Over at CNN’s Belief Blog, Rachel Held Evans has written a post entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church.” I encourage you to read it, as it isn’t long and it will allow you to form your own opinion before I give you mine. If you’ve never heard of Evans, she has earned for herself a significant voice among Christian young adults through books like A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” I won’t get into that book here, as I’ve not read it, but the title itself contains a few clues that give away her perspective. And if you’ve never heard of millennials, apparently we are the generation born in the years between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s.
Her blog post is worth paying some real attention to. In it she outlines the issues that are important to millennials, and uses as evidence “the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers.” She concludes that
“Young adults perceive Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness. [Further], the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and … millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.”
I think that this is largely true, that the books, music, and movies popular among millennials point to these patterns of thought. While there are significant numbers of millennials, myself included, who would read this and say, for the most part, “That’s not me,” our numbers are in the minority. She’s talking in particular about evangelical Christianity, a brand from which our churches have stayed somewhat free. But no doubt there are people who would like to see our churches follow the evangelical example, with a simpler liturgy, and the sort of worship you could spread on a doughnut. In that case, what she writes is relevant in assessing our own particular traditions as well:
“Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, ‘So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …’
And I proceed to band my head against the podium.
… Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”
As someone who spent a few years of his life in a church with a nonexistent liturgy (songs, message, some more songs), I know what it is to be drawn in the way Evans describes. I know how refreshing it can be to come back to a church that every Sunday morning brings you through the process of confrontation, humiliation, repentance, encouragement, and blessing. It’s a process by which the ever-wayward heart once again regains its appropriate, worshipful posture before the King of Kings, and one that churches dispense with at their own folly.
The challenge, then, not just for our church, but for Reformed churches in general, is on the one hand to resist the urge to join the weak and fading brand of Christianity that we find on Praise Radio, and on the other to intelligently and joyfully embrace the traditions which have been revealed to us in Scripture and passed on to us by the Church Immemorial. Not only is this good biblical sense, it also gives us some real common ground with millennials. That ground is what Evans spends the first half of her blog post covering.
The second half of her article is where she asserts her solidarity with the millennial mindset. She does so in a series of “we wants,” where she speaks for like-minded millennials. As I read through them, the refrain running through my mind was “Yes, but…” As in, looked at in a certain way these statements are something I could endorse. But then, looked at from another way, they’re all wrong. And there does come a point at which the “buts” are simply too many, in the same way that eventually you get tired of chomping down on chunks of bone in your hot dog.
Here are a few of them:
“We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.”
I have no problem with the last statement, as it’s simply a question of emphasis and an important emphasis to keep in mind. But the first two are clearly “yes, buts.” Culture wars are in one way a particularly American phenomenon into which all of life appears divided into right-wing and left-wing, and your job is to stick to the guns which are handed to you. These conflicts often involve arbitrarily simple categories that encourage those on opposite sides to avoid thoughtful analysis. Christians should reject this oversimplification, yes. But culture wars are also the result of a much deeper principle, one which was installed into the created world in Genesis 3:15. There is an insurmountable warfare between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and where God has declared war man will never find peace. If that’s the sort of peace Evans is looking for, then she’s running contrary to an immovable decree. The same thing goes for science. Where scientists present theories that make claims opposite to those of Scripture, then those theories must be rejected. Any “peace” there is false and misleading.
“We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”
I’m not entirely sure what she means. What exactly is a predetermined answer, and how does it differ from a true answer? And predetermined by whom? If she’s talking again about reducing life to an absurd level of simplicity, sort of like presuming to speak for an entire generation, then I’d agree with her. Life doesn’t present itself to us in a series of easy yes-or-no scenarios, and we should not attempt to force it as such. But God has given us guidance on a plethora of issues, from disciplining our children to biblical masculinity and femininity to civil government. God has predetermined that wives must submit to their husbands, that civil authorities must submit to His Word, and that the cross is the only path to God. These are predetermined answers that we tinker with to our great peril.
“We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.”
But what sorts of LGBT friends are we talking about? Those who show up on Sunday morning like every other child of God, deeply sorrowful of their sins and looking to cast their perversions at the foot of the cross? In that case, yes, absolutely, may they fill the pews! But if she’s referring to those who want an endorsement of their actively LGBT lifestyle, which the Bible makes clear is an abomination to the Lord, then the assembly of God’s elect should be the most uncomfortable of all places for them.
Towards the end, she makes clear that “we’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
And Jesus Christ makes Himself known to His flock through His Word. In fact, the easiest way to notice Spirit shaping spirit is when that spirit “breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times.” When rooted in God’s Word, none of the above “we wants” are especially contentious. However, that Word is significantly absent from Evans’s article, and she instead takes her cues from the entrenched agnosticism of our zeitgeist. This is why she can sound so close to the truth and yet be missing it entirely. It’s also at the authority of Scripture that we find the difference between true spirituality and the trendy, faux-faith that we find all around us.
Scripture is the infallible norming norm, the ultimate instrument with which to measure the prevailing winds of madness blowing within the Church, outside of her, and off into the waste howling wilderness of who knows what spiritual depravity. The millennial generation is no different than any other. There are those of us called by God and those of us condemned; and it’s His Word, wherein we do delight, that accomplishes both ends. This, as it always has been, is the only relevance that matters. We should ever be seeking out the common ground that we have with those who differ from us, with the purpose of bringing them to the glories of the Word. For those of us millennials dancing to the postmodern piper, may God’s voice strip the chorus bare!