In a recent article that has spread like wildfire through social media, Rachel Held Evans discussed on CNN why millennials are leaving the church – the evangelical church specifically. Evans, who identified herself as a millennial in the article, expounded on why we see the current trend of 20 something and early 30’s leaving the church.
It is not my wish to critique the strengths and weaknesses of Evan’s argument; others have done so in great depth and with real insight (see links below). Rather, as an evangelical millennial myself I want to comment on a recent trend I’ve noticed within my heart and life; one that played out in Evan’s article. I’d like to offer a few lessons learned on disillusionment to those of my generation who resonate with Evan’s critique specifically.
1. Disillusionment is a good thing
The major theme Evans touched on was that our generation is deeply frustrated with how evangelicalism, or ‘church,’ handles pretty much everything. I’ll be the first to admit that there are aspects of evangelical culture I disagree with. What I don’t understand is why this should surprise us and cause us to ‘leave the church.’ Yes, we are experiencing disillusion, but this is not necessarily bad. We’ve discovered that things aren’t as good as we once believed or hoped and we’re disappointed with that knowledge. In other words, we’ve growing up. This is good! We’re seeing that life is hard. No one is perfect. Life is not a box of chocolates; it’s a broken and cracked jar of clay.
If our disillusionment with evangelicalism and the small ‘c’ church helps us to see the reality that the big ‘c’ Church is not perfect, then this is a good thing. Evangelicalism and the Church are full of individuals who are sinners and in desperate need of God’s grace daily. We’re shattered pottery, but we serve a God who is in the business of mending the broken. Understanding this puts us in the place to fully grasp and respond to God’s grace in a way that enables us to face the brokenness of those around us with honesty and courage.
2. Disillusionment is also a bad thing
While it’s good for us to grow up and see that the Church is not perfect, disillusionment is wrong when we let it turn into cynicism and pride. These are two ugly qualities I’ve seen knocking at my door many times. In all honesty, I’ve invited them in more often than I care to admit. The pride that thinks we know better and would handle things with more integrity than older generations; or the cynicism that chooses to distrust God and His Word because a few have betrayed us, is a dangerous way to live.
We need to take an honest inventory of how we are allowing our disillusionment to manifest itself and why we are leaving the church. Is it because we’re annoyed? Is it because we’re used to getting our way and don’t want to have to work for the change we believe needs to happen? I don’t deny that there are legitimate reasons to leave a church. But if we are allowing our disillusionment to cause us to leave, then we are abandoning God’s people because they sin just like we do, and we’re mocking the grace of God we have received and he offers to others.
3. Disillusionment is an opportunity
The disillusion my generation is facing is an opportunity to learn afresh who God is and why we choose (or refuse) to follow him. As Evans pointed out, many of us face doubts about our faith; we wrestle with the hard questions, wondering if Christianity is intellectually and existentially worthy of our confidence. We resonate with the words from FUN, “What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know anymore.” The doubt that comes from disillusionment is anything but fun, yet – if we allow it to drive us to find the reasons for hope in Christ – we can discover that reality in all its harshness has great purpose. But we need to be warned; if we seek fulfillment in anything other than God and the methods he has given us to know him, we’ll be replacing one illusion with another.
There is a lot that is wrong with church in our culture. But let’s not forget in our disillusioned state that seeing the way things really are is what gives us the opportunity to respond correctly with the grace we have received. Let’s not fall into cynicism and pride, but humbly seek the Lord’s help to continue to serve him faithfully and to introduce others to the life-transformation he offers.
Recommended responses to Evan’s article:
Alastair’s Adversaria – Talking About My Generation: Millennials and the Church
Acton Institute Power Blog – United Methodists Wearing a Millennial Evangelical Face
Trevin Wax on TGC – Why Millennials are Leaving the Church: A Response to Rachel Held Evans