One thing I appreciate about Rachel Held Evans is that pieces like this provide good fodder for well-informed and winsome responses that I believe are more connected with how things really are. (If Rachel had used the word “I” instead of “we” throughout her piece, I think it would have been more helpful than presuming to speak as the spokesperson for an entire generation.)

Trevin Wax provides a response today, and Joe Thorn explains why Millennials are coming to church.

Anthony Bradley observes that the church Rachel pines for already exists and is in decline:

Why doesn’t Evans, and others who embrace her critique of “the church,” simply encourage Millennials, who do not believe Jesus “is found” in their churches, to join churches like the UMC [United Methodist Church]? If someone is passionate about Jesus and is truly looking for him, but doesn’t find him in one church, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a genuine search would lead that person to another church where it is believed Jesus actually is? It makes me wonder if the Evans critique is not about something else.

One of the many blind spots in Evans’ entire project is that young evangelicals are not leaving evangelical churches to join mainline churches like the UMC, they are leaving the church altogether in many cases. Evans’ list does not help us understand that phenomena much at all. In fact, even the UMC, with all Evans’ lauded attributes, is hemorrhaging. The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America’s 350,000 congregations.

And Brett McCracken—author of the new book Gray Matters—has a thoughtful and humorous response in The Washington Post online. He suggests that Millennials spurn Rachel’s advice and do the opposite:

Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?

And for pastors, church leaders, and others so concerned with the survival of the church amidst the glut of “adapt or die!” hype, is asking Millennials what they want church to be and adjusting accordingly really your best bet? Are we really to believe that today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation of Millennials has more wisdom to offer about the church than those who have thought about and faithfully served the church decade after decade, amidst all its warts, challenges and ups and down?

Further:

Just like the Photoshop-savvy Millennials she is so desperate to retain, the church is ever more meticulously concerned with her image, monitoring what people are saying about her and taking cues from that.

Erik Thoennes, professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University, is troubled by the church’s obsession with perception.

“We’ve got experts who tell us ‘this is how pagans think about us, Oh no!’ and we wring our hands and say ‘we’re so lame!'” said Thoennes. “This perception-driven way of doing things will make you go crazy. We’re junior highers. Junior highers live in this world of ‘how am I being perceived’ all the time. Oh to be free from that!”

Much of this is an outgrowth of the audience-is-sovereign mentality of the seeker-sensitive movement, which has loomed large in evangelicalism’s recent history. Another part of it is Christianity’s capitulation to a consumerist culture where the primary goal is to scratch where the market itches.

But at the end of the day, the Christian gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever itch people think Christianity should scratch. Consumerism asserts that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about me. But to position the gospel within this consumerist, give-them-what-they-want framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamy variations. If Christianity aims to sell a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?

I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.

Not unrelated is Dan Phillips’ post, drawing from the book of Titus and encouraging us to ask some questions about the diversity of age—or lack thereof—in our churches.

http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2013/08/too-many-old-people.html

Finally, every pastor and commentator should be aware of the arguments in books like Bradley Wright’s  Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. Kevin DeYoung summarizes his research on young folks leaving the church:

we’ve seen over the past decades that the lower percentages among youth increase as the twenty-year-olds become thirty-year-olds, the thirty-year-olds become forty-year-olds and so on. Simply put, young adults (especially during their college years) are the least likely to be involved in church, but over time more and more of them (especially the ones with children) come back. Or, as the case may be, they never really meant to leave; they just drifted away for a time. Now, there’s no reason to celebrate 18-22-year-olds dropping out of church for a year, but making things sound worse than they are doesn’t help either.

Here is Wright in his own words:

Is the church really losing the young?

On the negative side, the number of young people who do not affiliate with any religion has increased in recent decades, just as it has for the whole population. Furthermore, to the extent that religiousness has changed, it has trended slightly toward less religious.

On the positive side, the percentage of young people who attend church or who think that religion is important has remained mostly stable. Also, the percentage that affiliate with Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Black protestantism are at or near 1970 levels. What I don’t see in the data are evidence of a cataclysmic loss of young people. Have we lost the young? No.

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14 thoughts on “We’re All Junior Highers Now: The Millennials and the Church”

  1. taco says:

    Thank you for this. Wonderful wrap up of all this. I get so sick of her talking as though she represents me.

  2. ajginn says:

    Joe Thorn explains why Millennials are coming to church.

