Like Rachel Held Evans, I’m on the older end of the millennial demographic, as I recently turned 30. I also get to chat with twentysomething Christians a lot in my job at Trinity Christian College enough to know that we’re a pretty diverse generation. There’s a big difference between old millennials, who spent most of college before Facebook was invented, and young millennials, who joined in middle school. Because of this and my recent experience of looking for a church after moving, I read Evans’ CNN post on why millennials are leaving the church, the articles that inspired it and the myriad responses with interest. On the one hand, I share a lot of Evans’ concerns, but on the other, I do not always share her experience in the church. We grew up in different traditions and different regions.
I keep mentioning differences because that’s something I fear this discussion ignores. Any discussion of generational differences tends to overstate them and homogenize a generation that is diverse in a lot of ways. While it is true that many millennials would like to see a church less concerned about sexual sin and more concerned about issues under the banner of “social justice,” this is not true for all of them. And as many critics have pointed out, mainline Protestant churches already check many of the boxes on Evans’ list, but are not busting at the seams with twentysomethings. It’s also true that different people have different experiences and reasons for walking away from the church of their youth or Christianity altogether, as this Barna blog post details.
I keep mentioning differences because that’s something I fear this discussion ignores.
So here’s my proposal: let’s celebrate the diversity within the Christian church - loudly. The church in North America has a lot of different traditions, with differing theological beliefs, all within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. However, sometimes Christians introduce new boundaries and define whole swaths of believers as “not really Christian” or “not good enough.” Maybe we can develop ways to say, “We disagree with them about that belief, but they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ.” This way, young people can see how God’s love extends beyond our disagreements.
Along this vein, it makes sense for churches to know their identity and celebrate the gifts in their congregation. Certainly, some young Christians find a place in a church led by a worship pastor with skinny jeans and other young Christians find that image incredibly off-putting. The solution isn’t for every worship pastor to change their wardrobe, but to make sure there are middle-aged organists and mixed-generation praise teams and opportunities for gifted people to serve in different contexts. I think this is what Andrea Dilley is after in her article: even the same person might need or want different things at different times in their life. We can maybe work together at being all things to all people, and choose the style and tone most suited to our particular gifts. And we might consider an inherited tradition of smells and bells or hymnsings or small-scale Bible study (to name a few) among those gifts.
There are a lot of people with a lot of politics within Christianity, and maybe we spend too much time criticizing each other for our differences and not enough celebrating with wonder the different ways we have found to worship and study and build our relationships with God. Perhaps if we get better at bearing with one another, young people would be more likely to find new ways to be in the Body of Christ as they grow and change.