Thoughts on Millennials and the Church and finding Jesus in “Truth that Transcends”

Aug 1, 2013 by

A recent article at CNN by Rachel Held Evans about why Millennials are leaving their churches recently went viral. It’s interesting to see some of the responses to the CNN article. For example, some Mormon Millennials are sharing their thoughts as to why they are staying in their (our) church. You can look through some of the links on the hashtag #whyimstaying

The notion of Millennials and an not-uncommonly-taken, spiritual-but-not-religious approach to faith has been around for a few years now. Many young adults have felt disillusioned with their faith traditions, for various reasons. The CNN article points out that some church’s leaders simply try to be more “cool,” in superficial ways. Young adults can see right through that, the author asserts. She also suggests that, for example, concerns about social justice, an allegedly overdone focus on sexual standards, and positions on gay rights have created rifts for Millennials and have left them wanting something different…in essence, wanting the churches to change to reflect more “modern” perspectives on social issues.

But apparently not all Millennials feel that the rising generation has all the keys to what churches should do in order to retain young adults in their congregations.

For example, I was intrigued by an article written in the Washington Post by Brett McCracken entitled “How to keep Millennials in the Church? Let’s keep church uncool.” His response to the CNN article doesn’t argue against Evan’s entire premise (he also is against trying to make church “cool” as the title of his article makes clear). But he has a message for Millennials as well.

“I’m a Millennial,” McCracken writes, “but I am weary of everyone caring so much about why Millennials do this or don’t do that. I’m sorry Millennials, but I’m going to have to throw us under the bus here: we do not have everything figured out. And if we expect older generations and well-established institutions to morph to fit our every fickle desire, we do so at our peril” [emphasis in original].

I found this a refreshing addition to the discussions about and among Millennials and those who care about and/or sympathize (or even agree with) them. As noted, McCracken doesn’t minimize the reality that the CNN article points out — that some churches are swinging away from Jesus in their “let’s be more hip” approach. But he reaches beyond the surface to explore some of what might be keeping many Millennials spiritually unsatisfied.

McCracken has concerns both about the young adults who clamor perhaps too much to be heard and also the churches that are perhaps trying too hard to cater to the every whim of those activists. He invites young adults to sit down and listen, too, and to be willing to learn from those who have gone before and invites churches to not try so hard to be socially and politically correct.

Quoting C.S. Lewis, he writes:

Part of the problem is the hubris of every generation, which thinks it has discovered, once and for all, the right way of doing things. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery,” defining it as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

McCracken’s last, heartfelt paragraph to me reflects some wisdom from which any of us, of any age, can benefit.

As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.

These sentiments have been explored elsewhere by Christian leaders who also see the peril in a give-me-all-that-I-want mentality that McCracken addresses.

[M]uch of modern Christianity does not acknowledge that God makes any real demands on those who believe in Him, seeing Him rather as a butler “who meets their needs when summoned” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (2010), 17) or a therapist whose role is to help people “feel good about themselves (Dean, Almost Christian, 30; see also Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), 118–71). It is a religious outlook that “makes no pretense at changing lives…. By contrast…the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism” [Dean, p. 30, 37]. [From “As Many as I Love I Rebuke and Chasten“]

McCracken shares his thoughts as to why catering to the latest social or political or cultural opinions is anything but benign.

“The Christian gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever itch people think Christianity should scratch. Consumerism asserts that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about me. But to position the gospel within this consumerist, give-them-what-they-want framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamy variations. If Christianity aims to sell a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?”

His insights reminded me of talk given by one of our church’s leaders about the benefits of learning from the past (both from older generations who are still alive and ancient people whose stories and lessons learned and testimonies are recorded in holy writ). There are patterns of truth that stand the test of time, mortal lessons that have been learned and re-learned, with negative consequences that could be avoided by learning from those who have gone before.

“Learning the lessons of the past allows you to walk boldly in the light without running the risk of stumbling in the darkness. This is the way it’s supposed to work. This is God’s plan: father and mother, grandfather and grandmother teaching their children; children learning from them [and from the patterns in the scriptures] and then becoming a more righteous generation through their own personal experiences and opportunities. Learning the lessons of the past allows you to build personal testimony on a solid bedrock of obedience, faith, and the witness of the Spirit.

“If you are open and receptive to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit in your lives, you will understand the lessons of the past, and they will be burned into your souls by the power of your testimonies. [From “Learning the Lessons of the Past“]

McCracken invites his Millennial peers a bit more bluntly.

“[W]hy don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee [or, for Mormons, a hot chocolate? {grin}] and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before….”

I think we all could benefit from this advice. I recently attended a Mormon ward congregation comprised mostly of retirement-age people and I was left wanting to learn more from them. I could tell they had stories and perspectives that would be interesting and worthwhile. When was the last time any of us talked to someone older than ourselves just to listen and learn from them?

We can also sit for a spell with the ancients (with coffee or hot chocolate in hand?) in the Old and New Testaments (and for Mormons, in the Book of Mormon) and hear what they have to say about life and faith in Jesus Christ, sacrifice, love, humility, service.

I give a “Hats off!” to Brett McCracken for his willingness to invite Millennials (and all of us) to listen to and learn from one another. We can grow as we are willing to be humble and teachable. As McCracken says, we can seek for “truth that transcends” individual and cultural limitations.

In truth, it’s the kind of truth that stands the test of millennia. I believe that’s where we can all find Jesus.




  1. Joyce Anderson

    Great post! Before our ward split, my VT was an 81 year old woman who had grown up in Switzerland during WW2. I miss her so much, because I learned so much from her. I loved listening to her stories about Switzerland and what it was like to live during WW2. Her conversion story was also one of my favorites. I love having VTs that are older and more experienced than I am. I feel, even at 40 years old, that I need examples and mentors in my life.

  2. Great post, both this one and the one cited. The tail should not wag the dog, and hopefully the tail understands that that’s for its own benefit.

  3. Jettboy

    I have just one bit of problem with your solution (about listening to the older generation). Although there are older people that I admire and talk to, the majority feel retired from life like they are from jobs. They close off from society and just want to be left alone. I can’t even get them to say a prayer while they sit in the back rows with the other older people. I understand many have health and other problems that make them worried, but not all of them have one foot in the grave. How can we get interactions working from both sides?

  4. Jettboy, I don’t know that we can make it go both ways if one of the people is unwilling. But I think there are myriad ways to learn from those who are older and/or have gone before. It’s sad to heard that those around you have sort of shut down, but maybe there are others in your circle of influence outside your congregation. Or maybe the Spirit can give you some insights on how and with whom to reach out.

  5. Our church like so many others are attempting to reach the Millennial Generation. In our ( all of us) attempts to do so we blur the lines responsible engagement and authentic outreach as we navigate the tensions between traditional truths that defy time and culture and our own attempts to be politically correct as we address felt needs. This is a great article for all to read as a Millennial challenges other Millennials to seek the wisdom and guidance they need in the authentic voices of those who have preceded them. As Boomer, this article joins in concert with what we are attempting to embrace and implement at our church: An targeted outreach approach that is sensitive to felt needs of Millennials but one that also seeks to have them and us in mutual dialogue and learning.

  6. Pastor Young, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You used a concept that is a favorite of mine — navigating the tensions (I sometimes call it “dancing in the tension”). It’s always an interesting thing to try to find the balance in things like this, isn’t it?

    God bless you in your ministry, and thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts to the discussion.


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