.
I have a thousand roads I want traveled.
I have a thousand books I want read.
I have a thousand poems I want whispered.
I have a thousand birds I want freed.
I have a thousand trees I want honored.
I have a thousand skies I want admired.
I have a thousand oceans I want remembered.
I have a thousand eyes I want dried.
I have a thousand ears I want opened.
I have a thousand voices I want heard.
I have a thousand wrongs I want forgiven.
I have a thousand mountains I want climbed.
I have a thousand stars I want named.
I have a thousand lives I want lived.
I have a thousand fields I want sown.
I have a thousand rivers I want blessed.
I have a thousand children I want born.
I have a thousand sorrows I want healed.
I have a thousand days I want begun.
I have a thousand years I want danced.
I have a thousand clouds I want explored.

But I have only one God, who is true from the highest heights to the lowest depths, from the farthest east to the farthest west, and from the beginning of always to the end of never.

The god for whom people were willing to die last Tuesday is no god at all.

The true God does not say, “Die for me.” He says, “I’ve died for you – though you did not deserve it.”

The true God does not say, “Hate others.” He says, “Love others – as much as you love yourself.”

The true God does not say, “Crucify the enemy.” He says, “Crucify your heart – so I can create in you a new one.”

Would that the entire world could live in the contented peace of such simple truth as this.

copyright 2013 Crystal Kirgiss

Bring fo(u)rth freedom (in which I consider a better reason to celebrate)

Friday. Fourth of July. This date couldn’t fall on a better day. Because, you know, Friday. The weekend. Stuff. Duh.

Rejoice! Be glad! We are a nation of freedoms (an increasingly debatable point). We are a nation of prosperity (also debatable, depending on one’s definition of that slippery term). We are a nation of rugged individualism that celebrates the self-made and the successful (indeed).

I do love a good BBQ, parade, and fireworks display – and also waving those little stiffly starched flags.

But so much more than that do I love freedom. Freedom. Freedom from brokenness. Freedom from hopelessness. Freedom from darkness. Freedom from self-centeredness. Freedom from self, period.

If you set aside time today to read any important historical national documents about the true significance of this national holiday (and let’s see now, who wouldn’t set aside time for that, between the BBQs, the parades, and the fireworks, hmm?) – and even if you don’t – please do set aside time today to read another short, brilliant, piercing lyric that celebrates the freedom that really matters.

Psalm 32 (CKirgiss)
Psalm 32 (CKirgiss)

Celebrate forgiveness – for confessed sin is set aside, put out of sight, erased, blotted out.

Celebrate righteousness – for those who are forgiven are cleared of guilt, washed clean, made new.

Celebrate a powerful Lord – who is our hiding place, our protection, our glorious song of victory.

Celebrate a wise God – who reveals the best path for life, advises us, watches over us.

Celebrate a loving Father – whose unfailing love surrounds those who trust him with pure hearts.

In truth, it matters little that today is Friday or that today is July 4th. What matters is that today is today, and so all God’s children can, and should, celebrate.

Rejoice! Shout for joy! The Lord reigns supreme, and we are made free.

"Unfailing love surrounds those who hearts are pure." (CKirgiss)
“Unfailing love surrounds those who hearts are pure.” (CKirgiss)