Last Thursday, I began my response Sam Eaton’s list of reasons millennials leave the church. I divided his critiques into four categories: Control, Canonical, Cultural, and Community issues. Today, I will address the Canonical (doctrinal) issues.
On some level, all of Eaton’s critiques touch on issues of doctrine. But three of them do so more directly; they are criticisms of what and how the church teaches and believes.
“We’re Sick of Hearing About Your Values and Mission Statements”
Eaton’s case here is that a church should not need to lay out its doctrinal and vision statements, because Jesus settled this issue in Mark 12:30-31:
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
Eaton is right in saying that this is the greatest commandment Jesus gave. I wrote a piece not too long ago about how American Christians aren’t always very good at this. There is a strong ecumenical impulse in evangelicalism today to put our differences aside and just love everybody. But there is a problem. What is love?
Now, if you clicked that link, I’m sorry, but it is a serious question: When Jesus tells us to love God and love neighbor, what does that mean? Sure, helping and serving people is a loving thing to do, but it is not the only loving thing, nor is it the most loving thing. The most loving thing is to tell people the truth of the gospel, so that they may be saved. If we believe that the gospel is the only way to salvation, then we need to know what it is. And if we aren’t willing to study scripture and define the gospel we believe, how will we be able to articulate it to anyone else? And even if we do that, if we have no mission, vision, or strategy, how will we get the gospel where it needs to go? Eaton said, “We’re impressed with actions and service.” Well, you can’t get to actions and service (at least on a large scale) without a plan for how you’re going to get there, and a clear understanding of why.
This is why the church has its statements on mission, vision, and doctrine. They are the terms whereby the church defines its terms–what it believes, and how it intends to take what it believes to the world. In the Reformed tradition, we have our creeds, confessions, and catechisms, which, while not being in any way a substitute for or addition to scripture, are tools to help us interpret and understand scripture. The best way to love is to love God’s way, not the squishy, relativistic, ever-shifting, post-modern “love” that the world understands. To know how to love like God, we need to understand who He is through what He has revealed in scripture, and that needs to be communicated to church members continuously.
“We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At”
Eaton writes, “Preaching just doesn’t reach our generation like our parents and grandparents. See: millennial church attendance. We have millions of podcasts and YouTube videos of pastors the world over at our fingertips. For that reason, the currency of good preaching is at its lowest value in history.” His position advocates instead for an emphasis on relationship and mentoring.
Not to keep hammering the same anvil, but maybe we should check what the Bible says about this:
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1Timothy 4:13, emphasis mine)
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:1-4, emphasis mine)
I can’t really say it any better than that. Sure, you can get YouTube videos and podcasts. But there’s no substitute for sitting under preaching, in the church, with people who know you and can speak into your life. God has commanded it. Where there is church, there is preaching of the Bible. When I listen to podcasts or recorded sermons, I pick what I want to hear. When I go to church, I hear what God has placed on the heart of my pastor through the Bible to deliver to our church.
Now, I won’t deny that mentoring is important. In this series, I’ve cited quite a few passages from 1 & 2 Timothy. 1 & 2 Timothy were letters from Paul, the seasoned veteran church planter, to Timothy, his young apprentice. They are mentoring manuals. Every Paul needs a Timothy and every Timothy needs a Paul. But no amount of one-on-one mentoring is a substitute for corporate worship and preaching. Think of it like a car. Suppose you always put gas in your car, but never change the oil. You’re going to have problems. Your car needs both. Just like we need both preaching and mentoring for our spiritual growth.
“We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)”
Eaton just jumped from not wanting preaching to suddenly wanting it, but leaving that aside, I actually agree with him to a point here, though probably for different reasons. There is a tendency in churches today to deliver soft, topical sermons week in and week out. “How to have a better family”, “How to manage money”, “How to find happiness”, etc. It seems Eaton is advocating for topical teaching that hits the tougher topics. I’d like to propose a better alternative, because I’ve seen it and it works: Preach the Bible. All of it. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter. Because do you know what happens when the Bible is preached that way? You hear about all the tough topics. Marriage and sex? It’s in Song of Solomon, Matthew, Ephesians, and Proverbs, among others. Money? All of the Gospels, Proverbs, James, 1 Timothy…it’s all over. Loneliness/Abandonment? Psalms, Jesus in the garden, Job, 2 Timothy…you get the point. When pastors go through the whole Bible, they hit all of the topics.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
“All Scripture” means “All Scripture”. Not just the easy parts. Not just the encouraging parts. Not just the controversial parts. We need it all. The solution to Eaton’s problem here is not to veer into deeper, darker topics, but to preach the whole counsel of God, where all the topics, hard or easy, are covered. If my fellow millennials want to hear preaching on tough topics, get into a church that boldly preaches the Bible.
Sheep and the Shepherd
But I’m not sure that the problem Eaton presents is actually the real issue. Biblical preaching addresses of all of life’s pressing topics. But that includes preaching topics that people in general, and millennials in particular, don’t want to hear. The millennial generation is at the forefront of issues such as abortion-on-demand and LGBT rights. The Bible is not silent to these issues, it just gives answers that society finds unpopular, outdated, bigoted, and on and on. The Bible takes sin and God’s justice and wrath towards sin seriously. The Bible does not allow for comfortable, conforming, cultural Christianity, where we live like the world and sprinkle enough Jesus in it to make it Christian. It demands radical repentance, submission, and costly obedience.
People in our society don’t want to be confronted by these harsh teachings. Millennials, we are the generation that has given the world “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” because when we have our ideas challenged we often just can’t even. Churches that worry about maintaining their numbers, giving, and influence tend to shy away from confrontational teaching. However, the truly regenerate, the people who are Jesus’ sheep, will hear the voice of the Shepherd through scripture (John 10), and order their lives accordingly. They will long to hear the voice of God through biblical preaching, and they will desire to fellowship with other believers in the church, even the ones who don’t look, act, think like them. Even the ones who weren’t born in the same decade.
I don’t think millennials are leaving the church because the church is teaching the wrong things. There are churches that teach the right things the right way, and most millennials don’t go to those, either. The hard truth is, most millennials are not in church because they do not hear, nor do they want to hear, the Shepherd’s voice, because they do not belong to Him. Millennials don’t need a church that caters to their desires. They need to repent, trust in Christ, and surrender their desires to Him.