A Future Without a Past

What the departure of Millennials from the church may mean for western Christianity.

“I would have really blown their minds if I told them that I don’t think you can know whether Scripture is true … but that doesn’t affect my faith.”

Those words hung over the dark parking lot. My friend and I walked away from our first time at a meet-up of disgruntled, disaffected Christians at a taproom in downtown Colorado Springs.

We had spent the last two hours listening to a reasonably well-mannered debate about a topic sure to enliven any dinner party … proving the validity and extent of the Divine inspiration (and thus validity) of the Bible. Everyone at the table looked to be in or reasonably adjacent to their mid-twenties, all white and all apparently connected to Evangelical Christianity in some way. No one had much in the way of solid answers to the central question of the night. Some presented vague remembrances of disconnected facts about the history of the canonization of Scripture.

The group’s website identifies itself as “A non-threatening place to discuss taboo things about faith, culture, theology, and a thousand other things.” Loaded in that statement are a host of grievances against the American Evangelical church. Having grown up in a religious subculture deemed to be irredeemably saturated with triviality, legalism, harsh political partisanship and reflexive dogmatism, the members of this group, like so many more of our age, appear eager to strike out into the wilderness to find a new faith they can own and live with.

“So, it sounds like what we are saying is that the Bible only has authority if you believe it does. This should have profound consequences when we go out into the world and deal with people who don’t actually believe the Bible.”

Heads nodded around the table. A quiet girl at the end of the table looked quizzically at the ceiling and then swallowed her unspoken question with a frown.

What was strikingly absent from the conversation was any mention of the mountain of scholarship within the faith about this very topic. The subject at hand was being treated as though it were an inscrutable, unknowable mystery. No mention was made of the centuries of church tradition and scholarship that have turned this very question over and over, rubbing smooth many of the rough points of the debate currently going on in the back of a noisy taproom. No one mentioned any older mentor, professor or pastor that could be consulted. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that asking or trusting any older, scholarly authority was pointless. For better or worse, it appeared to the members present that in weighing this tangled, problematic question, we were on our own.

The youth-centric exodus from Evangelicalism is not new, of course. The plummeting numbers of millennials and late Gen-Xers within the church body is well established. Nor is it even unique to this generation. Decades before, our parents generation asked many of these same questions as they wrestled with a faith seemingly obsolete and impotent. What may not be obvious from simple counting of heads is where these people are going, why they are leaving and what they will do next.

It would require a tremendous level of insularity to be a member of the Christian community in America and not be aware of the countless stories of abuse of power, abuse of people, vanity, conspiracy, greed and lust which have been leveled at pastors and other church leaders in recent years. These blemishes on the reputation of the church are hard to ignore. Increasingly skeptical and discerning youth are less willing than past adherents to sweep indiscretions under the rug out of loyalty to a higher cause. After years of hearing authenticity and “giving your all for Christ” preached by pastors and leaders caught cheating on their wives and demanding six-figure salaries, many have decided to pull up stakes and find a new way to believe. Here in the Evangelical Mecca of Colorado Springs, the effect is felt with particular acuity.

For many, the matter is summed up in a statement echoing Ghandi’s alleged remark about the difference between Christians and Christ himself.

I cannot, for anything, give up Christ.
I also cannot go back to the church as I have known it.

Debates within the church about this ebbing tide are often begun with questions such as “How do we get young people back into the church?”

Implicit within this statement is a presumption that increased participation in the modes and methodologies of worship and community as we currently know them — the Sunday morning service, attending a small group Bible study, etc. — is the eventual goal of those seeking to bring young people back into the fold. There may be deeper statements underneath about the value of knowing Christ or the deeper spiritual practice of the faith, but the continuance of the outward expression of religious practice is often the deepest limit of the conversation.

From here, both within the church and without, the discussion often moves laterally away from the deeper issues, drifting along in the shallows at the edge of the continental shelf of familiar religious practice. The discussion turns to styles of music, the role of social media, whether multi-site churches are valid expressions of a local community of faith and other ancillary points. All the while, the abyssal questions of whether we, as a church, can separate ourselves from the trappings of the comfortable religious practice of Christianity and still have a Christ to believe in go largely unaddressed and unexplored.

What seems to be missing from the near-alarmist rhetoric about declining numbers in the church is the recognition that youth may be leaving the church, but not so many of us are leaving Christ. We are, however, going out boldly into a void of knowledge and tradition, having concluded that there was nothing valuable to save from the sinking ship of what we collectively deemed to be an irrelevant and shallow faith.

The result of this shift is an outcome that many in Western Christianity may not have looked for … a future church still strong in numbers, but lacking in history, orthodoxy, theology and epistemology.

The opportunity that lies before the Evangelical church today is not one last heroic stand to fill the empty pews of yawning worship centers or to raise the level of giving to build a new, attractive campus. The opportunity lies in finding a way to extract the essentials of the Christian tradition, history, and theology from the culturally derived practices of our faith. This will allow for the truths of the faith to be presented simply as they are … refreshing and unique foundations of a belief that has proven startlingly adaptable and translatable in its outward expressions over the centuries.

There will be a church in America in 50 years. What remains to be seen is if it will know how it came to be, and whether there is, after all, any way of knowing what separates the Gospel of Christ from any other story you would like to believe.

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