This Millennial Isn’t Leaving the Church

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.

A Review of Brett McCracken’s “Gray Matters”

Brett McCracken, probably best known for his previous book Hipster Christianity, has penned a careful, nuanced, deliberative text with Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty. I’ll confess that I haven’t read his previous book, but I’ve kept abreast of his online work for the last year or two, over at Mere Orthodoxy and, most recently, when he wrote the best response to the millennial business a few weeks back. His posts are always contemplative, moving at a pace that reminds us to slow down and think, rather than jump to conclusions brashly. I’ve appreciated his work, so I was excited to dig into the new book.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections: food, music, film, and alcohol. Each is fairly well self-contained, which I suspect will lend itself to long-term usability: if you were teaching a class on culture, or more specifically on film or music, you could easily assign the appropriate section as an introduction to how Christians ought to interact with that set of cultural artifacts.

Each section is carefully worked out, with the latter three including a brief history of Christianity’s relationship towards the subject matter. The topics are all appropriately given weight; you sense with each word that it truly matters what we eat, listen to, watch, and drink. The gravitas that the book recommends we see in every day life can be staggering, but is ultimately convincing (as well as convicting).

Throughout the book, there are small ‘interludes’. These are usually only a couple of pages in length, but they serve to augment the main topics of the chapter. Some include personal anecdotes intended to remind the reader that not only is this stuff important, but it will be memorable. Others ask questions that rest just outside the scope of the book: swearing in music, for instance, gets a brief nod. These interludes are interesting, and definitely worth reading on a first run, but wouldn’t take my attention on a second read-through of the text proper.

If you’ve ever been told you shouldn’t watch a certain movie, or listen to a certain album, or drink a certain (fermented) beverage, just because you are a Christian, this book is for you. There’s really no plainer way to say it. Many of us grew up in homes that were strict on many of these fronts (I remember my first ‘secular’ album, and now I find myself writing about guys like Kanye West). That isn’t to say that we aren’t right to step away from certain things. In fact, this is probably the strongest point in the book: many young evangelicals have opted to land so firmly in the camp of ‘liberty’ that they’ve strayed into a license to do all things. They drink, smoke, watch R-rated movies, and listen to the vilest rap and death-metal music they can find. The temptation is to take “all things permissible” and ignore “but not all things are beneficial.” Gray Matters holds a healthy middle ground: as the subtitle suggests, there is a middle ground here. There are some films we simply ought not watch, and some that perhaps I shouldn’t watch, even if it has no negative (and possibly even a positive) effect on you.

My only real complaint about the book, which some might find initially off-putting, is a leaning towards pretension throughout the text. While this comes with the territory for film critics (or music critics, or food critics, etc.), it can feel a little frustrating at times. This was especially true during the food chapters of the book. To be fair to the author, there are qualifiers. He explicitly states that while we should be cultivating our love for food in healthy, moral, and uniquely Christian ways, we should never find ourselves judging those who still drive through whatever local fast food establishment is convenient for them. But the aside, as genuine as it was, came late enough that the first section will take a thorough re-read to wash that taste (pun intended) out of my mouth.

That complaint, though real, is relatively minor: I really did love this book. I appreciate anyone who pushes us to slow down and carefully consider the choices we make daily. You’d do well to read this one.

Patriotism and the Fourth of July

I contemplated whether or not I should write a post for the Fourth of July. The holiday has never been wildly important in my family, though I’ve done my share of wearing red, white, and blue, and even temporarily dying my hair one year. I’ve made the trek to see fireworks at both the Washington Monument and the Air Force Academy, the latter an experience my father was particularly excited about, as a graduate of that particular school. Continue reading Patriotism and the Fourth of July