I just read yet another article on why millennials are abandoning church. And honestly, if you’ve been around in the church-world for a few decades, it’s really just the same ole spin, same ole reasons used with every generation: “The young people are fleeing the church — what can we do to stop it?” Nothing new under the sun.
But at the same time, the points in the article were entirely valid — not because they specifically reflected “millennial values,” but simply because they cut to the core of the whole point and purpose of the church. What it boils down to is this: People see no reason to join a stale organization that doesn’t seem to serve an important purpose.
The author of the piece puts it in more churchy language: “Millennials perceive established churches to have values that are entrenched in non-missional traditions.” He writes that this generation of 20- and 30-somethings values community, service to others, and a world-awareness, but they see established churches acting contrary to those values. Churches today seem more concerned about maintaining the status quo — too much “doing the same thing because that’s how it’s always been done” — rather than making an actual difference in the world. And in the process, losing the whole point of the Church in the first place.
But this is not just the perception of millennials. Any person with an appetite for authenticity and spiritual reality will tend to view churches the same way. In years past, “relevance” was the buzz word. Churches were dying because they were frozen in decades past, preaching about issues and sins no one cared about, using out-moded language, not addressing the modern viewpoint. So churches started trying to act “hip”. Worship music was updated. New lighting systems were installed. Smoke machines were purchased to add effect. Youth ministers dressed in youth-trendy fashions. The suit jacket and tie disappeared from the pulpit in favor of jeans and open-neck, button-down shirts. Even the old bulky wooden pulpits themselves were replaced with transparent acrylic or newer industrial metal lecterns.
And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. But it’s all simply cosmetic if the heart of the church isn’t renewed, if the church doesn’t get back to its core purpose of reaching out to a hurting world.
I heard a sermon online recently where the pastor spoke at length about the Christian obligation to “go into all the world” and “witness,” and it largely revolved around inviting people to church. “Let’s fill this house, let’s pack these pews.” Really? Is that what Jesus commanded us to do?
Just to be clear, Jesus never instructed us to “go out and witness.” He commanded us to BE witnesses, to make disciples. That’s a day-to-day thing, being a living presence where you are, being a light for those around you to see. It’s about building relationships with people, where you get your hands dirty in their messy lives. Where you walk beside them, being a friend, a help, offering insight where you have it. “Discipleship” is day-to-day influence through one-on-one relationship. If you have to make a special effort, if you have to put on airs or act differently in order to “witness,” you’re really missing the point. It’s about being personally transformed by your own relationship with God, and having that work its way out in the way you interact with people, the way you do your job, the way you view the world. It’s about living a life of love that is so attractive to others that they hunger for what you have. That they want God in their lives the way he is in yours. They are drawn to the light. But if you don’t have it, you can’t offer it. And you sure can’t fake it. Nobody falls for that crap.
The church loses each successive generation because it is too tied with the past, too tied to maintaining the building, paying for the heat and light — too distracted with upkeep of the existing building — that it’s lost track of reaching out beyond its walls. It’s become a cycle of self-survival. And when the church turns inward, when it loses its outward focus, it become stagnant. It becomes about “us” and keeping us entertained. As the writer of that other article said, “the established church feels more like a religious country club rather than an outwardly-focused organization.”
So, you want more millennials in your church? You want more people genuinely interested in the “real thing” that you have? Then get back to the basics. Get back to a heart that cares. Hands that serve. Money that goes to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help the homeless, care for the sick — that DOES SOMETHING. Be a group of people that actively engages the world, that goes to the bars, that enjoys life, that loves on people as they are and where they are — not a group that seals itself off from the “great unclean” world out there, shunning “sinners,” cloistering itself in its own little holy community.
The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all. It’s a farce. It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.
So what is the Church? It is the people of God doing the work of God.
Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.
A friend posted a personal observation on Facebook today about his health. He hadn’t been to the gym since he’d gotten back from a vacation in Europe, and noticed that he was feeling lethargic with lower energy levels. Even his sleeping was effected, where he wasn’t sleeping straight through the night. So he returned to the gym, to physical activity — to “movement” — getting back to his cardio workout and yoga practice. Suddenly, he’s sleeping soundly again and his energy levels are back. He sums it up: “All I did was move! The body is meant for movement.”
And it’s the same for the church. Too many churches have become lethargic, with low energy levels. The self-absorption and lack of involvement with the world around them has caused them to become dull and lifeless — and people are losing interest. People are drifting away. Like my friend’s body, the Body of Christ is meant for movement. For activity. And like the human body, without it, we become unhealthy.
And the solution is just as simple. “Nothing elaborate — just move. The results are immediate.”
Maybe if we focused less on our shrinking church family and more on the people around us — becoming active in our communities, serving each other, taking care of our world — we wouldn’t be having these perpetual conversations about how the current generation doesn’t seem to be interested in us anymore.
photo credit: Seth Sawyers via Flickr, cc
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.