There are all kinds of statistics and articles about millennials walking away from church. According to research by the Barna Group, 59% of those raised in church have dropped out and 35% believe that churches do more harm than good. Much of the church’s response has been to attempt to become trendy – to offer updated worship music and provide coffee. These responses often serve to punctuate what millennials seem to see as the problem, that we are disconnected, uninformed and unauthentic.
So, what if they’re right?
Christians have always been accused of hypocrisy on an individual level. Sometimes this is due simply to a lack of understanding. That is, we know we don’t just automatically stop sinning or getting all our relationships and interactions with people right once we accept Jesus as our Savior. However, it’s possible we’ve created this confusion by defining much of our religion by rules. When what we’re telling the world is that there is a long list of rules, of dos and don’ts that define Christianity, we set ourselves up for their critique. If we are continually, individually or corporately, pointing out others missteps, we should certainly accept that they will be happy to point out ours. If we define how well we’re “doing” Christianity by how well we follow the rules we likely create confusion, cynicism and push people away from Jesus instead of toward his love and grace.
Churchgoers are all sinners–there is no actual hypocrisy in that assertion. Maybe if we presented ourselves as just that, as messed up people trying to do better, more people would be interested in learning about Jesus and our faith. Maybe if we defined ourselves the way Jesus told us to in John 13:35 – “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” millennials would be more inclined to join us as we all endeavor to be more like Jesus.
What if instead of pointing out someone’s failures, we came along side them to help them do better?
What if when we saw someone doing things we see as wrong, we took time to listen to their story and hear their perspective instead of just expecting them to immediately see the situation from our perspective and then promptly change?
What if we painted a picture where following Jesus started with just loving people – something anyone can do – instead of following a bunch of rules and a to do list of church attendance, prayer, tithing, Bible study, quiet time, and so on?
Intentionally or not, society seems to see us as judgmental and rule bound which can’t be anything but confusing alongside a gospel message of freedom and love. Further, when thousands of different Protestant denominations can’t even agree on what the rules are and which ones have to be followed causing disagreement within the church, we shouldn’t be surprised that young adults may want no part of such a community.
Paul warns the early church that they need to “be united in mind and thought”, (1Cor.1:10) and that life is wholly and solely about Jesus. When we cannot agree amongst ourselves and at the same time focus on the laws and rules, we redirect the message away from Jesus and his saving grace.
On a broad scope, if we are gut wrenchingly honest, we might deserve the hypocrite label. Millennials I’ve talked to see us as being quick to judge both individuals and people groups and that we don’t “walk the talk”. These are well educated young adults with access to information and awareness of cultural differences like we never experienced at their age. Maybe we need to listen…
Because what if they’re right?
When on an individual, national and global scale we consider whole people groups as evil – they may be right.
When we refer to anyone as “those people” – they may be right.
When we profess to believe in certain standards of behavior and “family values” but don’t live them out in our own lives or excuse them in the political arena because the ends justify the means – they may be right.
When we quote Jesus saying to love our neighbors and our enemies and then support hateful rhetoric – they may be right.
When we know that the Bible says to take care of the widows, the orphans and the immigrant but we choose safety and frugality over protecting the vulnerable– they may be right.
Finally, when we add amendments and exceptions to the Ten Commandments in order to line them up with our culture or our government – they might be right.
None of us will get it all right – EVER! Nevertheless, if we don’t have the courage to take a hard introspective look at where we may be getting it wrong – where we may be choosing nationalism or empirical ways over the ways of His kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven”, we will continue to see millennials searching for something different. If because of money, power or family name that gives them a platform, the main voices of the church at large heard by the world are ones that support ideas that are un-Christ like and we choose to stay silent in response, we will continue to display a message of exclusivity and hypocrisy.
Most millennials have not turned away from their faith – just from the church.
As the old adage goes, we can continue to do the same things but we will get the same results. Alternatively, we can listen to what these young adults are saying and learn and grow and possibly create the kinds of authentic churches they can embrace.