I want to talk about why Millennials are fleeing the church in droves. But first, let’s circle back around to a question I raised at the end of a blog last week. Regarding discipleship, I said: “I wonder if we’ve elevated certain pet aspects of personal morality over communal and social action.”
Can someone be a disciple if they remain sexually pure before marriage and yet have no heart for the poor?
Is a faithful disciple one who has a perfect church attendance and leads two Bible studies, but has no concern for their local community?
If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community care?
I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite churches a few months ago: Imago Dei in Portland. I was giving a talk to a bunch of pastors there on a Monday afternoon, and the whole building was buzzing like a bee-hive with activity. My talk was only one of many gatherings that afternoon. One room was filled with addicts seeking redemption. Another room hosted a group of single moms in the neighborhood. The building probably had more unbelievers than believers in it. Smells of food lingered in the hallways, and the building was filled with a rainbow of ethnicity. My friend Josh Butler, one of the pastors at Imago Dei, told me:
“We want to be so vital to the community around us that if we ever closed our doors, the entire neighborhood would be upset.”
If Josh’s concern is a good one, and I think it is, then how is this concern woven into our discipleship? Are we training Christians to be both morally upright and socially engaged? Only 20 percent of Millennials who have left the church said that they were given opportunities to serve the poor when they were churched (Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 119). Only 15 percent said they found a cause or issue at church that motivated them (Ibid). And yet many unchurched (or dechurched) are passionate about serving the community, fighting injustices, helping the poor, doing things that make their city a better place.
According to one survey, 4 out of 5 unchurched people want to contribute to the good of their community (Barna and Kinnaman, Churchless, 42; see also Dyck, Generation Ex-Christian, 39). Ironically, their perception about church is that church people don’t really care about the world around them. They’re too busy going to church and serving themselves. And most church budgets confirm the perception.
At my church here in Boise, every six weeks we have what’s called “serve Sunday.” Instead of having a church service, we gather for service. That is, we locate several needs in our community and we spend the morning meeting those needs. It may be pulling weeds at a women’s half-way house or helping a local nonprofit with whatever needs they may have. My pastor says it’s usually the most well-attended Sunday of the month.
Many people who are searching for some sort of divine encounter won’t step foot inside a church building, where people are singing weird songs and money plates are being passed around. (I mean seriously, church can be so weird for someone not raised in the church.) But most people are passionate about serving needs in their community. They care about the poor. They’re angry at injustice. They see value in meeting physical needs at a home where ex-cons are trying to get back on their feet.
Most people who fall away from church in their 20s and 30s don’t have any major reason for doing so. Seventy-one percent said they “just gradually drifted away from the religion” (cited in Dyck, Generation Ex-Christian, 169). The religion these people left is more akin to “therapeutic moralistic deism,” according to Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist (Soul Searching). God exists. Jesus is real. Here are the doctrines you have to believe, and here are a bunch of rules you have to follow to be a good person: don’t cuss, don’t get drunk, don’t have sex before you’re married (and you’re on your own after you get married), don’t ______, don’t ________, don’t _________. And go to church as often as you can. Oh, and don’t be gay.
After a while, the Christianity they’ve experienced feels out of touch with the real world around them. The truth claims they’ve memorized feel simplistic and irrelevant. Their complex questions are given thin, simplistic answers, and there’s rarely any safe space to ask hard questions or express doubt. Their passion for people, vocation and the real needs around them weren’t fanned in any significant way by church services and Bible studies. In other words, they didn’t truly encounter Jesus—the Jesus of the Bible—in church.
When Jesus invited people into fellowship, he said “come follow me” as he met the physical and spiritual needs around him (Matt 8-9). He didn’t invite people to attend a service. It was in serving the poor and bringing shalom to a violent world that the presence of God was manifest. People can experience God in a church service (1 Cor 14). But they can also experience Him as they’re kneeling to give a homeless person bread (Matt 25). If we are going to truly disciple the next generation, we need to expand our view of what discipleship is. Personal morality has its place. But even personal morality needs to be tethered to the narrative of a crucified God who’s on a reckless mission to bring the nations back to Eden.
Our discipleship must include personal and communal engagement. We must harness and unleash the God-given passions and creativity that glow like quiet embers in the heart of every soul. We cannot bore people out of the church or preach (or live) a dull, irrelevant gospel that snuffs out people’s passion to live, dream, create and serve. We’ve been endowed with God’s Spirit to incarnate the love of Christ and turn the world upside down.
If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would the neighborhood around it care?