Why Millennials Might Be Leaving the Church in Droves for the Wrong Reasons: Part 4

Preston Sprinkle

I  suggested in my last post that what we’re talking about here is largely (though not exclusively) a white problem. Instead of adding the word “white” to everything I say, though, I’ll just stick to the terms “Millennial” and “church” with the understanding that what we’re talking about may not apply to churches made up of racial minorities.
In this post, I want to turn things around a bit and expand on a comment I made in passing in my second blog of this series. I said:

“I…believe that at least some Millennials are leaving the church for terrible reasons. Selfish reasons. Sinful reasons. Or, they’re leaving the church because they really don’t want anything to do with Jesus. I don’t want to canonize the opinions and unmet desires of Millennials…”

So far in my series, I’ve leaned heavily toward emphasizing (and often agreeing with) many of the frustrations that Millennials have with the institutional church. To make sure we don’t swing the pendulum too far in the other direction—flying right past the Jesus we’re seeking to follow—let’s do some self-examination and make sure we take the log out of our own Millennial eyes before we tell older Christians about their specks.

You’re not that smart

Millennials are growing up never knowing a world without the internet. Our daily life is tethered to instant access to gazillion gigabytes of information. There are pros and cons to this world. One of the cons is that such access to information could lead you to think that you’re actually smarter than you really are, that you can Google everything your professor is telling you to make sure he’s right. If you don’t understand the cynical humor of that last statement, then there’s a good chance you’re not as smart as you think you are.

The pic is from Gratisography

Absorbing information doesn’t in itself produce wisdom. In fact, it can easily produce arrogance—the sure sign that you’re not nearly as smart, or wise, as you think you are. One 17 year old from Oregon illustrates the point. When asked to describe his life goals, he said: “I don’t know. I’m really good at a lot of things…I’m thinking of starting a college. I feel I have a lot to teach others about many subjects” (cited in Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 117).

You laugh (or you should laugh), but as a college professor, I experience an increasing number of students who have said similar things. I once listened to a student give me an hour monologue about all the problems with the church and how he has the answers to all of the church’s shortcomings. He was 21.

If you’re a Millennial who’s on the verge of leaving the church because the church is not doing things the right way, check your heart. In fact, check your head as well. There’s a good chance that your 62 year old pastor who’s been walking with Jesus longer than your parents have been alive might be able to answer some questions that Google can’t.

The Bible isn’t anti-building or anti-organization

I hear a lot of complaints about the so-called “institutional church” these days. (Many of these complaints are from my own mouth, actually. Just being honest.) As we sift through ways in which we can improve how we “do church” or “are the church,” we can’t say that the New Testament is against buildings or organization. First century Jews met in synagogues, and Christians followed in suit. The only reason why they ended up meeting in homes was because they got booted out of the synagogues. (And, FWIW, homes are buildings too.) Early Christians didn’t have a problem with the material structure of the temple. They met there too. It was their theology that raised significant questions about temple worship.

And the New Testament isn’t down on structure and organization. It’s true that the Corinthian letters reveal a church that’s somewhat congregationally led and loose on structure. But maybe this is why the Corinthian church had so many problems, I don’t know. You can also read the Pastoral letters (1-2 Tim and Titus) and clearly see that there’s structure all over the place. And let’s not poo poo our 2,000 years of rich history that’s filled with structure, organization, and meaningful liturgy. If there’s anything wrong with the so-called institutional church, it’s not that it’s structured. It’s that the current structure might stifle the work of the Spirit and the gifts of its members.

Structure isn’t bad.Bad structure is bad. And we need to be clear about the difference.

The traditional way of doing church doesn’t need to be totally ditched. But it does need to be thrown on a hospital bed for a thorough examination. And yes, some examinations—I’m about to turn forty—may hurt.

Submission is a Christ-like virtue

I haven’t seen a statistic that says Millennials or other “dechurched” people are not submissive, yet I’ve picked up on a subtle yet pervasive tone among the dechurched that feels unsubmissive. I’m not talking about the horrific church experiences that some people have revealed. Experiences that involve abuse, legalism, or strange addictions to power. I’m talking about differences in philosophies of ministry.

A common complaint among the dechurched is that the ways in which they wanted to serve Jesus didn’t fit within the vision or mission of the local church. So their idea was shot down. This can certainly be frustrating: to develop a passion for serving Jesus through a particular ministry, only to have it snuffed out by what seems like power-driven church bureaucracy.

But what if the leaders were right? What if you were wrong? What if your 62 year old pastor has tried to do that thing you wanted to do and saw that it didn’t work? What if

The pic is from Gratisography

that particular ministry was an ineffective way to further the kingdom? What if your idea, your ministry,your way of advancing the kingdom is not a very good way? I can’t speak to every situation, of course. But I do know from experience that some ideas I’ve had when I was 25 were actually terrible ideas and would have done more harm than good.

A lot of dechurched people have massive passions to help the poor. But what if the ways in which you want to help the poor will actually hurt the poor? Confronting poverty is quite complicated. Not every passion to help the poor should be empowered. After all, it’s the poor, not your passion for the poor, that’s the priority.

All that to say, the New Testament is very clear and quite pervasive in celebrating submission to leaders as a distinctively Christian virtue. This doesn’t mean we should endure spiritual (or physical) abuse. But it does mean that it may be more Jesus-like to submit to your leaders when there’s disagreement in philosophies of ministries.

Obedience isn’t legalism

I’ve read and listened to a lot of complaints about the church’s so-called legalism. Church people are way too concerned with personal morality: not getting drunk, not watching R rated movies, and not having sex before your married.

I get the frustration. I’ve expressed it myself several times on this blog. The Christian life shouldn’t be reduced to a specific set of do’s and don’ts that have been championed by the 20th century American evangelical church. But it can’t do away with personal morality either.

Let’s make sure we don’t smack Jesus upside the head as we’re swinging our pendulum way too far in the opposite direction. I mean, seriously. As I listen to some people bemoaned the church’s focus on sexual immorality, it seems like their “Jesus” is cheering them on as their having sex with their girlfriend.

Yes, the church has had some weird and legalistic rules about drinking. But Jesus doesn’t overlook your drunkenness because you have a heart for the poor. Tattoos aren’t sinful. Wearing jewelry isn’t wrong. Brand name clothes aren’t inherently wicked. But being so absorbed with yourself and what you look like is. Excessive spending is morally suspect whether you’re spending money on church carpets or craft beer.

As we critique the church’s legalism, let’s make sure we’re not mocking Jesus’s call to holiness.

As we listen to and consider the complaints of Millennials, let’s weigh them against God’s will that He’s revealed in Scripture. I’ll take a stab at this in my final post in this series as I articulate how I think we can learn from dechurched Millennials.

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