The millennial obsession

May 26th, 2015

How do we get more millennials into church? In the ecclesial world I live in, this seems to be the question of the day, and there is no shortage of answers.

I’m not a millennial. Many have been my students. I count several as friends. There are even a couple of professors on my faculty who fall into this generation. And guess what? They’re not all exactly like one another. This is one reason I am so consistently puzzled by Rachel Held Evans. She speaks on behalf of millennials as their religious spokesperson, sounding the bell for a new kind of Christianity, one that will appeal to her and her millennial friends. Unfortunately, as Drew McIntyre has pointed out, this new kind of Christianity is really a retread of mid-twentieth century liberalism.

My own experience with millennials is that, like other generations, they are a diverse group of folks. While it is possible to identify generational trends, we should not oversimplify the complex set of beliefs and values within a particular generation, nor should we assume that these beliefs and values will remain static over time. Some millennials I have encountered are indeed as Evans describes. I think it’s safe to say that she speaks for a particular subculture within the millennial generation. Others of this same generation, however, are quite different. According to the recent and much-ballyhooed Pew study on Religion Among Millennials, 22% of millennials affiliate with evangelical traditions, whereas only 12% affiliate with mainline traditions. Another 8% affiliate with historically black churches and 22% are Roman Catholic. That 12% number is the one that should jump out at us. To listen to some of the rhetoric among church leaders today, one would think that number should be much higher. Millennials should be sprinting to the nearest Episcopal church where they can combine high-church liturgy, doctrinal relativism and a progressive social ethic. The thing is, they aren’t doing this. Mainline traditions claim only 3% more millennials than “secular unaffiliated.” By contrast, more conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic traditions combine for a total of 44%.

The idea that we can paint in such broad strokes with regard to the millennial generation — or any other generation, for that matter — is only part of the problem. Another problem, I fear, has to do with the motives behind much of our millennial obsession in the church. I suspect that often what’s driving this is not evangelistic zeal, but institutional preservation. I don’t remember churches engaging in such frenetic activity to reach Generation Xers when I was coming up. At that time, most of the mainline traditions were still firmly fixated on baby boomers. They inhabited virtually all of the positions of influence within the church and they created churches that appealed to the cultural sensitivities of middle-class, educated, liberal North American baby boomers. Generation X? Um… sure. You can come in, too… I guess… if you want to. Try not to break anything.

But then the looming collapse of the mainline became apparent, and all of a sudden we rediscovered evangelism. At least, we’ve been trying to. We have created advertising campaigns like “Rethink Church” that are supposed to appeal to the millennial demographic. Our evangelistic efforts are most often targeted specifically at millennials. Why would this be? Has God put a special burden on our hearts for people who were born approximately between 1980 and 2000? What about people younger than this? Shouldn’t we be worried about this group, too? My oldest son is thirteen. Does his generation even have a name? Could all this focus on millennials in fact be related to the sheer number of them?

Do I want millennials to receive the gospel? Absolutely, but not so that they can save the church. I want them to receive the gospel so that they can receive salvation through Jesus Christ. I want them to know and love God. I want them to experience new birth. I want them to know the peace of Christ and receive the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The mission of The United Methodist Church is not “to preserve and protect The United Methodist Church.” It is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I certainly recognize the value of institutions. I am heavily invested in both The United Methodist Church and United Theological Seminary. I care about these institutions and I want them to thrive. But if we as a church begin to exist for our own sake instead of existing for the sake of our mission, if we begin to think in terms of self-preservation instead of reaching the lost and preaching and living the Gospel, we’re done for. That’s it. It’s over.

Evan Rohrs-Dodge has recently urged us to refuse the temptation to be “relevant.” I agree with his post wholeheartedly. Rather than trying to re-create the church into the image of a certain segment of society, let’s try this: Offer them Christ. That was Wesley’s advice. Offer people Christ. It’s a pretty straightforward message:

Jesus is Lord.

He gave his life so that you and I can be made right with God.

After three days he rose from the dead, and he is alive still today.

He will change your life.

In 1998 Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong wrote "Why Christianity Must Change or Die." A lot of people believed it. And the denominations that embraced the principles Spong set forth are dying ever more quickly. I’m starting to hear that refrain again from many who claim that we will lose the millennials if we don’t become more progressive, if we don’t become relevant, if we don’t get with the times. But we aren’t going to lose them, because they were never ours to begin with. They are God’s, and as Christians our calling is to help them — and people of all other generations — understand that they were created to know and love God. Christ makes this possible, and the Holy Spirit leads us on the way.

Paul warned the Christians in Rome not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom 12:2). The claim that Christians should become more like the world around them has been around for a long time. It’s the age-old temptation: to blur or erase the distinctions between our faith and the values of the world. We’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.

David F. Watson blogs at

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