Let’s begin with an analogy. Picture, if you will, a meeting of the National Honor Society at Evangelical Christian Academy (school mascot: The Great Lion). These are the good kids. The teachers’ pets. They’re destined for greatness. But they’re having a disagreement.

On the one side is that ambitious if not somewhat exhausting, Rachel. She likes to stir things up. She pushes buttons and boundaries, but the teachers love her for it. She’s going to change the world someday, they think.

And on the other side is Brett. He’s the administration’s darling. Whenever his fellow students get a bit too rambunctious he always defers to the wisdom of his elders. He doesn’t want change, so much as he wants to please his teachers.

They’re arguing about the solution to a recent attendance issue the school’s been having. Not the Honor Society kids, but a lot of the others are just not showing up or, when they do, they haven’t done their homework. Rachel thinks this is evidence that the system is flawed. She thinks the teachers and the administration need to take notice. The students are speaking through their actions (or inactions) and change is what is needed.

No, Brett retorts, the system is working just fine. The students are the problem. What the administration should do is crack down. Stop listening to the students’ every whim. And no more recess.

Here, briefly, Rachel agrees. Recess is so outdated, but it should be replaced with unstructured time in which the students can explore their own identities, and maybe learn web design. Brett thinks self-exploration sounds more like selfishness and he says so, with a wink and a nod to the principal.

And then I show up. I’m new here. Not even really in the Honor Society yet, but I’ve submitted my application. I work for the student newspaper and get good grades, but I also skip school a lot. The teachers and administration know of me, but I haven’t yet earned their full attention. Anyway, I walk into the meeting and say, Rachel and Brett, you’re both wrong.

Whaaaaaa?, says the teachers.

Whooooo?, says the administration.

[And, end scene!]

If it’s not abundantly (and obnoxiously) clear at this point, I’m referring to the recent discussion of how to (or how not to) keep Millennials in the church. Rachel Held Evans suggests in her CNN piece that church leaders should listen to what young people actually want from church, and Brett McCracken counters on The Washington Post’s On Faith’s site that the church has done too much listening and young people need to be the ones to listen now. They both agree that the image-driven, quest to be cool is the wrong approach.

But they’re both wrong. Or, they’re both only kind of right. Anyway, here’s what I think they’re missing: In both cases the solution that is proposed is a conversation and they just disagree about who should be doing the listening and who should be doing the talking. But what we really need is not conversation, but action. That is, the way forward for all parties is for Millennials to get involved. Stop making a list of demands and do something.

Obviously, I’m more sympathetic to Rachel’s concerns. I agree with her substance, if not always her style, 99% of the time. (I’m just mad that my “Year of Biblical Manhood” idea never caught on.) Brett, on the other hand, is part of the Matthew Lee Anderson school of “Old People are Always Right.” And he called this website “hipster” in his book a few years ago. But in this case (and in some other cases; I’m eager to read his new book), I agree a bit with Brett, too. I think that what Millennials can best offer the church is not our opinions, but our involvement.

I’ve seen this work out practically in my own life. It’s easy to complain about a church when you’re not really involved in it, when you’re “church shopping.” When my wife and I were doing pre-marital counseling with our pastor over eight years ago, the conversation often veered toward the ways we disagree with some of the church’s policies. We actually asked him if he thought it’d be wrong of us to leave over an issue like women in ministry (we were for it, by the way). He told us very calmly that we should do what we felt we needed to do, but that if we left, there was less chance the church could change. In short, he was saying, you could leave, or you could get involved.

I’m embarrassed to say, we left. So Millennial of us. But that same scenario has played out many more times as we’ve moved to different cities (and countries) over the past eight years. Whenever we grew tired of looking for a new church, and just decided to get involved in one (usually we’d choose an Episcopal church within walking distance of our apartment), we found that we actually wanted to be there. Truth be told, this is typically a frustrating experience, churches, like other large institutions, are slow to change. But being invested in a community, particularly one wherein you’re forced into relationships with people you disagree with, feels a lot like what I imagine the Kingdom is supposed to be like.

