A few days ago, a Rachel Held Evans piece entitled ‘Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church’ was published on the CNN Belief Blog. Weighing in at little under 750 words, it nonetheless packs a considerable punch and has been linked or liked almost 170,000 times on Facebook and elsewhere.
The first thing that hits one about Evans’ article is that it is a ‘voice of a generation’ piece. With bold, broad brush stroke sentences for paragraphs, it lays out an indictment of evangelical churches for their supposed failure to connect with millennials and presents the manifesto for a disengaged generation’s vision of church.
At this point, I should point out that I am decidedly leery of people who claim to speak on behalf of an entire generation. While I don’t want to accuse Evans of doing this here, claims to be the mouthpiece of such a vast demographic are all too often grandiose projections of a narcissistic and entitled subjectivity, resulting from the belief that the mere possession of a particular set of sensibilities renders one a privileged and exalted medium of the zeitgeist. Opinions that have little rational merit, scholarly or theological credibility of their own can thereby assert a significance for themselves that they have not won through careful argumentation or practical demonstration. The Voice of a Generation is an oracle, whose dispensed opinions, opinions that would be lightly dismissed if merely those of an individual, assume a quasi-divine authority, with people on all sides talking about them in serious tones. The Voice of a Generation, typically someone in their twenties or thirties, can often assume an air of entitlement, superiority, and authority, expecting those of older generations (who have long since lost any aura of destiny that they once may have enjoyed) to consult them for their wisdom, inverting the more traditional authority relationship that used to exist between distemporaries.
Let me reiterate: it is not my intention to accuse Evans of co-opting the voice of a generation (if there were such a thing in the first place) for cynical and self-serving ends. However, I do think that it is necessary to press her on the point of the exact demographic for which she is presuming to speak. I recommend that people work through her claims, statement by statement and question which demographic she is presuming to represent in each and whether she is doing so fairly. Her claims to be the mouthpiece of a generation shouldn’t be taken at face value. Even the statistics to which she links should illustrate that, although the preponderance of millennials may hold her stated opinions, there is far from a general consensus among them on many of the issues that she declares to be defining for the millennial generation.
There appears to be a lack of clarity at various points concerning the precise group that she is claiming to represent: is she claiming to represent the sensibilities of millennials in general, the subset of those who were raised as Christians, the subset of a subset who are leaving the churches within which they were raised, or just that subset of a subset of a subset, those millennials who have left American evangelical churches? Having read Evans’ writing for a number of years now, I have often been struck by her tendency to speak of the experience of a fundamentalist evangelical background as if it were the general norm, representative of the experience of Christians – at least North American Christians – in general. This tendency to generalize in a hyperbolic and undisciplined manner, projecting her personal experience, one shared with a rather limited demographic, onto a far less modest canvas, needs to be borne in mind here. Greater attention to the incredible diversity represented within a generation would caution us against attempts to homogenize their variegated experience. While there are undoubtedly generational themes, types, and widely shared underlying frameworks of cultural perception, none of us is capable of singlehandedly representing the whole unwieldy teeming mass of humanity that constitutes a generation.
A multitude of likes on Facebook, however, does suggest that her message resonates on some level or other with many. For this reason, I thought that it would be worthwhile to ask a few questions of those who do identify with what Evans is saying here.
1. What weight should we give to self-reporting?
We should not forget that all too often people’s purported rationales can be unwitting or self-serving rationalizations. The heart is deceitful above all things and we are almost invariably the primary victims of our own dishonesty about our true motives. Anyone who has been around the block a few times will know that, for instance, several of their peers who left the church ‘because of all of the hypocrisy’ or ‘because of the tension between science and faith’ had been struggling for some time with the cognitive dissonance between their fornication and their professed faith. The reasons that we give for our decisions are often chosen because they present us in the most favourable light.
The truth of ourselves is revealed in our actions. If we truly want to understand millennials, we will learn more from examining their behaviour than from listening to their self-descriptions. This is a troubling fact of life for many who harbour the strongly held belief that no one has the right to define or to describe them, seeing all such things as tyrannical impositions. The reality of our actions seldom paints as flattering a picture as our self-descriptions.
For instance, people who are genuinely grieved by hypocrisy seek to lead transparently godly lives and to support their neighbours in this calling. The more prevalent response of cynicism excuses its responsibility for its dispassionate approach to virtue upon the vice of others. In the same way, when someone says that they left the Church because of X, Y, or Z that the Church is doing wrong, we need to ask ourselves whether genuine failures of many churches are serving as excuses for people’s light abandonment of their own Christian vocation. In other words, where is the evidence that many millennials who left the Church were ever deeply and firmly committed and along for more than the ride?
