Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why the Great “Millenial” Debate Misses the Point



          We are currently knee-deep in a debate about why “Millennials” are apparently streaming out of our churches.  Rachel Held Evans initiated this discussion with her piece on CNN Belief blog.  Many have responded pro or con from many different perspectives.  Today Diana Butler Bass weighed in on Facebook by claiming that it’s not theology but demographics that accounts for the Millennial exodus:
“OK, here's the only thing I'm going to say about the viral millennials piece. Millennials are not ‘leaving’ for theological reasons. It is about exponential demographics. Throughout the last 100 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of people who dis-affiliate in each generations. With each increase, it is like multiplication, not addition. The millennials' parents and grandparents ‘left’ at a rate of about 15%. Those people married other people who also left religion. They had unaffiliated children. Those unaffiliated children married and had the second generation of unaffiliated children. Because there are more of them, they have wider cultural influence and converted their peers. So, the millennial unaffiliated rate is double that of a generation (or two) ago. This pattern began in the 1920s -- and was obscured for about 20 years immediately following WWII -- and the trickle turned into a stream turned into a river. 

Sometimes, it ain't theology. It's math (combined with a good dose of knowing history).
            So, we’ve got music, liturgy, belonging, lack of substance, regressive theology, irrelevance, and now, demographics offered as reasons for Millennials departing the church.  And doubtless there’s some truth for some Millennials in all this. As there is also in the negative responses to this line of thought, though I’ll not rehearse them here.  You can find them easily on the internet.
          My sense is that in all this we’re missing the point.  Or more pointedly, we’re ignoring the point.  And there are reasons for that.  I contend that the real truth of the exodus of people from churches from the 1960’s on lies deeper than whatever generational gripes animate portions of discrete cohorts during that time.  I contend that the point we miss or ignore is that “the church” we all seem to know what is wrong with and can fix is itself no longer a viable vehicle for being the people through whom God intends to use to bless the world!  It can’t be fixed.  We cannot get to the “there” of a church that is such a people from “here” (the church as we have known it).  We face an adaptive and a technical crisis.
          Now I don’t mean that God has not used the church as we have known it or those who have faithfully served it through these years.  He certainly has.  God will play whatever hand we deal him as best it can be played.  But God also has shown us the hand he desires to play through his people is blessing the world and bringing it to its full flourishing.  It is our responsibility to discern ways and forms that position us to be that hand God desires.
          Until this nettle is grasped, all the rest of the matters raised and debated in this “Millennial” controversy remain finally unresolvable.  Until we have been grasped anew by our calling, which I think is best described as God’s “subversive counter-revolutionary movement” against all the powers of sin, death, and (d)evil have inscribed into the attitudes, perceptions, actions, patterns, and structures of this world as “normal,” animated by the passion and urgency of participation in this movement, and experience the gifts enabling each of us to take up our role in this struggle, we cannot know what liturgy, music, kinds of belonging, etc. even mean.
          Much in and around us will resist my claims here and continue to think we can incrementally tweak what we have into what we think we want.  Too much history, too much change, and too much effort will be required to do what I envision.  Too many livelihoods would be negatively impacted.  Yet, as far as I can see, the former will never work and the latter is simply a price to be paid for faithfulness delayed and denied on the part of the church.
          All of this is, I believe, the point missed or ignored by most in the “Millennial” debate.  Yet it is the one we most need to engage.  

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