    Joe Thorn’s anecdotal evidence is irrelevent to the larger trend. Millenials are leaving the church in droves and this continues a cycle of generational retreat from theism since the Greatest Geneneration. Both you and Rachel are incorrect in my opinion. The greatest factor in declining church attendance is due to the internet. The Millenial generation is the first to grow up with the internet as an integral part of their lives. This has allowed people to understand cultural differences more easily that even before. As a result, the claim to exclusivity of Christianity rings hollow and untrue to them. Everyone in the world claims to know “The Way” and have an exclusive claim to truth. That worldview does not stand up to scrutiny anymore.

    The internet has also provided a forum for agnostics and atheists to express the views freely and to dissect the claims of theists. Most Christians have never been exposed to rational arguments against Christianity. In the past, the first time most believers were confronted with opposition to and arguments against their faith was in college. Now this process begins as soon as a child learns to Google ‘atheism’ or ‘objections to christianity’. That process will only continue in the future.

    Gutenberg first chipped away the power of the church with movable type. As a result, ideas spread quickly including “heretical” ones. Denominations split and went their own ways. The One True Church lost its grip and things have never been the same. The internet has only exponentially multiplied this process. The unbelievable claims of theism when contrasted with the claims with evidence of science and rationalism simply don’t hold up and people are beginning to recognize it. Expect this trend to continue and accelerate.

    1. brig says:

      “The greatest factor in declining church attendance is due to the internet.”

      This assumes a lot of things. 1) Some of the statistical models indicate an uptick in church attendance in the last decade of the age of Internet Enlightenment. 2) Some sociologists grumble at the Gallup and Barna stats, and have suggested that attendance has been relatively flat over 40 years. Either way, an “exponential multiplication” generally indicates a dramatic change, but formulas and trends can be both exponential and slow.

      “The internet has also provided a forum for agnostics and atheists to express the views freely and to dissect the claims of theists.”

      Democritus and Epicurus never would have been able to critique theism and develop a materialist worldview without WiFi in the pre-Socratic Athenian Areopagus.

      “Most Christians have never been exposed to rational arguments against Christianity.”

      Yes, Christians are completely uneducated, and have never read any philosophy whatsoever until college. All that classical Christian education stuff leaves out things like Kant’s Critique, and definitely skips Darwin’s Origin. They’re definitely not on any high school reading list in Christian circles. Nope. Little good it would do them — all the good stuff is on blogs, anyway.

      “Now this process begins as soon as a child learns to Google ‘atheism’”

      In the past, libraries were off-limits to Christians.

      “Gutenberg first chipped away the power of the church with movable type.”

      Thanks to the printing press, Arianism, Marcionism, Manichaeism were all able to gain traction in opposition to Rome. Nor were Muslims ever able to capture any Christian territory in Asia or Africa. The Eastern church never existed. Let’s just focus on Europe and ignore the rest of the world.

      Yours is a fascinating myopic gloss of history.

      1. ajginn says:

        Democritus and Epicurus never would have been able to critique theism and develop a materialist worldview without WiFi in the pre-Socratic Athenian Areopagus.

        All snark aside, the great philosophical arguments against a omni-everything god were unknown to most poeple of the ancient and medieval worlds. Only the learned knew of Aristotle, Plato or the Greeks. More people than ever are being introduced to the ideas of men like Hume or Nietzsche because their ideas are available at the press of a button.

        Yes, Christians are completely uneducated, and have never read any philosophy whatsoever until college. All that classical Christian education stuff leaves out things like Kant’s Critique, and definitely skips Darwin’s Origin. They’re definitely not on any high school reading list in Christian circles. Nope. Little good it would do them — all the good stuff is on blogs, anyway.

        I said most Christians, not all. And I would argue the vast majority of Christians are unaware of most of the modern biblical scholarship that calls into question the authorship of almost all the OT and much of the NT. Neither are they aware that biblical archaeology has proven to be a complete bust and, in fact, that recent archeological finds have led most historians to conclude that the biblical account of the Patriarchs, the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are unreliable. Finally, while almost all Christians understand that Neo-Darwinian evolution has something to do with animals changing, they don’t understand the process at all (most Americans do not either). And those Christians who do accept the truth of evolution still think that “God could have done it that way” but fail to understand that evolution destroys the doctrine of Original Sin and the Atonement. Most of them simply haven’t thought through the repercussions upon orthodox Christian dogma by an embrace of Neo-Darwinian evolutionaty theory.

        In the past, libraries were off-limits to Christians.

        There’s a big difference between going to the library, looking up a subject and going through a buch of books and Googling something and having a million links a few clicks away. The difference is one of scale.

