The Gospel Will Keep Millennials

Over the last few days there’s been a lot of buzz on Facebook about Rachel Held Evans’ article on CNN’s Belief Blog, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” It’s a solid article that I think every church leader should read and discuss with other church leaders. Whether you agree or disagree with her conclusions, she raises some very important questions and issues that every church needs to consider. If you liked this article and want to dig into this issue more, I really can’t recommend a better book than David Kinnamon’s book, “You Lost Me.”

First off, I loved how she introduced herself in the article and I could pretty much repeat most of the same things. As a 33 year old pastor, I wrote my papers out by hand in junior high, wrote them on my computer at home but printed them in the computer lab while in high school (unless I wanted to wait an hour for my home printer to print out a three page paper… I’m not kidding, it was that slow), and in college everyone had their own printer by the time I was a Junior.

I’ve thought about this issue from a lot of different perspectives: As a pastor (and youth pastor, at that), as a 33 year old who looks around and sees very few peers in the church, and as a wanna-be cultural critic. A lot of what I want to comment on below lines up pretty well with what Evans wrote (which is why I really liked her piece, because I agree with much of it), but some of this is my own perspective too (and I’m already tipping my hand through the title of this post).

Skinny Jeans and Style Won’t Keep Me
I loved Evans’ comment about banging her head against the podium when asked about the need for more contemporary music. If the worship leaders wears skinny jeans because he’s just a skinny-jean-kind-of-guy, then cool; but if he’s wearing them to promote an image, then that’s going to leave a very bad taste in my mouth. Not only is it “not about the music,” it’s very much NOT about the music… I love hymns with an organ, I love contemporary worship with a full band. What makes the difference is the atmosphere of worship. If I sense that you’re trying to “sell me” something through how you lead worship, then you aren’t inviting me to worship, you’re treating me like a customer. If I feel like a customer in church, I’m not coming back. Period.

I Want to be a Part of Something Bigger Than Me
This is why I think so many are being drawn back to liturgy. Just think about the change in technology over the last decade – the world changes so quickly I want to be anchored to something that solid. But I also need freedom to be able to express who I am and to make sense of the world around me as it’s changing. Remembering that the Church is bigger than what I see and what I know and what I experience is very grounding for me. In the midst of all the talk about the importance of “community” for postmoderns, the Church provides the biggest and richest community possible. I don’t want to go to church only to walk out and only think the Church is as old as that church is; I need to be reminded and encouraged by the heritage of faith.

I Need to See How Faith Transforms Life
I think this is what Evans was getting at when she wrote, “We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.” Yes, worship belongs in church, but and sermons often tell me I should worship God outside of church too – but what’s that look like? We need to recover a vision for Christian living that makes clear what being a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) looks like. How can I worship God in my public school, on my sports team, while at work and at home, etc. etc. etc. If my faith is only connect to overtly “spiritual” activities then I won’t understand how my faith in Jesus Christ transforms my entire life.

Let me Doubt
This comment has gotten a lot of airtime lately, it seems. Doubt isn’t always a bad thing, so please don’t make me feel like a heretic for asking hard questions and poking holes in trite and cliche “Christian answers” for difficult questions. Life is complicated and messy, simple answers don’t always cut it. It’s ok to wrestle with God – just ask Jacob and Job and Thomas. But here’s the thing: help me to wrestle with God while holding on to what I can be sure about. I don’t need to let go of everything I believe (like Descartes did) in order to ask really hard questions. Help me doubt from faith, otherwise I’ll hear you loud-and-clear that doubt isn’t allowed.

Only the Gospel can Keep Me
As the famous hymn declares, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love….” I’m a sinner, so my heart is resistant to the Gospel which tells me I am an idolater who worships at the “Temple of Me” and that I cannot save myself. Only the Gospel can justify me, sanctify me, bring me life and hope and peace in this complicated world. Keep me anchored to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Remind me who he is: God incarnate, the second Person of the Trinity in human flesh. Remind me what he did: He lived a perfect life, he loved sinners so much he died on the cross for them, he took God’s wrath upon himself so I wouldn’t have to, he rose from the grave in victory over sin and death, ascended into heaven where he rules over the Church and waits until the right time to return as Judge. The Gospel is simple, and yet so wonderfully and brilliantly complex! Don’t treat the Gospel like it’s only good for evangelism, I need it every day. When the Gospel is missing in the church I’ll hear lots of commands about what I’m supposed to do without hearing the message that reminds me who I am in Christ.

I hope these are a helpful contribution to the discussions I’m seeing on Facebook and on various blogs because of Evans’ blog post linked above. Again, if you haven’t read hers, please do. And I’d love your feedback in order to make this a real conversation.

Finally, if you have other thoughts that you’d like to leave in the comments section I’d love to hear why you think Millennials are leaving the church and how the Church should respond.

12 thoughts on “The Gospel Will Keep Millennials

  1. thebridgechicago July 29, 2013 / 2:16 pm

    I love this post and you hit the nail on the head in the “I need to see how faith transforms life” section. I also liked when you said: “help me to wrestle with God while holding on to what I can be sure about.” Nice!

    -Peter from The Bridge

    • Pastor Mike July 30, 2013 / 10:24 am

      Thanks Peter, I think restoring an understanding of vocation is really important. Thankfully it’s getting more attention now.

      There’s just so much to say about this issue, it’s hard to condense it into one short blog post. I’m thankful this is an ongoing discussion among the Christian blogosphere right now.