Where such evidence of genuine and sacrificial commitment is lacking, adjusting to accommodate the lukewarm or the apathetic will often achieve little more than diluting the Church’s own commitment. It won’t produce commitment in those who were apathetic from the outset. While I don’t want to deny for a moment that many have been scarred by abusive churches, most millennials who have left the Church aren’t exactly the walking wounded.
Church leaders who take the ‘hipper worship bands’ route should also not be lightly dismissed. While their approach is one that I definitely do not advocate, the actual behaviour of millennials (as opposed to their stated high principles) all too often seemingly vindicates their assumptions.
2. What about the churches that fit Evans’ wishlist?
As Anthony Bradley observes, the United Methodist Church closely resembles the church that Evans says that she is looking for. However, rather than growing, it is haemorrhaging, and facing a future bleaker that most more conservative evangelical denominations. The United Methodist Church may be less polarizing and alienating for many millennials, but it doesn’t exactly succeed in evoking more commitment. This fact alone would seem to unsettle Evans’ thesis.
The real question that we need to ask here is where the strongest signs of deep and persevering commitment are to be found within the Church. Which quarters of the Church are proving most effective at calling and discipling millennials to a commitment that produces lives and communities marked by a persevering holiness and faithfulness? Evans’ error is to speak as if by addressing millennials’ professed reasons for leaving, positive commitment would naturally follow. People with a weak commitment seldom need much of a reason to leave in the first place.
3. Do they really want a less ‘political’ Church?
In my experience, while many millennial Christians might complain about the Church being too political, in reality their real problem is less with the Church being political per se than it is with the issues about which the Church has traditionally been political. Those who emphasize social justice, for instance, can often be considerably more vocally political than their standard evangelical counterparts.
It is important that we differentiate between seeing evangelicalism as being ‘too political’ and as advocating the wrong sort of politics, or having wrong emphases within its politics. Disliking an evangelical focus upon resisting such things as abortion and gay marriage through politics and law, many condemn methods that they would happily employ to serve different causes (or the other side of the traditional causes).
4. What about those occasions when we do have to choose?
Evans describes young evangelicals’ sense that they often ‘have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.’ However, Christianity has always entailed a choice between academic respectability (commonly mistaken for intellectual integrity) and faith, between ‘science’ and Christianity, and between empathy and holiness.
Being a Christian typically entails living with a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance, which, while never justifying intellectual dishonesty, makes the sort of intellectual coherence that many crave impossible. Our faith declares truths (the soul, the resurrection of the dead, the atonement, the new heavens and the new earth, the incarnation, divine revelation, etc.) which often exist in some considerable tension with other authorities, such as experience, reason, and science. And we need to live with that tension, with all of the opprobrium, ridicule, and marginalization that it can entail. While evangelical Christianity does call for a number of unreasonable choices in these areas, choices must still be made. One wonders whether many millennials would have the nerve to make these choices when they really cost.
And the choice between compassion and holiness is a classic one, upon which the Scriptures are uncomfortably clear. Holiness requires of us uncompromising action against sin in our lives and communities. This entails being prepared to resist the urge of compassion towards people closest to us when that compassion would lead to compromise. Christ places a sword between the nearest of relations.
5. Are evangelicals really obsessed with sex?
While evangelicals are often accused of being obsessed with sex, it is seldom observed that this is a remarkably odd charge for millennials of all people to be bringing. I hear remarkably little about sex within the Church, but sex is ubiquitous outside of it. Sex seems to be such a topic of discourse, precisely because this is the point where the spirit of the age is moving most aggressively against historic Christian orthodoxy.
I would suggest that disaffected millennial Christians tend to talk about sex considerably more than any other Christian demographic or previous generation. Evangelicals’ perceived ‘obsession with sex’ seems to me to have much more to do with a widespread obsession with sex among millennials which leads them constantly to run up against historic Christian norms of modesty, purity, and sexual holiness.
6. Do millennials want a place to wrestle with doubt, or a place to coddle scepticism?
Evans speaks of millennials’ desire for communities where they are ‘safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.’ While I can relate to this desire on many levels, in many cases I have seen, it appears to be little more than the dissembling desire for a Church that demands much less of us, a Church that accommodates itself to our unbelief, rather than giving us the means to wrestle with it and overcome it, calling us to struggle through the pain of unresolved cognitive dissonance.
