Some people have even done “exit interviews,” if you want to call them that, with some of these individuals. After these folks leave the church, they have an opportunity to pontificate on what it was about “the church” (again, undefined) that made them leave. Now, this data is interesting - there’s no doubt about that. What pastor wouldn’t like the opportunity to find out why so-and-so stopped coming to Sunday worship?
So here we have raw data saying young people are leaving the church, and some data saying why they are leaving. Rachel Held Evans (RHE) has given her sources for her latest opinion piece on why Millennials are leaving the church, and one of her sources is David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me. In this book, as RHE summarizes it, Kinnaman says that young adults are leaving the church for six primary reasons: “they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.”
If you are theologically conservative with views that are rooted in Scripture and in accord with tradition, my guess is that you are generally going to push back against some of these reasons (I’m in agreement that 1, 2, and 6 are problems in many churches). Some of these points are a problem because the church hasn’t engaged in apologetics and has simply told people that “faith” is the magic word and approached questions and doubts in a fideistic way. Some of them are problems because people are simply hostile to the exclusivity of the Christian religion by nature. For the orthodox, this and a couple of these reasons cannot be helped without substantially changing the Christian faith. In RHE’s analysis, this is exactly what needs to happen: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She says this favorably, not critically. And here is where the real question needs to be addressed...who decides what the church is like? Is it wise elders, guided by the Holy Spirit, under the authority of Scripture? Or is it the kids who left?
Who Are We Listening To?
Here’s the problem. If somebody quits your company because they don’t like the way things are run, an exit interview can be helpful. After all, it can tell you ways to improve your company and give you direction in the future. It can give you an idea what you did wrong, and what you need to do differently in the future in order to retain employees and reduce turnover.
But the church is not a Fortune 500 company. She is guided by revealed theology from God. You don’t want to base the substance of your theology on the opinions of those who leave the church precisely because those who leave the church are not in a position to discern spiritual matters. The Scriptures say things about those who disassociate themselves from the church and well... they aren’t nice things. They are things that I have no doubt, will bother people and make them feel judged just by my repeating them here. But the truth is, according to 1 John 2:19 the reason people leave and don’t come back is that “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”
If John is right (and I always think he is, given my view of the authority of Scripture), and if I am understanding John correctly, then these people who are leaving “the church” (again, still undefined) are not Christians in any meaningful sense of the word. They have broken off fellowship. No church should base the “substance” (to use RHE’s word) of the faith on the opinions of unbelievers. It is one thing to have a core theology and to find creative, thoughtful, or careful ways of explaining doctrine or helping to answer peoples’ questions. This is part of what it means to “teach and exhort” (1 Tim. 4:13). It's quite another to change the core because it doesn't gel with those around us.
Don’t Change For Them, Change With Them?
Everyone has a theory. If you are... less traditional and more willing to put your finger in the wind and see where the culture is going, your reaction to the cold hard data of young people leaving “the church” is going to still be troubling, but you will tend to be friendlier, more conciliatory, and more willing to bow your theology or ethics to these complaints. Here is how RHE puts it
No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity.I’m not sure how she defines “historical tenets of the Christian faith,” but the fact that Evans is free to define the “historical tenets” down as far as she wishes and still consider herself Evangelical is a solid demonstration that Carl Trueman is correct:
The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks any agreed-upon evangel. Until we acknowledge that this is the case - until we can agree on what exactly it is that constitutes the evangel - all talk about evangelicalism as a real, coherent movement is likely to be little more than a chimera, or a trick with smoke and mirrors (The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 41).I’m deeply trouble by what a church whose theology and ethics are decided by the unbelievers within the culture around us will eventually look like. My own suspicion is that it will look much like the mainline denominations in the United States. As Anthony Bradley has pointed out, RHE is really just asking for evangelical churches to become more like the United Methodist Church with an evangelical piety. When asked why she doesn’t just go to a liberal mainline church, RHE says that they aren’t evangelical enough. I wonder (and I haven’t read everything she’s written, so maybe she has pondered this) if she has ever considered that the thing that gives evangelical churches the piety, the energy, the evangelistic attitude that RHE so deeply yearns for is the very exclusivity, the ethics, and the emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture that she and her fellow millennials (lets ignore the fact that I'm younger than her and therefore "one of them") want to downplay.
What I do want to point out is that whatever you think the answer to these six “problems” for the church are looks an awful lot like one's own pet issues. According to Ross Douthat (a Roman Catholic) religion in the United States is in decline because it needs to become more creedal and traditional. According to an old classmate of mine who hates creeds, the reason “nobody wants anything to do with the church” is that we recite the Apostles’ Creed in public worship. According to libertines, the problem is that the church represses their sexual urges. According to inclusivists, the church is too exclusive, etc.
An Uncharitable Suspicion
I have a feeling that this whole conversation gives way too much credit to the millennials leaving church. I have yet to hear anyone say the thing we're all thinking: people don't believe and would rather not go to church. The shortest distance between two points. The simple answer.
After all, who wouldn't want to sleep in on Sundays, lay around in their pajamas until noon, eat a block of cheese the size of a car battery and play around the rest of the day? I have this uncharitable suspicion that people like having their Sundays to themselves. When you combine unbelief with this strong temptation to the "Selfish Sunday", it's easy to suspect that millennials give critical statements about the church after the fact to make their departure feel like it had some deep idealistic meaning.
A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that my job in going to church was not to be blessed, but to be a blessing. To contribute, to share my gifts, to make it a better place and to love and build up the people who are there. To teach Sunday School and watch little kids in the nursery. There are critics of the church everywhere. But why should the church listen to those who refuse to contribute to it any more or make it a place that they would consider worthy of their own presence? Or, put another way, maybe it's just time for the kids to grow up.