Asking For the Wrong Thing...
As is common in our house, one of my kids pops into the kitchen mid-afternoon and asks for a sucker or fruit-snacks because they are hungry. My wife and I have to tell them, time and time again, that fruit snacks will not make them less hungry (probably the opposite actually) and that what they REALLY need is to wait an hour for dinner to be ready and have a full meal with the family. When they complain to us about our answer what they are saying is not “I am hungry” but “I want fruit snacks, so if I say, ‘I’m hungry’ your care for me as my parents will coerce you to meet my ‘need’ for food with my desired filler, namely this tiny bag of cartoon-character-molded sugar.”
They don’t really want to be fed, they want a bag of fruit snacks.
There is a blog making the rounds on social media from Rachel Held Evans entitled, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” In it she draws on some statistics as well as personal anecdotal information to make the case that many in her generation (and younger) are leaving the modern, American, “evangelical” church in favor of more traditional, high church models (more formal liturgical structure) primarily because the current modern, evangelical church is lacking “authenticity” and seems to focus on trying to meet “consumer” demands by being “hip” and “cool” to attract young people to participate in their churches.
On the issue of a wholly consumeristic approach to “church” and trying to be more “relevant” than the church down the street, I would have to agree with Ms. Held Evans. After 30 years of the “seeker-driven” experiment, an approach that watered-down Biblical Truth and tried to reinvent itself as “cool” with every iteration, we see that not only is the evangelical church less Biblically literate than ever before (Here, Here, & Here), but the core message of orthodox Christianity (Solus Christus - John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5) is all but in jeopardy.
So yes. The consumer-focused church, focused on making you happy, is unhealthy and, if we are honest, it isn’t surprising that the flaws in this approach are starting to show.
But that is not the crux of Held Evans’ argument. While the above questions and critique are a helpful gut-check for the evangelical American church, the article is, by and large, an exercise in missing the point. Asking the wrong question will get you a wrong answer which will ultimately lead to a wrong conclusion and won’t be of much help.
Rachel Held Evans says that she and her millennial counterparts are “hungry” for authenticity. They are sick of hypocrisy, church-as-show, and a lack of Jesus-like compassion and care for injustice. AMEN. I am hungry for and sick of the same things. Any true disciple of Jesus Christ should desire these. But I don’t think Held Evans wants the full meal of Jesus-centered, Biblically robust justice and mercy. She wants a bag of fruit snacks that won’t fill her hunger. Knowingly or not, she is falling into the same “consumer trap” that she is railing against ... she just has different parameters. She is saying that the Jesus offered by modern evangelicals is not a good one, I argue that the Jesus she’s looking for doesn’t exist.
Held Evans writes,
“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance ... We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”
She argues that style isn’t ultimately important (and I would agree) and then goes down a laundry list of things she finds particularly troubling about modern evangelicalism as she sees it. She then concludes her list of problems with,
“Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”
So which is it? Do you want the predetermined answer of “Jesus” or don’t you?
You see, it is a full and Biblical Jesus that confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisee (Matt 23:1-36) and the selfishness of the youn rich man (Luke 18:18-30) and that same full and Biblical Jesus who lovingly, and boldly confronts the woman at the well in her sin (John 4:1-30) and gently encourages the doubter to doubt no more but believe by faith instead (John 20:24-29).
In reality, it seems Held Evans would just like the church to stop focusing on some issues: sin & sexuality, creation/science, politics of a particular stripe; and instead focus on other issues: inclusion when it comes to sexuality, open-mindedness when it comes to science, and politics of a different stripe.
Rachel Held Evans is adding her voice of a growing number of “evangelical” voices who argue that traditional (see orthodox) ways of reading and interpreting the Bible are unhelpful and should be reconsidered due to either current cultural shifts or apparent deficiencies (i.e. hypocrisy, exclusivity) in how church/theology/Christianity has been done up until now and it is because of this "old-fashioned" approach to Theology, culture, sexuality, salvation, etc. that the church is losing its young people. Unfortunately, Held Evans seems to be, like many before her, wanting to build a church in her own image that worships a Jesus in her own image who looks only partly like Jesus the Son, God incarnate, as revealed in God’s Word, the Bible.
Held Evans is asking for “more Jesus” but what she really wants is a different Jesus. What the article fails to conclude is that what is seen as a “lack of Jesus” in modern evangelicalism is really a distortion of Jesus; which, as I’ve stated before, is a fair criticism. The problem is her solution. She doesn’t point to the Scriptures to help correct and reform partial or distorted views and presentations of Jesus and His Gospel, she appeals to feeling and cultural preference. So if you ask the wrong question about what is wrong in a situation you’ll come up with a wrong answer; one that doesn’t fix the problem the author seems so concerned about.
And that brings up the primary issue with this article and the philosophy in which it is rooted; “I” am the ultimate authority on what is just, moral, fair, etc. Culture is changing, thus, the church’s traditional position on this issue, or the Bible’s clear teaching on that issue, should be reconsidered in light of the current culture. In a post she wrote just this past June, Held Evans argues that not all Christian beliefs are set in stone and that her views on some issues have changed and continue to “evolve.” She ridiculously compares Peter’s vision in Acts 10 of the clean and unclean animals as a proof that it is not only good that followers of Jesus do change their minds but that in fact, as more “facts” come to light, they SHOULD change their minds. In order to try to use the text from Acts to make her point, Held Evans imposes on text meaning that it never had and does violence to God’s Word to make it say something it doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I am far from having everything figured out and tied up in a nice little package with a pretty bow on top. In fact, it is BECAUSE I (and we all) are in process that we must rely on a higher and final authority on all matters of “life and godliness,” namely, the Bible.
Her final appeal in the post is to encourage church leaders to listen to millennials:
“But I would 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.”
I am ALL FOR listening to learn from and understand others who believe differently than I do. That is a wise thing to do not only as a pastor or as a Christian but as a human being.
The problem is when that something else sits above the Scriptures as a final authority. In this case the final authority is cultural acceptance, or personal preference, or the current political climate. When that is allowed to happen we can just pick and choose what we like and don’t like from the Bible and thus, it becomes a collection of stories and good advice but fails to be the living and active Word of God.
There is some reality to the claim that people of all ages leave churches because they feel “fake” or Sunday mornings feel more like a rally for a political party. But I don’t think that is THE reason people are leaving churches. I think it is because they aren’t finding a Jesus in their image. That is the problem with the consumer mindset and that is the problem with the conclusion at which Held Evans arrives.
It is misidentifying the problem, and thus, asking the wrong questions. Unfortunately that leads to the wrong answers. Maybe discontent millennials don’t want to eat the meal from the whole of God’s Word which is good for us all (2 Timothy 3:16-17); they want fruit snacks...and those aren’t filling.
* The Gospel Coalition posted an article today addressing some of these same concerns and thought it would be a helpful addition to this post: "Jesus Has Not Left The Building"
** John Stackhouse makes some excellent points on how statistics comparing “christians” and “non-christians” in terms of moral behaviors (divorce, abuse, etc.) are often misused ultimitly distorting the truth in the data.
*** Ed Stetzer points out that these and other statistics about Millennials and spirituality might make the case that perhaps many young people are more comfortable checking the “none” box on the form under “religions affiliation” where they used to check “Christian” because while very little has changed about what they believe it is now more culturally acceptable to be “none.”