[Resume scene]

So, in conclusion, members of the National Honor Society, the answer to our attendance problem is not more or less conversation, it is not a student-led revolution or a faculty-fueled crack down, rather it is students leading by example. By agreeing to put aside differences and work together, we can model for our classmates what an active and engaged student body can look like.

And, hey, if it doesn’t work, at least us smart kids will have a better school experience.

Go Lions!

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Anderson

    Thanks, Jonathan! You made my day, though you should have included a link so all the peoples would know where to sign up for this school!

    Come on in folks.

    The water is fine.

    Matt

    • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Brett got the link because his book is out today.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/2012/03/youth-exodus-consumer-christianity.html suzannah | the smitten word

    i love it. i will say, i think it’s important to acknowledge the people who are working through abusive church histories. the answers for them are not necessarily to join a new worship team, and i think the Church needs to tread lightly there (and repent of our own role in that pain).

    but for the rest of us, we need to be the change. we are the Church, and we’re called to love and serve and work it out together.

    no one “gets” all they want in a church, but our non-negotiables will be different, and i think we need to respect that. leaving a church that won’t affirm women’s leadership (or LGBT rights, or children with disabilities…) makes sense for certain families, absolutely. but then, barring trauma, i think we keep looking for the next place to worship and serve.

    • Sarah

      YES to the repentance. There is healing there.

  • http://www.johnwhawthorne.com John Hawthorne

    I don’t know if the NHS at ECA uses a peer system to determine new membership, but you’ve got my vote!

    The focus on action rather than simple conversation is great. But that also underscores that this issue isn’t JUST about millenials. It’s about the nature of contemporary American evangelicalism; its patterns, its structures, and its power structure.

    I’m far from being a millenial (missed it by only 30 years!) but many of their critiques of the contemporary church I wholeheartedly share. I think Rachel and others are touching on these broader issues in the church that favor style over substance, passivity over activism, in-group over outreach. It’s just that millenials (as you’ve written) are less likely to play these games than previous generations.

    It’s not “all about them”. It’s about the church. But they are helping us ask questions (or at least giving permission to ask) that adults of all ages have been asking.

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  • John McGrath

    Sounds good. Won’t work. People leave the churches for various reason, some negative, some not so negative. But when they left they were all caught up in the church bubble. Most – not all – after leaving get out of that bubble and listen to other voices, other ways of being decent, other ways of wisdom, neighborliness, kindness. The voice of the old church – often sarcastic, belittling – grows distant and unimportant.

  • Erin

    The argument that millennials need to stick around and get involved works only if the church lets us get involved. The church I grew up in kicked me off the writing of the church’s emergency plan (I have a Master’s in emergency management) because the building manager didn’t think a young woman should be involved. When I moved to a new state, I found a church and attended for six months, but when I tried to get involved, no one would return my calls or emails. And this wasn’t “not letting me serve where I wanted”, I mean, no returned contact at all and no one ever manning the welcome table before or after a service. Another church I tried to get involved with told me I should attend Wednesday night service if I wanted to serve.

    I haven’t tried to find another church because I’m tired of feeling like the church just wants me in the pew so they can check off the young single women box on their demographics. I miss the sense of community, love to cook for people, know how to run a sound board, and like working with preschoolers. It shouldn’t be this hard.

    • A Very Tired Millenial Minister’s Wife

      I like the point of this article, but you are right. It only works if they let you stay. It doesn’t work so well when they casually let the other church members know that you are “rebellious” and your friends are too scared to speak up for you. It doesn’t work when they threaten your job, because it is church-related. It doesn’t work when they destroy your reputation to protect their power structure. It does no good to win an argument with a pastor behind closed doors, only to hear him rip you apart once he is safe behind his pulpit and you are trapped in a pew.

      I completely agree with the idea of staying involved, but how much PTSD does a person have to acquire?

      They play dirty.

    • Sue

      Apart from the larger argument, may I humbly suggest you try a smaller church? We’re pretty small, and I doubt that would happen to you here. In the same way that some folks keep choosing dating partners likely to be unkind, perhaps you are unwittingly choosing the kinds of churches likely to be inattentive.
      And yes, I understand that it is still a problem that such churches exist, but you say you miss community. I’d like to urge you to try again, but pick the church that you didn’t notice before.

