Today is the third installment of my series responding to Sam Eaton’s many-times-viral article “12 Reasons Why Millennials are OVER Church”. Part 1 addressed Eaton’s complaints about issues of church control. Part 2 addressed issues of church canon (what the church teaches). Today, I am going to discuss Eaton’s complaints against the church about community.
I’ll begin with a little of my personal experience. I live in a rural state, and have since I was too young to remember. I grew up in a town of 1,500 people and graduated high school in a class of 29. Home life wasn’t the best. My parents’ marriage crumbled when I was in high school. I was picked on in school for being geeky, overweight, too overtly-Christian, not being athletic (which is life in small rural towns), and whatever else. I had a freakish recurring hip injury that resulted in me missing months of school at a time and being physically limited from most of the activities that my peers did. I watched most of my childhood and college friends get married and have kids, while I didn’t get married until I was 28, which meant a decade of unsuccessful dating and a whole lot of the pain of rejection. At times it was very hard. I’ve walked through periods of deep, dark depression. I know the weight of loneliness. I know what it’s like to languish without community. I know what it’s like to get burned out from constantly pouring out into the work of ministry and not being filled and replenished.
People were designed by God to live in relationship with one another. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” God said of Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:18). But sometimes, life deals differently. After a great victory over the prophets of Ba’al, Elijah was forced to flee to a cave, and there sunk into despair, believing that there were no others in Israel who had remained faithful to God. David wrote often in the Psalms about the betrayal of friends, family, and his countrymen. Many of the Old Testament prophets had some experience of being persecuted for their message and being forced to live in solitude. Jesus watched all of his friends desert him in one night, and one of his closest friends deny ever having known him. Paul was imprisoned in Rome, and penned his final letter to Timothy longing for Christian fellowship. John wrote Revelation in exile on Patmos. The experience of the church throughout its history is often one of people who were, in various ways, persecuted and abandoned. But the important thing to remember in all cases is that for God’s elect people, no matter how deep and dark the loneliness, depression, fear, and longing get, God is there. He does not abandon His people.
With that in mind, we return to the matter of Sam Eaton’s article. Three of the reasons he gave for millennials leaving church is an unfulfilled desire for community.
Before I dive into his specific points, I want to make an overarching observation. As I have walked through difficulty in life, I have found that every form of friendship and companionship fails in certain times and certain ways. I’ve gone through rebellious periods where the friends I held the closest were not seeking to honor or glorify God in any way. When, under conviction, I tried to repent and change my ways, those kind of friends run away, no longer being interested in what I bring to the table. There have been other times where my friends were all god
“The ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’ Effect”
Eaton’s critique here is that the church tends to be “exclusive” and “cliquey”. This really does happen; I’ve witnessed it. I once attended a church for a few months at a time where i was looking for a church home. There were a few hundred people in the church, but I could count on my fingers the number of people who ever talked to me while I was there, and most of those people knew me from outside of the church. This was a church that had poured a great deal of its resources into reaching youth and college students. But resources don’t change attitudes. People in the church do need to make a deliberate effort to reach out to visitors.
Now, I’m going to contrast that experience with the first time my wife and I went to my current church. We didn’t know anyone there. We researched the church online. People there would have had a hard time telling us from anyone else. As I said before, most of this church is older than us. They have a very traditional worship style. To the untrained observer, this place screams “unwelcoming to millennials”. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. From the first time we went there and every time since, people have always been kind to us, talked to us, invited us to things, and made us feel at home. Add this to the faithful preaching of the word I talked about earlier, and we know this is the kind of place we want to plant roots and grow.
To someone with a critique like Eaton’s, I would say this: Don’t give up. Maybe your current church isn’t making an effort. It may help to make some of your own. Introduce yourself. Let people know you’re there and want to be a part. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t, and it’s time to look elsewhere. There’s a lot of churches out there. (I mean, there’s a lot of Reformed churches out there, and maybe you can drop in on one of those and have an experience like mine). Community is important. But a lack of community is not a reason to give up on church. It’s not the only factor in play. You need to hear the Word be faithfully taught. You need corporate worship. You need a place to join in the work of furthering the kingdom.
