Author's Take on 'Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church' Goes Viral, Sparks Debate

Correction Appended

An article written by Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans has gone viral, sparking a debate among Christian thinkers as to why those belonging to the millennial generation are leaving the church and what should be done about it.

In the article, which has garnered 196,000 Facebook recommendations since it was published Saturday morning on CNN's Belief Blog, the 32-year-old says she barely qualifies as a millennial because of her age, but she tends to identify with the younger generation and is often asked to speak about why those who are a part of it are leaving the church. Christian leaders, evangelical ones in particular, tend to assume that they can reach millennials by updating their church's style, she writes, but what young people are really searching for is "a change in substance."

Millennials, she suggests, want a "truce" between faith and science, churches that emphasize allegiance to God's kingdom over allegiance to a political party, to be challenged to live holy lives and for the LGBT community to feel welcome in faith communities, among other things.

"You can't hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around," wrote Evans. "We're not leaving the church because we don't find the cool factor there; we're leaving the church because we don't find Jesus there."

At the end of her article, she suggests church leaders who want to win young people back to the church should ask them what they're searching for and how they would like to contribute.

Critics of Evans' piece generally agree that trying to make churches "cool" is simply not enough to keep millennials interested, but there are a variety of different opinions on how the church should begin trying to solve the problem.

Brett McCracken, author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, said in an article for The Washington Post's On Faith blog that "Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived." Millennials do not have it all figured out, he writes, and instead of telling church leaders what the church should look like, they should be the ones listening to the wisdom of pastors, parents and older believers.

"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," wrote McCracken. "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."

Jonathan Fitzgerald, author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better, said on that he thinks both Evans and McCracken are only partially right in their approach to beginning to solve the problem.

"In both cases the solution that is proposed is a conversation and they just disagree about who should be doing the listening and who should be doing the talking," wrote Fitzgerald. "But what we really need is not conversation, but action. That is, the way forward for all parties is for Millennials to get involved. Stop making a list of demands and do something."

When young people really get involved in a church, he suggests, they can help change to occur, though it may take time and require them to work with people who hold different opinions.

Anthony Bradley, associate professor of Theology and Ethics at The King's College, states in a blog post that Evans' article focuses on "a narrow subculture of conservative American evangelicals" and not the universal church. It does not address, for example, why millennials are leaving other groups, such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant and broad evangelical churches.

Bradley, who spent more than 20 years in the United Methodist Church (UMC) before joining the Presbyterian Church in America, says everything millennials are looking for in Evans' opinion could be found in mainline denominations like the UMC, yet even the UMC is "hemorrhaging."

"The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America's 350,000 congregations," wrote Bradley.

After the overwhelming response to her article, Evans took to her blog to offer some further explanation and to show which resources helped drive her to her conclusions.

"I hadn't intended it to be a comprehensive piece on the faith of millennials, just a commentary on how-generally, based on multiple surveys and my own experience, millennials in the U.S. long for change in the Church that goes beyond worship style and marketing," she wrote. "So it's been nice to see the conversation continue as church leaders, researches, and my fellow millennials weigh in."

She pointed to another blog post in which she described "in gross generalizations" how mainline denominations offer nearly everything she says millennials are looking for in a church, though they lack "that evangelical fire-in-the-belly" and intensive Bible study, among other things.

Evans also says her goal in the CNN article wasn't to say the church should bend to the whims of millennials, but rather that it should change with them.

"The article wasn't intended to be a list of demands, but rather an expression of desires, a casting of vision and an articulation of my hope for the Church," she wrote. "Obviously, the real work begins when we come together in community to do the hard, daily work of reconciliation, listening, serving, and worshipping in spirit and truth."

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 21 percent of millennials say they were raised in a religious home but do not currently identify with any religion.

Correction:  Monday, August, 5, 2013: 

An article published Friday, Aug. 2, 2013 about the debate sparked by Rachel Held Evans' article on "Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church" incorrectly described Anthony Bradley as an associate professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College. Bradley is associate professor of Theology and Ethics at The King's College, but not "in the Public Service Program."

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