        Thanks to the printing press, Arianism, Marcionism, Manichaeism were all able to gain traction in opposition to Rome. Nor were Muslims ever able to capture any Christian territory in Asia or Africa. The Eastern church never existed. Let’s just focus on Europe and ignore the rest of the world.

        Well, since we’re talking about Christianity, it makes sense to focus on the Western world, doesn’t it? Ideas move at the speed of light today, not by word of mouth in a city like Rome. Also, there is no Empire with the power to dictate the preferred doctrine to its subjects. Little wonder those other heretical sects went the way of the dinosaurs.

        The game has changed forever barring some catastrophic end to civilization as we know it. You can’t compare the pre-WWW world and the world of today when it comes to the flow of information and ideas.

        1. taco says:

          More people than ever are being introduced to the ideas of men like Hume or Nietzsche because their ideas are available at the press of a button.

          Hume is a great for dealing with scientism/empiricism. Perhaps you’ve read him and maybe some responses to Hume? I’ll help you google: http://www.proginosko.com/docs/induction.html and this: http://www.choosinghats.com/2012/09/dr-james-anderson-the-atheists-guide-intellectual-suicide/

        2. Andy says:

          ajginn, do you believe everything on google?

          “More people than ever are being introduced to the ideas of men like Hume or Nietzsche” – let’s be real here, probably more than 99% of the people in the world, or even in the U.S. know next to nothing about Hume or Nietzsche. Even if they did, who said that they were right on even a small fraction of their thinking? You?

          By the way, most of the modern Biblical scholarship supports the reliability of the Scriptures…in seminaries and religious institutions, and most of the modern Biblical scholarship tears down the reliability of the Scriptures…in secular institutions. Of course, probably more than 99.9% of the population knows almost nothing about this Biblical scholarship…since it’s not on google. Why bother using up hardware and paying for something that’s going to be published in some obscure journal that your 5 friends at similar institutions are going to read and cite while another 5 professors who disagree with you reject and refute? And another 5 hold a different view from the 10 aforementioned ignore altogether? Similarly with the Biblical archaeology you mention.

          Some here might want you give evidence for these claims. I don’t. I know that you would just pick a couple of lines from a couple of your favorite authors, and if you really wanted to post something very legitimate, you would spend the rest of your life doing historical research that barely scratches the surface of several gigantic and complex fields of study.

          One of the biggest draws to atheism that I’ve seen in predominantly religious communities is the selfish desire to be superior intellectually. They feel like they can “rise above the general population” in mental prowess by holding to a belief in no God. Somehow adhering to that one belief makes them smarter than the majority of the great scientists in history, who believed in some sort of deity. Little do they realize that they have done nothing to advance themselves intellectually. This is shown to be the fact when atheist spokespeople debate Christians and routinely lose.

    2. Melody says:

      You’re right about the internet allowing us to encounter beliefs we would not have encountered in our regular sphere, but you’re wrong about it making Christianity seem hollow.

      When I was in Jr. High my Sunday school teacher pushed me to be able to explain my faith, not just to christians who understand but to people who think it’s ridiculous. But I didn’t know anyone like that.

      So I hopped on the internet and stared chatting with people from various religions. A lot of athiests and agnostics too.

      It didn’t weaken my faith. I learned a lot about the Bible and the early church through our discussions. I did a lot of research to answer their questions/challenges and I never came away thinking that they might be the ones with answers.

      1. Melody, what a great story. Thanks for sharing.

        It is very encouraging to me because as I minister to younger folks I urge them to do similar. I always pray that they would be able to have experiences like you have had.

  3. Don says:

    I recommend reading Dr. Jason Allen’s (President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) post:
    http://jasonkallen.com/2013/08/where-have-all-the-young-adults-gone-reflections-on-why-young-people-leave-the-church/

  4. Chris says:

    I think Wright makes a great point. We aren’t losing the youth. It’s especially encouraging to see movements like Youth America, YRR, World Youth Day, Catalyst, Passion, SYMC.. Just looking at the youth conferences that take place throughout the year I’m tempted to say that this upcoming generation may even be on of the most spiritually charged groups to date, and they certainly have a far greater and broader range of resources and teachers available that provide sound biblical doctrine.

  5. Over a year ago, and regarding a very similar article, James K A Smith had a great response.

    http://forsclavigera.blogspot.ca/2012/05/generational-blackmail.html

    Very short, very sharp, and very relevant.

    Perhaps, Justin, you could include a link to it as it pertains perfectly to RHE’s recent viral post.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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