“We Want to Feel Valued”
Again, on this one, I know where Eaton is coming from. He makes a point that churches rely on their young adults to do a lot of the work. I’ve been there. I have some gifts, skills, and talents that churches have found very useful. If you couple a situation where young adults in church are overworked with a church that does not offer much in the way of support and community, burnout and collapse are inevitable. Eaton implies that the churches are actively causing this with a mindset that says things like “You’re single, what else do you have to do?” and “You’re letting your church down”. The thing is, when I’ve gone through these seasons in life, it was never the church telling me that. I was telling myself that. If there was a need that could be met and any way I could even remotely help, I felt obligated. It was almost as though my right standing before God was contingent on how much I did for Him. That’s a lie straight from hell. I have a really hard time resting in grace. Part of why I became a Calvinist is because it’s the only theological system that has given me the peace of mind to do that. And even then, it’s a constant battle.
But, to the situation Eaton described, yes, there are people in churches who try to push people to serve. They are well-intended, but they may cross lines. There is nothing wrong with setting healthy boundaries. Yes, God is the most important thing in our lives. And serving Him may require us to sacrifice. But it should not be something we do begrudgingly or out of obligation. We have families, jobs, and other responsibilities. We need to shine the light of Christ into those spheres as well, and we can’t do that well if we’re neglecting them. I used this verse in Part 1, but I’ll mention it again: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7). This isn’t just talking about money, it’s talking about time, talents, and anything else we may have that is useful to build up the body of Christ.
To those in Eaton’ situation here, I would advise the following:
- Serve faithfully and obediently.
- Don’t think that your right standing before God depends on your works.
- Make sure that as you serve, you are being invested/poured into by others. If you are not, you will get burned out.
Again, you need the church and what it provides for you spiritually. Don’t let something like this be the reason you leave. Maybe it can work where you are. Maybe you need to make a move. But whatever you do, be in a church that not only serves you but can be served by you.
“Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)”
Eaton here is accusing the church of talking a good game when it comes to ministering to and reaching millennials, but not delivering the goods.
To Eaton, I would say, on behalf of the church, “Stop talking about us (unless you’re going to do something)”.
America is driven by a consumer mentality. We expect that wherever we go, people will cater to our wants and needs. In the church, this takes the form of megachurches full of congregants that pay large staffs or have small, elite teams of volunteers to do the church’s work, leaving most of the church with little obligation but to show up for a couple hours on Sunday and maybe another hour some other time during the week.
This isn’t how God intended the church to be. It is often referred to in Paul’s letters as a “body”. A human body won’t last long, nor will it have much quality of life if only a couple of the parts are working. Everyone in the church has a role to play. And I would ask my fellow millennials, who has a better opportunity to do something to reach millennials than you? Is your pastor going to share the gospel with your coworkers? Is your music leader going to invite your friends to church? Probably not. You have the opportunity to reach people with the gospel, to bring them into the church, to build the kind of community in your church that you long for. Get yourself into a church that preaches the Bible faithfully, worships in spirit and in truth, and that you can be excited about, then go and be excited about it.
Also, don’t feel like just because your church doesn’t have people who look like you, act like you, share your similar life experiences, or are in your age bracket that you can’t have community in your church. You can reach across those lines and often find opportunities to learn and grow from people with different life experiences. To only want to be among people like you is to run the risk of creating a cliquey situation like I described earlier. It’s hard to know there’s a clique if you’re in it. The church is one family and one body, and if we’re only interested in those like us, we’re not doing our part to be a part.
I hope this article has provided some practical advice on how to do life in church as a millennial. But I hope, more than anything, that these peripheral issues are not enough to keep my fellow millennials from the teaching of the word and the worship of God. While community is important, God’s truth is far more. If you are Christ’s sheep (see Part 2), you need to hear your shepherd’s voice. That happens in faithful, Bible-proclaiming churches. There is no substitute.
Click here for Part 4. ♦