Jamie Smith puts this far better than I could:
But there is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can’t believe it, it can’t be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let’s come up with a rendition we can believe in.
But for catholic doubters, God is not subject to my doubts. Rather, like the movements of a lament psalm, all of the scandalizing, unbelievable aspects of an inscrutable God are the target of my doubts—but the catholic doubter would never dream that this is occasion for revising the faith, cutting it down to the measure of what I can live with. It’s not a matter of coming up with a Gospel I can live with; it’s a matter of learning to live with all of the scandal of the Gospel—and that can take a lifetime. Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest“ doesn’t for a moment think that the church should revise its doctrine and standards in order to make him feel comfortable about his fornication—even if he might lament what seems to be a denial of some feature of his humannness. All of his doubts and suspicion and resistance are not skeptical gambits that set him off in search of a liberal Christianity he can live with; they are, instead, features of a life of sanctification, or lack thereof. And no one is surprised by that. The prayer of the doubter is not, “Lord I believe, conform to the measure of my unbelief,” but rather: “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”
7. Why are millennials drawn to high church traditions?
Evans writes that she, along with other millennials, are drawn to high church traditions ‘precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.’ It is important to pay close attention to the reason given for the appeal here. The appeal isn’t that it is more closely conformed to God’s will, to Scripture, or even because it is more in line with the historic teaching and practice of the Church. No, the appeal of traditional liturgy lies in its affect of disinterest with the ‘cool’ and its lack of pretension, i.e. it is ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’. Folks, this is ecclesiology for hipsters.
Earlier in her piece, Evans writes that millennials are ‘not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.’ This is true. However, millennials have not abandoned consumerism or performances, they just wish to dissemble their consumerism and adopt a more exacting or ironic posture towards their performances. Traditional liturgy appeals as fuel for a cannibalistic aesthetic, an aesthetic which typically emasculates its disparate sources. Traditional liturgy is for many millennial Christians as the thrift store is for hipsters. Tradition is not approached as a reality that we are subject to and which claims us, but as a convenient source for our bespoke ecclesiological affectations.
The actual substance of tradition is not appealing at all. Millennial Christians do not typically desire the authority structures of traditional orthodox Christianity. They don’t want its ethics. They dislike its restrictions of individual will. They don’t want a Church that opposes homosexual practice, which maintains a male-only priesthood, or that has a strong clergy. The earlier claim that evangelicalism is ‘too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’ is also rather ironic in light of the appreciation of Orthodoxy and Catholicism: what exactly are millennials expecting to find there? The appeal of something like Orthodoxy to many owes more to a sort of Christian orientalism than it does to genuine appreciation of and desire to submit to its tradition. What millennial Christians often really seem to want is the vintage and ‘authentic’ affect of time-honoured orthodoxy, a ‘weathered’ church feel, with high church elements as a thin veneer over the religious consumerism of the evangelical anti-culture.
8. Do millennials really want an institutional Church?
A key yet subtle underlining dynamic in Evans’ writings more generally is a resistance to the way in which substantial cultural belonging places limitations upon our actions and resists our claims to self-determination, autonomy, and self-definition. To the extent that Evans represents millennials, the crucial question of what to do with the institutional must be raised here (a question that Matthew Lee Anderson raises in his recent thoughtful post). Are millennials prepared to submit themselves to institutions designed to reshape and redefine them, to subordinate their activities, beliefs, and ends to greater purposes, truths, and realities, or do they expect all of their institutions to be reshaped to fit them and their lifestyle choices?
To a generation that prizes autonomy, self-determination, self-definition, self-expression, and choice, the institutional Church can raise fears of existential proportions. For the millennial, becoming a part of such a Church entails a death to a deeply engrained sense of identity. Are they (we) prepared to make this sacrifice, or must we make the sacrifice less onerous in order to attract them?
9. What is meant by the desire for an end to the culture wars?
One of the striking things to observe in conversations about the ‘culture wars’ is the way that evangelicals are typically presented as aggressors, even though they can hardly be accused of starting most of the wars in the first place. Rather, the very act of resisting the advance of things such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, divorce, and the like in society is framed as a belligerent move on the part of evangelical Christians. Those strongly pushing for same-sex marriage, for instance, are not subject to the same judgment, which is very telling. It suggests to me that those who call for an end to the culture wars either lack the nerve for such resistance, for the unpopularity and bad press that it produces, preferring to adopt a (futile) policy of appeasement to unreasonable parties, or that they are actually on the side of the opponents of the historic Christian social and cultural values being defended.