    • Mark

      I agree. Tough to get involved when a power/hierarchy structure is in place that is nowhere to be taught by Jesus. My understanding is that we are all co-heirs (same standing) and as such God wants to work through each of us. I just don’t understand how those in ‘control’ feel it is their responsibility to choose who gets to be used to do the work of the Father.

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  • Patrick Sawyer

    It is both comforting and sobering to know that every church that is God’s will grow as He intends (Matt 16:18) and that all who are His will be found and kept (John 6:39) by His grace through His promise to glorify all He chooses to call (Rom 8:29-30).

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  • Jon

    I’m confused why people are acting like Rachel actually is “involved with the honor society” or should get a voice in this at all. She’s a rogue with terrible theology and doesn’t really deserve the platform she’s received.

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  • Josh

    Jonathan, I agree with most of what you’ve written, but I think it misses the point. Specifically, the debate (as I understand it) is:
    “Millennials (and others) are leaving the church in droves. What can we do to stop it? Should we change the church, or should we double down on who we are today?”

    Your answer appears to be: “Both solutions are wrong; Millennials should just stop leaving the church and get more involved.”

    You’re right in that this would be great, but it doesn’t really address the question at hand.

    Beyond that, I’m confused about how you differentiate between “offering opinions” and “getting involved”. Specifically, you wrote, “I think that what Millennials can best offer the church is not our opinions, but our involvement.”

    But then in the example you gave about women in the ministry, you wrote, “He told us very calmly … that if we left, there was less chance the church could change. In short, he was saying, you could leave, or you could get involved.”

    He’s right, of course, but what he’s saying is, “if you really want to change this church, you’ll stay, and you’ll continue arguing for your stance.”

    What’s the difference here? When it comes to theological issues (or cultural issues disguised as theological issues), how is offering an opinion and arguing a stance different from getting involved?

    • B Blankin

      Josh, if I understood your question correctly, the difference between offering opinions and getting involved is the difference between talking and doing. It’s easy to ignore the opinions of people who only show up Sunday morning, and don’t otherwise contribute to the mission of the church. Your second-to-last paragraph could read, “if you really want to change this church, you’ll stay, you’ll be active in service, and you’ll continue arguing for your stance from a position of influence which comes from having skin in the game.”

      • EMSoliDeoGloria

        Like the author, a pastor told me something similar about staying vs leaving and change in the church. I left too – after more than 10 years of doing a whole lot more than pew warming.

        I ended up leaving over larger issues – but leadership’s refusal to welcome women as full participants in the life of the church (not as elders or pastors but in all other ways) was also a factor in my decision making about remaining in that local church. I haven’t left the church though. I’m involved in another church and healing from the brokenness of a painful church split. Despite all the challenges with involvement in a church I believe that God loves the church and when he called me to himself, he called me into the church as well: universal and local.

  • danb

    It seems to me that if you read Rachel’s article and your conclusion is that all she recommends is for church leaders to sit down with “millenials” to find out what they want in the sense you suggest, then I think your perception of what she is saying is about as deep as the supposed pastor who asks after her talk about music style. I think if you read her comments again, you’ll discover she is suggesting a more substantive conversation. In my humble “boomer” opinion evangelicalism has been compromised or derailed by late 20th century USA political conservatism, religious fundamentalism, consumerism, and trendy “best practices” of the market driven world around us. Now this is a rather broad stroke comment, and the situation is certainly much more complex, but there is more being said then simply trying to figure out someones preferences. Just saying…

    • B Blankin

      “evangelicalism has been compromised or derailed by late 20th century USA political conservatism”
      Hear, hear. If that’s the reason millennials are leaving your church, then your church needs to change. If the message of your church has more to do with Ayn Rand than Jesus, the millennials are better of just about anywhere else.

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  • http://www.wideopenground@yahoo.com Lana

    Don’t get me wrong, I really, really get this. I am dealing with this same issue in my tiny area in SE Asia because the whole church is polluted with legalism and they will not listen to anyone outside church. So that mean playing along with legalistic games waiting to be heard on,u to realize I’m part of the legalistic problem. This is the same cycle we see in church in America. A white male goes to a all male church thinking he can influence it. He has that privilege because he is a guy.

