For a lot of people that’s a worn out topic, but it’s crucial one that gets haggled over precisely because no one has come up with a satisfying answer.
Drew Dykes (managing editor of the Christian publication Leadership Journal) has a few thoughts on the issue that warrant some reflection. His main thesis is that churches need to foster intergenerational relationships and stop chasing after the latest fads. But it’s within his secondary points that I find more to chew on.
To begin with, I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Dykes’ books, so my response may cover concerns he’s addressed elsewhere. But if we’re going to examine the problem seriously, then we need to make a distinction between people who’ve left the faith and those who’ve simply left the church.
Consciously or not, most of the prescriptions offered by pastors and columnists are concerned with ex-christians. This explains why the majority of analysts from the pastoral persective emphasize suggest a strategy that emphasizes the Gospel and doubling down on traditional theology. The unspoken assumption is the people leaving these churches are leaving congregations that have failed on these fronts.
But for Millennials who’ve left the church but remain faithful, their concerns are explicitly political. The problem isn’t whether the Gospel is preached, it’s the political conclusions the church has derived from it.
Let’s take a person who’s left the church because of its views on homosexuality as an example. Now discussion and listening are fine, but ultimately one side had to budge. To get that person to return, the church needs to either change its views on homosexuality or persuade her to change her beliefs.
Let me emphasize that this isn’t just a theological question. People aren’t just rejecting the church’s Biblical view of homosexuality, they’re also rejecting the political noise that surrounds it, like conversion therapy, negative propaganda about gays (gays make bad parents or are inclined to pedophilia), and campaigns against gays (see Arizona’s recent right to discriminate bill.) They’re rejecting Christians who cheer on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and favor candidates who promise to fight against gay marriage.
I know plenty of conservatives who believe that homosexuality is immoral, but they still won’t darken a church doorway because they think Christians are obsessed with the issue. You can win the theological argument and still fail to bring people back to church. .
And let’s face it: a big part of the problem is that churches equate loss of political leverage with loss of their rights. It’s fair to ask whether they want Millennials back for their value in the church body, or whether it’s just to have fresh blood to fight the culture wars.
The perception outside of the Evangelical bubble is that Christians have more influence now than they did eight years ago: womens’ health clinics are being shuttered, the Tea Party (which, like it or not, is equated with evangelical Christianity) has shut down the government and exercises greater control over the Republican party than ever, and instead of reaching out to minorities, evangelicals have broadcast loud and clear that they resent them.
Now I’m sure many are saying that I’m conflating Republican politics with the church. That’s because people outside the Christian bubble view them as one and the same. Aside from a few voices in the wilderness like Jim Wallis, it is safe to say that the political positions the Republican party stands for are the political goals the church advocates. A Republican political victory is viewed as an evangelical victory, so no one outside of Christians themselves believes that they’ve lost power. What they do believe is that down the road Christians will lose power by virtue of demographic trends. But not yet
While Dykes deserves kudos for recognizing that Millennials are waiting to get married and hold off having kids, the question then becomes whether the church wants those Millennials as is, or whether they intend to get them married and pregnant asap. Can the twenty-something woman who has no intention of having kids feel comfortable in a women’s Bible study, or will the women try to get them to conform to the nuclear family model? If the latter is true, then the church needs to be up front about it, and realize that most Millennials will recognize the insincerity involved (i.e. “I like you who you will become if you listen to me, not who you are now.)
I’m not going to go the usual route and suggest that churches change their theology in order to bring people back into the fold. That’s not going to happen. What I would suggest is that they be more honest with themselves and concede what everyone else sees: they are fixated on homosexuality, and they do consider it a bigger deal than other sins. If they want to make a theological case to justifying it, then do so. But don’t deny the fixation.
And finally, admit that a major reason why they want to bring Millenials back to the church is the desire to undo the social values and family trends Millennials reflect. It’s a strategic goal to change marital patterns, pregnancy rates, and reverse multicultural acceptance. Again, make a theological case if you like, but don’t pretend that you’re interested in Millennials as they are now. Admit that the fear of being a cultural minority is directly tied to the desire to reacquire the social leverage you used to have, and saving Millennial souls holds more value to you in the present than they will in the afterlife.