Rachel Held Evans' piece, "Why millennials are leaving the church," went viral a few weeks ago, and, by now, has been read by several thousand people.
The subject is not quite so broad as the title would indicate. When Evans says "millennials," she means young people in their teens and 20's. When she speaks of church, she means evangelicalism. In other words, the title of the piece could well have been, "Why young people are leaving evangelicalism."
There's no mystery to it. We already know why this is happening. Based on their research on the attitudes of young people, David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons found that Christians are perceived as "judgmental, antihomosexual, hypocritical, too political and sheltered." (See unChristian and You Lost Me.)
The idea that people would leave evangelicalism strikes some as a crisis. Evangelicalism is the most market-tested religion in the world. If people are leaving it, then either the market is fallible, or it has not yet discerned the next angle to promote.
Indeed, when Evans shares her thoughts with her evangelical friends, they suppose that if they tweak the worship service with something the market tells them is "hipper," then millennials will be happy again.
Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.
None of that will work. It won't work because it has flim-flam at its heart. It is willing to say or do just about any dang-fool thing in order to plunk a fanny in a pew. In the 1930's, Aimee Semple McPherson got attention by riding a motorcycle down the aisle and up on the stage. Nowadays, the motorcycle has been exchanged for electronic pyrotechnics--billowing smoke, laser light shows, Dolby sound!
If I was "millennial", I would flee from any church that thought I could be so easily impressed. I would flee any church that tried to tug on emotional heart-strings in order to manipulate feelings. I would flee any church that regarded me as another "catch." (Less George Lucas please, more St. Mark.)
If I was "millennial," I would look for a church that was willing to explore what Christianity looks like in the wake of Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Auschwitz. I want a Christian faith that explores and interacts with science, not one that denies evolution or the age of the earth.
If I was "millennial," I would be interested in a church that is in dialog with the modern world, not one that, in knee-jerk fashion, rejects what it calls "secularism," but then apes the methods of secularism.
If I was "millennial," I'd be interested in a church that is able to compete in the "marketplace of ideas." In the first century, Christianity emerged in a diverse and fluid intellectual world. Christians had to be pretty sharp to compete, and they were. The early history of Christianity is studded with the names of great theologians in dialog with the intellectual currents of their times.
If I was "millennial," I'd like a church that is interested in the experience of people in the modern world. I'd like a church that doesn't assume it has all the answers, but seeks, rather, to understand the plight of people as they try to negotiate their lives through the confusing thicket of modern existence. I'd like a church that seeks understanding, not dominance.
If I was "millennial," I'd like a church that does not combine sentimental piety with fear of hell. Scrap that along with an inerrant Bible, rejection of reason, and the propagation of legalistic moralisms, usually limited to, and obsessively-focused upon, sexuality.
If I was "millennial," I'd like a church that understood that people today no longer look to religious authorities or institutions to understand the world. I'd like a church that understands it will have to learn to persaude rather than pontificate.
If I was "millennial," I would want a church that spoke up for the oppressed, like gays, for example, or palestinians. Jesus did it all the time. Why can't the church?
Therefore, if I was "millennial"--if I were someone who was interested in a faith in dialog with the modern world, that had intellectual heft, that liked questions, that had some timbre of the ages in it, that spoke for the downtrodden--then I would become a mainline protestant.