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.

KOH2RVA: Day 59

How do you bring heaven to earth on Election Day?  You start by voting.

I got in line at 6:00 this morning, a long line, where I stood shivering in the cold with my neighbors. It was good to see them, actually. We often talk about loving our neighbors but on Election Day there they were, all standing in line with me. I could see who they were and what they looked like.

The one standing right in front of me lived a block away from the polling place. He had left his wife and children sleeping when he walked over to vote. He was wearing a VCU sweatshirt and holding a VCU travel mug which gave me an easy “in”: I asked, “Did you go to VCU or do you just advertise their products?”

That got the ball rolling.

He asked me where I went to school and I told him that I had graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky. “Oh!” he said. “My dad went to UK” (the University of Kentucky, that is, in Lexington, just twelve miles away from Georgetown). That helped to establish some common ground, which was something I was thinking about just yesterday.

This campaign season has been so bitter and divisive; Democrats and Republicans growl at each other openly and threaten to tear down each other’s campaign signs. But we are all Americans, aren’t we? And at some level we all want the same thing—to live in a great nation. We just have very different ideas about how to get there.

So I was thinking about how we could build “islands” of common ground with our neighbors by talking about all the things we have in common. This guy who was in line with me, for instance: He lives in Richmond’s Museum District. So do I. He’s married. So am I. He’s the father of two children. So am I. He has to go to work today. So do I. Now, he doesn’t look like I do; it turns out he was born in Nepal.  But by the time we parted ways to cast our votes we had almost become friends. I was this close to inviting him over for dinner sometime. And all of this without asking him who he was voting for, because, the truth is, if I had asked him, and if he had said he was voting for the other guy, that might have ended our conversation right there.

Isn’t that a shame? That we would let something like our political differences keep us from being friends? On this Election Day maybe we could bring heaven to earth by remembering how much we have in common even with those people who are voting for “the other guy,” and not let partisan politics come between us.

I’m not sure about this but I believe that when you look at Earth from Heaven you can’t even see the lines of division between countries, much less people. All you see is this beautiful, blue-green planet, and on it all the beautiful children who make up the family of God.

My neighbor, for instance.

What is “Church”?

I’ve been asking the staff of First Baptist, Richmond, to answer the question: “What is Church?”  Here are some of the answers I’ve received so far.

Phil Mitchell says: “For the biggest portion of my life, I thought of the church as a place where Christians went to worship, fellowship, be resourced and trained, mobilize to do and give to missions, and find personal support. Though I don’t believe any of that is untrue, I believe it is less true. I now believe church is a movement of the Body of Christ to make earth look like and function more like heaven, that place where God’s reign is clear and evident. As the church embodies the mission of God, its heart is changed. As the church changes its heart, the mission of God becomes increasingly real and present. So, the church is about changing the world and its heart for God’s sake.”

Lynn Turner says: “Having just returned from the BWA Congress, I am reminded once again that church is so much more than our little corner of the world in Richmond Virginia.  The church as Christ intended it to be, is the living, breathing, moving, presence of the Holy Spirit that sees the needs of people through the eyes of every believer and causes us to do something that will have an eternal impact in the life of another. With Christ as her foundation, the Holy Spirit as her power, the church of Jesus Christ has no limits of sharing the love of God in a world that desperately needs hands of compassion and a message of hope! Now that is something I can get excited about!”

David Powers says: “My thinking and feeling about church have been heavily influenced in recent months by Eugene Peterson’s newest book Practice Resurrection. It is essentially a study of Ephesians. In his translation of 1:23, Peterson has Paul saying, “The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” Our function, as members of Christ’s body, is to help one another to grow up into mature disciples (4:14-16). That sums up what church means to me. I am part of God’s body, his family. As such, I am responsible for contributing to the nurture of other members of the family. And I strive to remain open to and responsive to the nurture provided to me. Together, we hear Christ speak and see him act. This mutual feeding and being fed leads to deep love and respect among the family. The result is that we begin to mimic what we see Jesus saying and doing among us: we act out Christ’s love in the world – we become his voice, hands and feet.”

What about you?  What do you think “church” is?  How big does it have to be?  Does it have to happen in a building?  Do you need a preacher and a choir?  If you had invented the church, what would that church look like?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Why don’t you click on the word “comments” below and tell me what you’re thinking.

Jim

One of God’s Favorites

I find that I tell this story over and over again in conversation; I thought it might be good to tell it here:

I was coming up out of the Dupont Circle Metro station one morning in Washington, on my way to work at First Baptist Church, when I saw someone coming down the escalator on the other side who looked, well…scary.  He was wearing dark glasses, a leather jacket, and enough tattoos and body piercings to make it hard to see what he really looked like.  I gulped and thought, “There’s one of God’s favorites.”

I don’t know what inspired that thought but it had an immediate effect—no longer did I see him as frightening or threatening; I saw him as one of God’s favorites.  I could imagine God introducing the two of us and saying, “Jim, have you met Mad Dog?  I love this guy!”  And I could imagine Mad Dog smiling and reaching out to shake hands.  I smiled when I passed him on the escalator (and was it my imagination or did he smile back?). 

As I walked the two blocks to church I tried it on every person I passed: “There’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites…”  And on every person it worked: I saw them in a different way than I had only a second earlier.  By the time I reached the end of the first block it was all I could do not to tell the woman who was standing there with me waiting for the light to change, “You’re one of God’s favorites!”  I believed she really was.

When I got to church one of our preschool teachers was on the playground with some of the children and I stopped to talk with her, still giddy from my walk.  Teresa is originally from Jamaica.  She has a sweet, sweet spirit and a beautiful smile.  I’m almost 100% sure that she is one of God’s favorites and I told her so.  She beamed.  Every time I saw her in the days that followed I would say, “You’re one of God’s favorites!” and she would say, “You are, too!”  (That’s not a bad way to greet one another, is it?). 

To this day, when I encounter someone who seems different, strange, or even a little bit scary I just think, “There’s one of God’s favorites,” and it helps.  And I know this, that even if that person is not one of God’s favorites, he or she is someone God loves, and that makes a difference.

If God loves Mad Dog he can’t be all bad, can he?

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p.s. The picture I’ve used on this post is a picture of someone who calls himself “the Scary Guy.”  Click on the link to find out more.  He may really be one of God’s favorites!