Millennials leaving the church is not the problem

Few things bring a bigger smile to my face than someone experiencing the rush of a surprise encounter with the Divine…when out of the mundane monotony of spiritual striving, someone drinks and breathes and comes alive, swallowed by the uncontainable power of God’s living presence.

Most recently it happened reading this beautiful post, written by our daughter’s friend Melanie. She writes of “the profound hunger, which I find more prominent every day that I am here, to deeper understand and engage with the God of the universe.” Like oh-so-many, though, she finds that hunger met not in church, but in the creativity on display in the Los Angeles Art Museum, in the alive chaos of the streets of South Central, in dialogue, and on a quiet coastal mountain trail outside Malibu.

Yet I smile, pastor though I am, church-lover though I be. I refuse to wring my hands, to pen yet another “millenials leaving the church” lament. I smile and my heart rejoices, because she, like many, is launching herself into the joyful abandon of seeking her heart’s cry, seeking a tangible and touchable and life-giving connection with the One who created us all.

I stand proudly with those in my faith tradition who believe that every relationship, experience, and moment drips with the life changing presence of God. With every fiber of my being, I too say that God cannot be contained in our safe pews or crafted sermons. God is not segmented and segregated to people and places labelled “Christian”, but pulsates and pounds through every person, plant, and planet in all of creation.

There is Life, the Life, calling to us, beckoning us to give into our curiosity and our yearnings and throw off the familiarity and the sameness that deaden our souls. Our cry to the world is not “show up at church meetings.” It is to abandon your life to the Life who makes our lives vibrantly, beautifully, radically whole.

Recently I was given a book that I have little desire to read. The cover says it’s about “the problem of Millennials leaving” the church, and it promises to help me as a pastor to get them to stay.

It’s aimed at the wrong problem.

The real problem is that we in the church have not demonstrated the power of being consumed by the living God…at least not often enough. We haven’t modeled or given permission often enough for the restless curiosity and the questions and the yearning which leads to the search, the search to know and be known by Christ, the great Revealer.

We’ve created the lie that Sunday morning is the pinnacle, that speakers dispense God from a platform. We’re audacious enough to act as if we hold the Eternal One captive and then parse out the pieces only to those faithful enough to sit in a pew.

We can do better.

At our best, we as a community witness to the One who inhabits and gives meaning to each thing and place and person and moment. We gather to share and celebrate how God has been moving in us, and we push and prod each other to go out and discover more…more of God’s love and life. There is a rightful place for gathered, regular community to which we commit ourselves in this faith journey. We need community which recognizes that the Living Presence who speaks everywhere is also who we allow to speak and lead in our Sunday gatherings.

Jesus is the one who created everything.

Who breathes in everything.

Who speaks through everything.

And Jesus is the one who invites us into community.

Who constitutes the church.

And who unifies all things.

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10 thoughts on “Millennials leaving the church is not the problem

  1. I have been pondering this line of thinking for about 20 years now. Seems to me that there has been a large shift over the last few decades. People seem to wonder why church doesn’t fill them up the way it used to. I think looking to church is the wrong place to look. 99.5% of life is lived outside of church. Do we feel full of purpose and enthusiasm and wonder during the week? I don’t expect to live an empty week and then show up to be filled up within an hour. What happens in church for an hour, perhaps should be what is coming out of us, what is overflowing from the perspective that has carried us through the week. Perhaps millennials don’t come because they don’t see joy in the lives of their parents. Joy and suffering and the chance to address it are everywhere, but it requires me to set aside my petty grievances and pay attention to everything and everyone outside of myself.

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  2. I have come to understand the church offers things that cannot be found anywhere else. The church should offer covenants with our Lord and Savior. Things like baptism, and sacrament or communion. These things cannot be found in an art gallery, on the street or next to a mountain stream. It is my understanding through these things we freely give our will to his and in so doing we then commune with the divine.
    Maybe the problem isn’t the Millennials or any other group, maybe the problem is the religious bodies have separated themselves from the sacred covenants that allow us to draw nearer to God, and many are left searching for truth but don’t know where to find it…

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  3. Thanks of your thoughts, Brian!

    Thanks to you too, Dennis. You of course are welcome to your own thoughts and opinions; however I wrote this post to make precisely the opposite point of what you have written. As a Quaker pastor, I believe firmly in our belief that “all of life is sacramental”, or to use your language, all of life is a covenant. God is consistently and constantly communicating grace through all kinds of means. There ARE reasons to gather as a body: encouragement, challenge, expressions of love, service together, and perhaps most importantly, when we gather together as the body of Christ, we anticipate and participate in the unity promised for all eternity. As Jesus prayed in John 17, we are invited into the very relationship of love that the Trinity is. But we don’t dispense grace. God does that.

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  4. I really like this, Gregg. So nicely written, and exactly what I need to hear. I miss traditional church rarely, in part because I love my NFC community, but also in part because I have this deeply entrenched belief that I *must* as a Christian go to church every Sunday. Your piece is a reminder that this isn’t necessarily the case, and that I can find Jesus, and community, in other parts of my life, too. When I do miss church, it’s usually because I’m running a Sunday morning race somewhere or other, and I experience community and worship and the beauty of God’s creation there, too. Your post is a good reminder to me that I need not feel the oughts or shoulds, and instead need to embrace the places where I am experiences God’s good gifts. This also takes a lot of courage for you to write, as a pastor; I imagine it might be akin to me admitting that students don’t always have to come to my class to learn stuff. 🙂

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  5. Love this post, and your insights: “the lie that Sunday morning is the pinnacle.” You’re right–millenials leaving the church is not necessarily the problem. And of course, I’m delighted that you were stirred enough by my daughter’s post to respond. Thanks, Gregg!

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  6. Thank you. Hand-wringing never accomplished a thing. Not one thing. And discouraging and fear mongering so that you can sell books to the hand-wringers you produce with your mongering is, at least, wicked, and possibly evil. This from someone who hopes to sell books.

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  7. I feel like as a denomination and as a congregation I/others/we are not clear why we exist anymore. We know why the church exists in general, however denominationalism is quickly disappearing in our society to non-denominationalism.
    So, I think that defining what we are here for is key. Here are some options that tie to our denominational background:
    • To be a beacon of peace and reconciliation in our community? ( ways of stopping violence in our society like video games, guns, accepting others different than ourselves, etc. )
    • To help bring truth and justice to our community? ( foster children, abused women, as examples)
    • To help redistribute wealth in our community to include the poor? ( food pantry, community garden as examples)
    I really think that we are here to be Jesus hands and feet in our community and then the question is how and in what ways do we do that. I think that we only need to gather as a church to share and celebrate our successes and failures of our experiences and worship the triune God as a part of that sharing.

    So many churches (and I think that we have been a part of that) only focus on themselves and their little world.
    As I talk to my employees I find that is their biggest gripe about churches in general. They see them as groups of clickish people that just want to be with themselves and do not want to be touched by the outside world and actually do not affect the outside world and mostly harm it by their judgmental attitudes.

    I am processing all of this as I read your article and others on this subject. I believe that we need to be more intentional about being Jesus hands and feet to our world and at the same time severely tone down the often inward facing structures of our churches and denominational confines. We need to continually ask and define who we are being as a group.

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