Saturday, February 15, 2014

why the church missed millennials: a millennial and pastor's response to Rachel Held Evans

photo: Raj Lulla

I realize that I am very late to the party, but we welcomed our second baby into the world three days before Rachel Held Evans' article entitled "Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church" when viral on cnn.com.

Nevertheless, during one sleepless night shortly thereafter, I penned the following open letter to Mrs. Held Evans in response to her missive.  Much ink has been spilled in critique of her article.  Most missed the point.  The best I read was from Alastair Roberts, who made the excellent point that we should pay more attention to churches who have successfully retained millennials rather than the words of millennials who might have left the Church regardless of concessions made on their behalf.

If I miss the boat on responding as I did in this case, I normally just let the post rot in my "drafts" folder until I realize the irrelevancy of the outdated post and mercifully dispatch it to the trash.  This post, however, has stuck with me.  I still feel as strongly about it as I did the day I wrote it six months ago.  Maybe one of you will connect with it too.

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Dear Mrs. Held Evans,

I have a unique perspective on millennials leaving the church because I am both a millennial and a pastor. I am also not currently working at a church and recently left a church that I didn't feel was meeting my needs or those of my wife. 

I know both how difficult it can be to find a church that speaks to millennials such as myself and how difficult it is for churches to reach millennials. 

While I agreed with much of your article, I feel you only scratched the surface of why this tension exists between millennials and the church in America. 

Rather than offering point and counterpoint, which only leads to pointless argument on the Internet, allow me to put forth a broader and deeper view of this disconnect. 

We millenials are unlike any generation that has ever come before us.  This is not to say that we share no similarities to other generations, but we are also unique in many ways. 

If we differ in no other way from previous generations, we differ in that we believe we are different. This can be both a beautiful and a dangerous thing. 

We simultaneously reject that we are, as the famous philosopher Pink Floyd out it, "just another brick in the wall," and embrace that life should have a meaning and a purpose. 

Unfortunately, we are also lazy.  The "you are special," everybody gets a trophy mentality that made us believe we each have a distinct and powerful destiny also blinded us to the fact that meaningful lives only ever happen to those who work unbelievably hard to attain and protect them. 

Couple this with the meteoric rise of new technology in our lifetime, and we are primed for an addiction to instant and easy gratification. 

And then there's the Internet. Our friend, our collective brain, our vice. The Internet blessedly saves us from taking up valuable brain space with things like metric conversion, but it also makes available to us every kind of evil imaginable with just a few clicks or taps. 

We can watch explicit sex, beheading of "infidels," robbery, looting, assault, and so much more from the comfort of our couch. Erwin McManus astutely described the Internet as the embodiment of our imagination.  It contains the unfiltered, unapologetic darkness of our human potential for depravity.

The Internet may not make you believe in God, but it sure can make you believe in evil. 

So what does this have to do with the church?

Our generation is soaked in pornography, gossip, slander, violence, and the worst kind of bitter cynicism you can imagine. For as much as we believe every human is a unique snowflake, you wouldn't have a difficult time convincing us that everyone and everything sucks. 

We need the church to help us believe something different. We need the church to show us that everyone really does have worth that is transcendent of law, affluence, lifestyle and geography. 

I agree with you when you say that we leave the church because we don't find Jesus there. 

Jesus would love us enough to challenge and offend us in the most inspiring way possible. He would want us to realize that we think too highly of ourselves and too little of him and others and that self abandonment is our best possible hope.

Jesus would lovingly confront us with the reality that our feelings are not ultimate truth, that he is ultimate truth, and he very much exists. 

Churches today don't realize the unspeakable evils that millennials have exposed themselves to, both on the Internet and in the real world. They don't know how much we need the blood of Jesus to have power over every form of human exploitation we have put in front of our eyes and been party to ourselves. 

This isn't just about adopting ancient liturgy or making churches more gay friendly.  Contextualized faith and an accepting environment are important, but they are not ultimate.

This is about proving that any sinner in any state of disgrace can truly find hope and peace in the arms of a loving God. Not only that, it's about guiding us in changing the world, overcoming injustice, and setting right the worst of wrongs. 

We need the church to be the kind of place that turns us into Bonhoeffers, not Osteens.

We need the church to give us a compelling vision for our lives, and we need the church to remind us when God is telling us we need to get over ourselves.

We need the church to be Jesus dressed up in different races, ages, genders, mistakes, political views, personalities, and quirks.

It is easy to point out everything that the church isn't. Pastors with any hint of self-awareness see the church's flaws better than anybody.

What is difficult, is diving deeply into worship, fellowship, and discipleship, bringing others along with you in helping make Jesus' bride as beautiful as he sees her.  What is difficult, is getting far enough outside ourselves to see that we don't even really know what we want or need and that a church attempting to accommodate our desires would be truly lost.

I eagerly await, as I'm sure you do, the day when churches in America can speak the language of our generation more fluently without selling its soul.

I believe those churches will show us Jesus.  Radical, righteous, kind, offensive, holy, compassionate, strong, humble, Jesus who defies our expectations in both his ability to love and his unwavering truth.

Let's hope that when that day arrives, it shows us Jesus as more beautiful than even what we think we want.

God bless,
Raj

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