  2. Cheryl July 30, 2013 / 10:42 am

    Read through this article, while nodding my head in agreement with plans to share it on fb (where I found it)… Then went to see who wrote it and realized its you!! Well done Mike 🙂

    • Pastor Mike July 30, 2013 / 11:30 am

      Cheryll!! Thanks for the encouragement, it’s so great to hear from you. I hope you’re well!

  3. Andy Needham July 30, 2013 / 11:59 am

    In my opinion the debate of musical style is often missing the point. In the end the music of the church should connect the community of faith with the Creator. What we all want when the church gathers in song is to know that “we” the people of God are singing truth to and about “Him.” A leisure suit wearing organist can as easily disrupt this as a faux hawk’d lead guitarist. When the musicians or the music are made too important or focal then any generation will run.

    Many churches need to update their music, not because the style is central, but because they are failing to connect the faith community effectively and create real, authentic corporate worship. Relevance is not a dirty word, it is just not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. At the same time when worship becomes the “David Copperfield laser show” any generation will tire quickly. Worse of all is a church trying to carbon copy some mega-church they saw on YouTube. Be creative. Be current. But most of all be the local church of Jesus.

    @andyneedham

    • Pastor Mike July 30, 2013 / 12:21 pm

      Andy, this is so spot-on! This captures so much that I’ve not figured out the words to express, thanks for sharing!

    • Anonymous July 30, 2013 / 2:37 pm

      Searching in itself is not a bad thing.
      Music cannot replace the gospel but can inspire and move us closer to Christ !
      I found both articles refreshing and realized that, throughout history the church through Christ is still alive.

      • Pastor Mike July 30, 2013 / 2:54 pm

        Jesus affirms seeking (“seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you”) because those who seek are being drawn by the Holy Spirit… They just might not realize it until they look back at how God was drawing them closer bit by bit.

        Personally, I think the music and sings we sing in church have almost as much power to impact us as the sermons we preach. That’s why we really need to be intentional about theologically and biblically solid and musically tight worship songs (and make sure the musicality if the song reflects the biblical truth of the song). Music matters, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that. My point was that “style” isn’t going to be the determining factor in keeping or losing a generation.

  4. Fr.Dan July 30, 2013 / 2:34 pm

    Enjoying many of the comments here, Mike, I really appreciate your words on doubt: “help me doubt from faith” really gives a smart redirect. Andy, some great words on music esp. “any generation will run/any generation will tire”. I am drawn (go figure) by the thread of faith expressed by the church past, present and future as worked out in liturgy (not not just “high church” but in Gospel honoring churches that value the good from each era, each church operates on some form of liturgy) It seems a good anchor for “the millenial” to show our faith and the truths of God exist eternally, not changing truth relative to culture. Plus the strength of the church past gives a springboard and buttress for the creativity and expression of our faith today, securing that our future is still anchored to the same Gospel revealed so long ago…

    • Pastor Mike July 30, 2013 / 2:45 pm

      Hey Father Dan, I love what you wrote about the Church’s tradition and history as a springboard, buttress, and anchor… Good stuff! Watch out, I just may pop in unannounced one of these Sundays while on sabbatical to enjoy the liturgy (but good luck convincing me of infant baptism…).

  5. Aaron Stetson August 9, 2013 / 7:08 am

    Mike,
    As usual, great thoughts. This concept is on the forefront of my mind whenever I am thinking about church. In my opinion, so much of what we do in churches is so stinking weird to the outside world. Without the gospel there would be no church, period. Think about it, 2000 years of, don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex, don’t be gay, lie, cheat, steal or gamble and oh yeah, by the way Jesus really loves you.

    When we focus too much on moral lifestyles we are making it clear what is important. Whatever you talk about the most students are going to read between the lines and figure out that is the most important. For instance if you harp on dressing modestly, some people might get it, perhaps thats great. Perhaps we come up with some identifiers on what is/isn’t considered modest. Without our consent or intention very quickly within the culture of our particular ministry that becomes and identifier for loving Jesus. “Did you see that, she work a tank top with only 3/4″ straps instead of 1″ she must not love Jesus!” Exaggerated… yes of course, but those moral identifiers we set far too often and easily become the mark of who is/isn’t a follower of Christ. I’ve seen it a hundred times, if been the judger of it 100 times.

    I get stopped in my track almost daily, because I go to Jesus for forgiveness, almost daily, for the same things. Who does that? Who keeps forgiving? Who would possibly keep waiting for years and years and years while we run the opposite way and give Him the proverbial bird. Yet as soon as we turn, as soon as we are so stuck, tangled and messed up by our own sin, he is RIGHT THERE.

    For you smart people, you may have understood this for years, but I am kind of a slow learner, but somewhat recently I had a revelation. I need grace, not just to get to heaven, but even just to get through today. Literally, I can’t so much as love God back, even an ounce without His grace. Think about it, if I follow some rules and obey, who did that.. me! Who’s proud of themselves for beings such an awesome person… ME! But if I mess up again, the same things, the things people in ministry aren’t supposed to mess up and I go to him crushed, saying woe is me. Who’s doing the work there?

    For my closing argument (stolen from my father) when you boil it all down the church needs to be about 2 things: Telling the Gospel and Washing Feet (not literally, but serving REALLY serving).

    Sorry Mike, just put a blog post on your blog post, almost like the voicemails we used to leave for each other 🙂 Hey, you asked for my thoughts…

    • Pastor Mike August 10, 2013 / 7:30 pm

      Brilliant. I really don’t think I could add anything but a hearty AMEN! Again, you’re proving that you’re a far better theologian than you give yourself credit for.

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