What Millennials Want

rachel-held-evansLast night I read this article by Rachel Held Evans to the deacons at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. It’s one she originally posted on her blog, and it went “viral” as they say, with everybody passing it on to friends and family until it had been seen by millions of people. So, maybe you’ve already seen it, but I read it to the deacons last night because I have a deep concern for this younger generation sometimes referred to as “Millennials.” My daughters are both in that age group. I love my daughters. I want them to love Jesus and I want the church to help. So, take a look at what Rachel Held Evans has to say and, whether you agree or disagree, let it focus your thoughts on how the church might become a more hospitable place for young people.

July 27th, 2013
08:33 AM ET

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

(CNN) – At 32, I barely qualify as a millennial.

I wrote my first essay with a pen and paper, but by the time I graduated from college, I owned a cell phone and used Google as a verb.

I still remember the home phone numbers of my old high school friends, but don’t ask me to recite my husband’s without checking my contacts first.

I own mix tapes that include selections from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I’ve never planned a trip without Travelocity.

Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

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.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

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.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Now these trends are obviously true not only for millennials but also for many folks from other generations. Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO!” So I don’t want to portray the divide as wider than it is.

But I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.

Their answers might surprise you.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to Rachel Held Evans.

2 thoughts on “What Millennials Want

  1. ME TOO! – And like Ms. Evans, I’m not a Millennial. For me, this is often expressed as ‘preaching one thing and acting another.’ I’m not a millennial, but I raised a millennial. And I listen to her views on church – what she believes and why she has just about zero interest in joining any sort of a faith community.
    When we continue to layer *our* rules over the simplicity of the two greatest commandments that Jesus left us with (Matthew 22:36-40) we pollute the beauty of grace and mercy with the ugly imperfection of humanity.
    The point is driven home as well for me in the spoken section of the lyrics to Casting Crowns ‘What This World Needs’:
    “People aren’t confused by the Gospel.
    They’re confused by us.
    Jesus is the only way to God, but we are not the only way to Jesus.
    This world doesn’t need my tie, my hoodie, my denomination or my interpretation of the Bible.
    They just need Jesus.
    We can be passionate about what we believe, but we can’t strap ourselves to the Gospel, because we are slowing it down.
    Jesus is going to save the world, but maybe the best thing we can do is just get out of the way.”
    Be blessed!

  2. Thanks for this sharing this article Pastor Somerville. I think Ms. Evans raises a good point that many times people leave the church institution because they do “not find Jesus” at church – or they encounter lukewarm Christians who are mean or snobby (but Christians are not perfect and that is all the more reason as to why we need should not forsake the gathering together – and why we need to frequent the Body of Christ – because we are stronger together and “with” fellow believers we have more strength and accountability that can help us grow). And in my case, the meanest people I have ever met have been in the church – but also the sweetest and most awesome people I have ever met have been in the church too – and true love will be found in the body of Christ because He designed it that way (still not perfect of course) and it is only through Him that we can truly love others.

    Anyhow, Biblical truths apply the same to all generational cohorts -and I think C.S. Lewis referred to a chronological snobbery that may also be relevant to consider here.

    So whatever it “is” that younger people are “looking for” should still be filtered through the Word of God – and giving them what they desire should never supersede the truth that is found in the Bible. Yes, many American churches are “missing the mark” and yes many have become big country clubs that operate like any another business – but it seems that Ms. Evans presents some dichotomies that are not mutually exclusive or even close to being opposites (i.e. intellectual integrity is not the opposite of faith, science is not the opposite of Christianity, and compassion is not the opposite of holiness).

    Also – do evangelical’s really have an obsession with sex (as Ms. Evans’ suggests)???Or is it the other way around – and is it that sex is the hot issue right now and current views of what is “trendy and fun” conflicts with Biblical truths…. Also, does Ms. Evans simply not agree with sex in the boundary of marriage for everyone? – and does she NOT agree that the Christian list of rules – the one she seems to mock or minimize – well is actually a guard rail for wellness and health.
    In contrast to Ms. Evans’ view – the Christ following community actually needs to become MORE consumed with the topic of sex- especially because our current millennials – and the emerging Generation Z – are exposed to more pornography than any other cohort so far – and will end up being the most sexually confused generations to date. And so we need to be prepared to deal with this emerging trend.

    When Ms. Evans writes, “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities”? Well i want to love them too – but Does this mean condoning sexual immorality because it is freshly packaged millennial style – where sexual desires are called a birth defect (or as a genetic inheritable condition) and where Bible verses are taken out of context and then weaved and twisted to support LGBT posits and beliefs…..

    And so while this article raises some nice points, I disagree with Ms. Evans on another note – because “sitting down and talking to millennials about what they want” is not the action we need to take here – because what they WANT (right now) likely can’t and should not be catered to. Instead, we need to pray and fats and intercede – and just keep on preachin’ and teachin’ Biblical truth.

    We should NOT aim to “win anyone over” – instead, we let the TRANSFORMING Word of God draw people – we let God’s feed them, heal them, and transform them! And for some folks this may mean edgier music – and others may reach with hot chocolate and lattes – but It is only the truth of God’s Word that can dispel the delusional thinking that permeates the secular world. And so our millennials are not at church for many reasons – but one of the biggest is spiritual blinders that hinder them from seeing the truth that is found in the Word of God.

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