A few months ago, I first saw an article by Sam Eaton called “12 Reasons Millennials are OVER Church” at To Save A Life. I started a response to it, but life happened, and other topics came to the forefront, so I never finished it. Well, the article is making rounds again, this time at Faithit, re-titled 59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out–And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why.
The 12 reasons cited by the article for the millennial exodus from the church are these:
- Nobody’s Listening to Us
- We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements
- Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority
- We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture
- The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Effect
- Distrust and Misallocation of Resources
- We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At
- We Want to Feel Valued
- We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)
- The Public Perception
- Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)
- You’re Failing to Adapt
I’m a millennial. I should be able to relate to what Eaton wrote here. And, speaking honestly, there was a time in the past where, in my anger, pride, and selfishness, I could. But as I have aged, studied, lived, and many times repented, I no longer can buy it.
My wife and I are members of a Presbyterian (PCA) church of about 60 people. We sing hymns and psalms. The sermons are nothing flashy, just verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter through the Bible. Most of the congregation is older than my wife and I. And we love it. It feels like home. We are growing and challenged in our faith.
Before, we went for awhile to a church that had really upbeat music, lots of other young people, an exciting pastor with relevant sermon topics, and plenty of opportunities to serve. And it felt…empty. We were starving for substance. We were starving for the Word.
Now, I won’t claim to be any kind of expert on ecclesiology. But underneath Eaton’s complaints lie questions of why the church exists and how it should operate. The church is God’s chosen instrument to accomplish His purposes for redeeming His people. And God, through the Bible has plenty to say about it. If we check Eaton’s objections against scripture, will they hold up? If they can, then we can consider them. If not, they must be either discarded completely or modified to conform to a biblical understanding. Unfortunately, I feel we will have to do far more discarding and modifying than considering.
Eaton gave 12 reasons why the church is losing the millennial generation. They seem to fit into four (conveniently-alliterative!) categories.
Reasons 1, 3, and 6 and are Control issues, relating to who leads the church, how they lead, and how resources are allocated.
Reasons 2, 7, and 9 are Canonical (biblical) issues, relating to what the church teaches and prioritizes.
Reasons 4, 10, and 12 are Cultural issues, relating to the relationship between the church and the world.
Reasons 5, 8 and 11 are Community issues, relating to how millennials are incorporated into the church.
I want to take the time to address each category. Today, I will look at the Control issues.
“Millennials value voice and receptivity above all else” opens Eaton on his first complaint. There is truth to this. We grew up in schools being taught that we were special, we should have high self-esteem, and we should work to change the world. We were told that we could do anything that we put our minds to. And our generation believed it.
Millennials like to take this attitude into church, and demand that it cater to their tastes. But the church doesn’t exist for our self-actualization. It has a particular mission–to make disciples. And it has leadership, ordained by God, to make decisions.
I could probably write another separate article about various forms of church governance, but the short version is that in the Reformed tradition, of which I am a part, and would contend is most biblical, most churches are governed by elders. Not just everyone gets to be an elder. Not everyone is called. There are particular qualifications for the office (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5:1-4, among others). Elders typically are required to adhere to the church’s doctrinal statements. Not everyone can or will do this. And even if a man (yes, a man) can, most churches won’t call someone to be an elder quickly, as they need to see the qualifications and calling play out over time. This isn’t an oppressive, elitist, moralistic patriarchy. It is the system of governance that God has set up for the good of the church, and it works. If just anyone has a seat at the table, then the door is open for false doctrine, ulterior motives, and division to creep in.
I have been in congregational-governed churches before and sat through the dreaded church meetings where disagreements, doctrinal divides, and divas logjam the river and keep the church from acting on anything. I don’t sit under my elders and wish that I could call the shots. I thank God that He has raised up good men to be shepherds of the flock and guardians of the truth. Contrary to what the world likes to teach us, there is a joy in submission to that kind of leadership.
Eaton’s accusation is that no one is listening to the millennials in church. Is that even true? I have had many conversations with elders in my church. I don’t get the impression that they don’t care or don’t listen. Rather, they are gracious, knowledgeable, and insightful. Maybe Eaton hasn’t been listened to, but maybe he’s not in the right kind of church.
Of course, any discussion of church governance is going to inevitably lead to a discussion of church finance. Eaton cited two reasons for the millennial exodus that relate: “Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority”, and “Distrust and Misallocation of Resources”. Yes, the Bible says much about helping the poor, and the church definitely should have a role in that (James 1:27; Matthew 25:31-46; others). If a church is fulfilling its biblical obligations, there will be an attitude of compassion and service towards those in need. But this isn’t the only, nor is it the top priority. The church’s top priority is to make disciples. This is accomplished through the proclamation of the gospel, and the faithful teaching and practice of scripture. Anything the church does is towards that end. We don’t warm and fill people just so they can be warmed and filled. We warm and fill them to demonstrate the love of Christ in hopes that they will come to know Him, and we warm and fill those among us because they are our family in Christ. Can the church do more? Certainly. American churchgoers are notoriously stingy, not the cheerful givers that the Bible commands (2 Corinthians 9:7). But a perceived lack of help for the poor is not justification to abandon God’s people. The error of the “social-gospel” movement is to elevate help for the poor to the primary issue. All the feeding and clothing we can do is vain if those we feed and clothe die in their sins. The primary issue is the gospel and disciple-making. Let’s keep the priorities in the proper place.
(I would just point out that Reformed churches that practice the governance model I have described above not only have elders but also deacons, individuals designated for service, including helping the needy [1 Timothy 3:8-13; Acts 6:1-7]).
As far as the issue of distrust and allocation of resources, there are some valid concerns. Prosperity-teaching televangelist heretics who swindle the poor and elderly while building palaces and buying private jets contribute to this distrust. But the vast majority of churches I have experienced, and certainly the one I am in now, rebuke and repudiate this teaching. Eaton cites the millennial propensity towards distrust of institutions as a cause. Well, I get it, some institutions are bad, but the institution targeted here is one established by God with leaders ordained by God to steward resources. Money should be used to further the church’s biblical mission of disciple-making. That can mean helping the poor, but that doesn’t mean it always means helping the poor. Churches have to meet somewhere. Pastors need to buy groceries and pay bills. Events and resources can help equip leaders and spread the gospel. Just because someone doesn’t like how the money is spent, doesn’t mean the money is being spent wrongly. I would caution Eaton and others who hold his view to be careful to look at the big picture and avoid rushes to judgment.
Also, if a robust system of church government is in place, like the one described above, then someone who abuses the church financially and misuses its resources will be dealt with accordingly. The Bible prescribes discipline for members who sin in this and other ways (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5). Of course, many churches in broad evangelicalism do not practice discipline, out of fear or a tendency to downplay sin. If they did, there would likely be fewer grounds for such complaints. But, even if those who swindle and misappropriate resources in the name of Christ slip through the cracks of the church, they will ultimately give an account to God, and He will address the situation better than we ever could.
God has spoken plainly and clearly through the Bible on what the church is and what it does. Millennials (or others) don’t get to just come in and change that. I get that Eaton and other millennials are frustrated by the church. I’ve been there. But the solution is not to run and hide from the church. We should seek, find, and embrace a biblical form of church. And if our desire for autonomy, control, or anything else causes us to desire something other than biblical church, then the problem isn’t the church, it’s us. We want to have our way, right here and now. God says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:6). Who knows better, us or Him?