I just saw yet another blog post, written by yet another Millennial – the demographic Holy Grail du jour of aging, declining church congregations. It was the latest of a seemingly endless supply of lists titled “___ [Some Magical Number of] Things the Church Must Do to Attract Millennials”. Just do these things, these essays always say, and Millennials will flock through your doors.
Allow me to just say – bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong, Millennials. I agree with virtually every criticism you lodge against the institutional church. Overall, the church absolutely has to be more of all the things you want more of, and less of all the things you hate about it. It must be more committed to issues of social justice. It must be more authentically spiritual. It must do more to be truly missional – working to directly, positively bring real betterment in people’s lives. It must be far less inward-focused and self-serving.
But here’s a little secret: there are already, even in your absence from the pews, a lot of people who think the exact same way you do (mind you, I’m speaking particularly of Mainline, progressive denominations here in the U.S., such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I find myself). And these people who agree with you aren’t all running around in large-print gingham shirts and sporting lumberjack beards or man buns. That man with the thinning grey hair, the little pot belly, and the out-of-fashion sweater vest? He was a Freedom Rider in the 60s. That grandmotherly looking woman laughing and chatting with the person sitting next to her? The original organizer of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. The guy sitting over there who looks like an insurance salesman? He leads a Spiritual Formation and Meditation group, after an extended residence at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. The couple sitting beside you? They met while spending a year working together at an orphanage in Honduras and got married when they returned. The man sitting alone up front? He was arrested after he dumped his partner’s ashes on the White House lawn as part of an ACT UP protest.
I’m not exaggerating here. Scratch the surface of virtually any Mainline congregation and you’ll likely find people who have walked the walk in countless ways before you appeared on the scene. There are a lot more of them here than you probably think. And pretty much all of them share your attitudes about the institutional church and how it needs to change.
The difference between them and you is that they’re actually here, trying to make the changes needed, and you aren’t. If you’d just join forces with us, you’d find a lot of willing allies in seeing the church become what it needs to become.
I’m sorry Millennials, as a progressive, recent “Missional Church”/”Emerging Church”/”Altermative Church”-savvy seminary graduate (despite my grey hair) who really is on your side, I have to say that the continual barrage of these kinds of essays just starts to come across as a self-absorbed whinefest – a list of demands for some imaginary, pristine version of church that you insist has to be in place before you’ll grace us all with your presence. Remember, I say this as an ally, someone who’s working in the trenches, within the system, trying to accomplish precisely the things you point out – but really, grow up a bit.
*I need to be very clear: I’m not talking about all Millennials here. We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are (fill in the blank).” In this case, more than half of my friends and colleagues in ministry are themselves Millennials. I am genuinely blessed and humbled to know them, to minister with them, and to call them my friends, and I’m a better person and minister because they’re such an important part of my life. As a group, they are perhaps the greatest strength in the institutional church today. But that’s just the point – they’re in the church, actively a part of what the church needs to be and do. My thoughts here are directed toward those Millennials who won’t be part of the church just because it doesn’t perfectly fit their idea of what it should be like – to which, I say, join the club.
The reality is that the church is never going to be perfect – it wasn’t for anyone who came before you, and it won’t be for anyone coming along afterward – and it’s unrealistic to expect it to be so. So you have a choice: you can follow the lead of those people sitting in the pews, many of whom worked to set the stage for all the progressive aspects of this society that you currently enjoy and who even now are trying to affect change in the church from within; or you can come up with another list of five, or seven, or ten things that the church has to do in order to be worthy of your being part of it. Perhaps the answer is to blog less, and actually get off your asses and be part of the solution instead of just bitching and moaning. We don’t need another list telling us what needs to be done. Many of us already know that; what we need is the strength in numbers to actually accomplish it.
There’s a lot that the church needs to do in order to reform itself – to correct its past abuses and problems, and to make it more truly an institution reflective of the Kingdom of God that Jesus both taught about and personified. As a pastor, I try to work within the system as it is, in order to help steer it, and its members, in that direction – the direction that so many of your lists describe. Frankly, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d show up and help. But I’m going to continue trying to do it, with your help or without it.
*This paragraph was added to the original post, after a few readers pointed out – correctly – that, as originally written, it negatively painted all Millennials with the same broad brush. This was definitely never my intention, as I hope that the added paragraph makes clear.