A key question that millennials must wrestle with is whether they have the nerve, character, conviction, or content of belief sufficient to make enemies. As Stanley Hauerwas has remarked, ‘Christianity is unintelligible without enemies.’ In a society that values tolerance above almost everything else, do millennial Christians have the nerve to voice truths that alienate, polarize, and antagonize our society, or to behave and speak in ways that might lead to them being hated? The sort of Christianity that spends much of its time criticizing benighted evangelicals for their unprogressive views may receive a friendly platform in places such as the Huffington Post religion section and may be looked upon more indulgently by secular society, but is hardly living up to its calling.
10. What exactly do millennials stand for?
Evans declares that millennials ‘want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.’ The ironic thing is that so much of her oeuvre and that of her fellow progressive evangelicals, including the present piece under discussion, is incessantly framed by the foil of a caricatured conservative evangelicalism. Given their dislike and distrust of ‘predetermined answers’, the sort of millennials that Evans claims to represent tend to have rather few positive claims that they agree upon. Rather, their primary source of agreement and common identity is found in the identification of a common opposition, and the adoption of similar styles and contexts of communication. Remove the foil of conservative evangelicalism from Evans’ piece and the actual content will start to appear much slighter.
11. Are millennials prepared to call themselves and their questions into question?
Evans speaks of millennials’ desire for questions that don’t have predetermined answers. While I appreciate the healthiness of a desire for a culture of faithful and fearless questioning, I suspect that more is going on here. What can often underlie the desire for questions without predetermined answers is the resistance to external claims upon the self and its loyalties. We dislike predetermined answers because they limit our autonomy and our right to craft bespoke ideologies. Predetermined answers reek of authority and hierarchy, things that we dislike intensely. We love questions without predetermined answers because they grant us an unchallenged space for self-fashioning, rendering us immune to claims of God, the world, our community, our tradition, and our neighbour.
Many questions do have predetermined answers in the Church, answers that resulted from extensive theological enquiry and which are no longer open. Such settled orthodoxy can chafe for those who desire theological autonomy and feel entitled to institutional recognition that their faith and theological or moral beliefs are as good as anyone else’s.
While persons with such a desire will celebrate the value of questioning everything, they seldom hold themselves firmly in question. Their sexual mores and desires, the ethos and inclinations of their generation, their reliability as interpreters of God’s truth, and their qualifications to act as theological and moral authorities are rarely challenged. Rather, an unexamined position of subjective entitlement and self-validation all too easily serves as the point from while all else is called into question.
In contrast to such an approach, the truths of the gospel as upheld by the Christian tradition, truths determined long before we arrived on the scene, provide us with the means to hold ourselves in constant and radical question. The institutional Church is the place where we can be subjected to a form of discipleship in which we are reformed by Christ’s questioning of us. Any generation that does not always begin by being questioned by God at the foot of the cross will doom itself to self-serving self-delusion.
12. Do millennials really wish to be ‘challenged to live lives of holiness’?
Within the very concept of ‘a challenge’ is the notion of confrontation. To challenge someone is in some sense to present them with an obstacle or opposition. The degree to which millennials really wish to be challenged will be most clearly revealed by the way that they behave at the point where the challenge presented is most difficult or most naturally unwelcome. And this is why Evans’ ‘not only when it comes to sex’ clause needs to be questioned. This is because millennials all too often show little desire for the challenge of the life of holiness at this precise point, the point where Christian ethics can face the firmest resistance from our flesh, the fiercest temptations of the devil, and the most vociferous outrage and ridicule from the world. If the challenge of holiness is truly desired, rather than just a de-emphasis of the most culturally painful and onerous form of that challenge that will be manifested in the behaviour of millennials.
While this piece has been fairly critical for the most part, I really do not want to dismiss Evans’ piece entirely. There are genuine problems that she does identify along the way. I have written very critically of evangelicalism on several occasions in the past. My desire here is not to defend evangelicalism, but to question millennials and their claims. Their mere rejection of a dysfunctional form of Church does not of itself put millennials in any position to present us with a better alternative. Without a deeper understanding of our generation, its characteristic sins, blindspots and failings, and a subjection of ourselves to the questioning of Christ within the life of a tradition and community and through the ministry of other generations, cultures, and ages, we will achieve little more than replacing a Church bearing the exaggerated flaws of our fathers with one no less riven by our own.
Update: Derek Rishmawy’s thoughts here take this discussion in a very healthy direction. Well worth a read.
Update 2: Read my follow-up piece over on Threads.