I was going to ignore Rachel Held Evans nearly substance-free piece on CNN’s Belief Blog last week—the one in which America’s favorite “Christian spokesperson for a generation” tells us why millennials are leaving church. But apparently many people—at least most of my clergy friends on Facebook—seem to think she’s saying something.
What is she saying? What would a church look like that actually took to heart her message?
According to this writer, an African-American and former United Methodist who is now in the Presbyterian Church in America, the hypothetical church that millennials would embrace would look a lot like our very own United Methodist Church.
Don’t laugh: he’s serious.
The UMC is outside of the culture wars. It has no conflicts with science and faith and clearly teaches what they are for instead of against. The UMC is a place where LGBT friends are welcomed. Moreover, if anyone knows anything about Wesleyanism, you know that Methodists have a deep emphasis on personal holiness and social action. Again, the Jesus that Evans wants to find is waiting for her and her followers in the UMC.
And that’s the problem. Why aren’t all these millennials flocking to our churches?
In fact, we have empirical evidence to prove that Evans doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
One of the many blind spots in Evans’ entire project is that young evangelicals are not leaving evangelical churches to join mainline churches like the UMC, they are leaving the church altogether in many cases. Evans’ list does not help us understand that phenomena much at all. In fact, even the UMC, with all Evans’ lauded attributes, 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.
I do not have the answer to my original question but I do know that Evans and her fans seem to long for United Methodism and should be encouraged to join the denomination, and other mainline churches like it, since they do not believe the churches they criticize have Jesus. Criticizing evangelical churches on CNN for not being essentially United Methodist seems bizarre and, perhaps, reveals that what Evans actually represents is nothing but American United Methodism in evangelical whiteface.
Evans writes, “We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”
What does that even mean? Should we not recite the Apostles’ Creed on Sundays? After all, what are creeds if not “predetermined answers”?
But, I hasten to add, they’re not predetermined from the beginning. Incredibly smart people argued about these questions until they reached consensus. They asked and answered big, important questions like, “Is Jesus divine and to what extent? Is he fully God? Is Jesus fully human or did he just appear to be? If he is fully human, how does divinity and humanity coexist within him? How exactly does Jesus save us from our sins?”
Do we need to reopen the debate? Do we need to re-argue the same questions? We’re not going to out-think Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, or Augustine. By all means, if answers are available, whose answers are we going to trust?
Me, I’ll stick with the old guys. They were really bright.
Evans says churches need to stop getting so hung up on sex. But I like what Trevin Wax (who’s the same age as Evans, by the way) says:
Following Jesus leaves no part of our life unchanged.
That’s why it strikes me as odd that Rachel sees “obsession with sex” as one of the biggest obstacles for contemporary Christianity to overcome. I visit lots of churches, and I find that sexuality is not a frequently discussed subject from most church platforms or Bible studies. In fact, one could make the case that Christians haven’t talked enough about Jesus’ radical zealousness when it comes to sexuality. The fact that cohabitation, premarital sex and pornography are often overlooked among our congregations betrays the vision of sexuality Jesus put forward – a vision of the sacredness of a man and woman’s covenant for life, one that excludes even lustful thoughts from God’s design.
When it comes to sexual obsession, we ought to take a look at pop culture. One can hardly watch a TV show or a popular movie without being assaulted with sexual innuendos, crude jokes, or overt displays of all kinds of sexuality. Pastors and church leaders go on news talk shows and are badgered about their views of sexuality, as if nothing else matters but that the church join in and celebrate our culture’s embrace of Aphrodite in all her warped splendor.
I’ll leave it to Wax and others to pick apart the logic, such as it is, of Evans’s piece. I’ll leave you with this comment on my post yesterday about God’s wrath in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone.” This comes from my clergy friend Clay:
Yes! But we mainliners can’t talk about wrath or judgment any longer since we don’t believe in either or are worried someone (a millennial!) might be listening and get offended.
How about we stop worrying about what millennials think and strive to be faithful?
I’ve written about Evans before. See this blog post, for example, about her latest book.