  • http://www.wideopenground.com Lana

    Oh and that’s funny about how young people should just stop and listen. See, I’m fine with the baby boomers having church their way. Just don’t ask me why I’m leaving or tell me to come to your church, and then say, “shut up and listen.” That’s tacky.

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  • Stephen R Smith

    Love your thought process. Love your writing with all its ‘to the point’ millennial vigor. But for a sixty-ish rebel from the darker ages of the Church, this ‘discussion’of what-to-do with something (anything!) in the Institutional Church is quaintly nostalgic, bringing back endless, tiresome, repetitive, cyclic discussions on ‘What shall the Church (institutional speaking) do?’ I would sorely miss you all if you were not around to carry on such a tradition of ‘dialogue’, but the simple world I now live in, the world of my neighbors and whoever I am to them, hardly knows or cares that such discussions are carried on behalf of…of….?

  • Allen

    I would like to pose a question to the author as well as any in here who would answer: Why do we treat the church like the US gov’t? That is should form and reform its policies and principles as society changes? Am I one of the few millenials who sees that the problem with our church is not that we are ‘crusty’, but that we’ve changed too much in an attempt to win the people back?

    Think about it, how many of you have read articles about “what millenialists want in church” and “why the church is in a rut” etc. etc. -all supplying methods to remedying the problem, but never identifying the root cause? I would venture to say that the issue is that we’re treating the church like our government, that it needs to change to accommodate the culture of the people. I would venture to say that the church has longed to be accepted by the world for so long, changing and changing again, that now we cannot show people what it is they desire most: change.

    I’m not condemning fancy lights or rusty crap on the walls. I’m merely making the point that the legitimacy of a church’s success isn’t found in how many young people the get to fill their pews. It is by the fruits they are bearing. Seriously, I work in the corporate world, and there are people my age that haven’t heard that man is inherently evil, but that there is hope for them through Christ. Why is that? Because the church has gone from a position of outreaching and preaching the gospel, to focusing on petty things like “Am I spending too much time talking?” and “I don’t want to be controversial”, to “will the color of the drapes offend someone?”

    If we will adhere to the missional principles of the gospel, we WILL NOT FAIL. God promises us this in His word. He will give you the wisdom you need to “become all things to all men, that you might win some.” But do these principles and you will not fail. The God we serve and preach about is immutable, His truths therefore, are immutable. To somehow imply that His truths do not transcend culture is lunacy and will only end in disappointment for the church and those whom they seek to lead to Him.

    Pursue Him for His righteousness, put off the things of this world, ask Him to help you bear fruit (John 15:5-7) and you will be successful- guaranteed.

    • John McGrath

      “heresy is another term for freedom of thought.” Graham Greene

      • Allen

        Quotes without context are both vague and pointless.

        • John McGrath

          Sorry, the quote is not vague in its meaning. Orthodox conformity not good. there’s no need for context, other than the suppression of thought and the campaign against science waged by most Christians.

  • Allen

    I would disagree. Context is absolutely needed to provide clarity to the statement. I might agree with your terms, given no context. Not realizing that in reality, I argue that free thought is not what many of the authors on this page, nor readers, are advocating, and that orthodox conformity to truth is absolutely good. Again, this depends on context.

    To ask “why” is not an issue, but to ask why to the extent that is unanswerable by any, then attempt to devise an answer, so that we might understand what was never meant to be fully understood, becomes an issue.

    I would agree that there are many Christians who wage war on science. I would also contend that there are as many evolutionists that wage war on science by attempting to make objective evidence relative, in order to fit their belief. Science is a wonderful thing, but is limited to what it can prove, especially for things that are supernatural.

    GK Chesterton wrote in ‘Heretics':”The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.”

    If I stopped with that, one might feel that Mr. Chesterton agrees with you, but placed in proper context he continues, “All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.”

    So, again, quotes without context are both vague and pointless. They edify no one; only helping the nay-sayer appear wiser than he actually is.

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