I, a millennial, am not leaving the church. Recently there has been a small flashflood of articles unearthing possible reasons and remedies for the ongoing exodus of millennials from the Christian church. I read them as a stranger to the departing crowd.
Rachel Held Evans suggested toning down the trendiness and giving a listening ear to the thoughts and passions of a millennial near you. We are actually thinking about the creeds, science and faith, sexuality, and holiness, but we wonder over them in questions, not “predetermined answers.” Her last word is to “encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”
Brett McCracken rebutted, asking millennials to give a listening ear to age and wisdom. Millennials are highly sensitive to nearby flaky self-images and the nearest one is our own. ‘Tis our season to scrabble through liminal self-perceptions toward a strongly rooted identity. So, the church should take a cue from the millennial and become as sensitive to their potential fakeness as they are to hers. McCracken thinks “that the answer is decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be. But this is what Evans suggests.”
Not quite. Evans got timid with her final plea and left it vague. McCracken is being unfair, inserting this scenario when nothing in Evans’ statement gestures to it. Picture this specimen Millennial in a coffee shop with this specimen church-goer/deacon/die-hard. Never mind who asked whom.
There should be mutual listening. If either person actually thought they were coming to give a monologue, they could have found a pulpit or a stage. This is a conversation. Each speaker shuts up every few sentences. Granted, when people are ignored outright, intervention is advisable. But opening the dialogue by staking out one party’s right to be heard over another doesn’t allow for much traction down the road. If we all concede that good listening is lacking but key and then promise to stop tuning out our counselors’ or therapists’ practical tips to improve active listening, real conversations are just around the corner.
Where Evans and McCracken solidly agree, I ask for a significant nuance. In McCracken’s words, “Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived.” I could easily interpret that two different ways: either he means ‘obsessed with first impressions’ or ‘obsessed with the self-image.’ If the latter, then of course we are obsessed with how we are perceived. Christianity nurtures concern for self-image. What begins as a shallow itch for approval is just the shadow of our deep human longing to be seen. We are created: we are created beautiful as well as functional: we are art. As art invites an audience, so we long to be displayed to each other. For Christ to completely restore us to what makes us truly human, we may only expect Him to increase our hunger for more and more attention.
But if in fact we are obsessed with making first impressions, no wonder we are frustrated. First impressions are one or a series of quick insights about a person based on visual (or other sensory) impressions. I don’t say judgments because the word connotes a distasteful opinion that we’ll probably end up dismissing as incorrect. Perceptions could be entirely correct. They just aren’t going to be deep. What we need in addition to first impressions is a certain space to be seen, where those impressions will purposefully become contemplation.
There’s no way to be a functioning human for long in a gallery space. We’re best displayed elsewhere in the space of shared experiences, alongside creations like ourselves. There, seeing and being seen are real possibilities.
Maybe we look to family, friends and professional circles or artistic communities for shared experiences. Yet, in proportion to human history, these are young, recent communities. Additionally, they may be more transient than permanent. They are less-than-guaranteed spaces for shared experience. The church is human history’s longest living community. It offers an extensive architecture of shared experiences (cf. its calendar, reformations and revivals, plus contributions to art). It is a certain space to be seen.
And so I remain a millennial church-goer. While my voice matters, I don’t stay on the condition that I am heard. Although my elders’ wisdom is a far better gift, I’ll persist to give as well as receive. Many, many concerns prick me every time I go to worship—I notice her lack of good discourse on human sexuality, feel her tight rein on artistic honesty, and wonder when her missionaries will feel called to America. These concerns are powerful enough to activate me toward change and confrontation within the church, but will never rise to become conditions for remaining in the church. I pray to love the church as I hope to be loved: unconditionally. And similarly, I affirm that both the church and millennials have responsibility toward each other—to heed or challenge concerns, not as terms and conditions, but as doorways to unconditional love.