What Millennials Really Need

August 26, 2015

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Evangelical Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece for the CNN belief blog on why millennials are leaving evangelical churches and flocking to “high” traditions. She decried her church leaders’ naïve attempts to make church palatable by making it superficially contemporary, a blanket solution that involves pop-cover bands and friendly lattes with gospel-laced foam. Rachel said that millennials are leaving churches not because they don’t find “cool” there, but because they don’t find Jesus there. How could they be enticed to return? She encouraged evangelical church leaders to be “authentic,” to “sit down and really talk with [millennials] about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”

In response, Catholic blogger Artur Rosman wrote a rebuttal demonstrating how Evans’ solution, her “takeway,” was a “throwaway”— that high church traditions are also losing members, and the problem is not solved by cultivating a more fruitful understanding of millennials’ preferences and particular charisms. Rosman then pointed out that the Catholic problem is a tendency toward identification between political factions and church liturgy, which renders the Church unable to beunapologeticallyitself in all its glory. He encouraged Church leaders to instead “provide [millennials] with authoritative responses to what’s going on in our deranged and eviscerated public square, with the right (ortho-) spiritual exercises, with the most fruitful paths to follow…” Rosman is not interested in an approach that coddles, markets, or stirs up factional patriotism. He wants the leaders of the Church to offer tools that facilitate an encounter, tools that will help those who are “lost in the cosmos” to discover their way—The Way.

Held Evans and Rosman agree on one thing: Millenials need to be introduced to Christ in a way that is relevant and compelling— free from self-interest, inadvertent manipulation, or attempts to categorize Him based on subjective preference or trending ideologies. Don’t reduce the Church to entertainment or politics, they say. 

We can go back and forth all day about failures in evangelization and about mistaken perceptions of what makes the Church compelling and understandable to each emerging generation. At the heart of this particular issue, though—what really separates Held Evans’ approach from Rosman’s— is the Eucharist. “I don’t find Jesus here” simply doesn’t make any sense within the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which he offers to us his body, blood, soul, and divinity. Held Evans’ conclusion is appropriately Protestant, but from a Catholic perspective, it becomes irrelevant. 

Furthermore, Held Evans’ suggestions only perpetuate the problem she is attempting to solve. “Give us Christ, but not like that” eventually betrays a preference for a version of Christ that suits our taste. And no matter how noble, holy, or socially-minded our taste is, when we put ourselves in the position to create an experience of Christ that ratifies our pre-conceived ideas of who he should be, we might as well form our own church where we can schedule our own round table meetings about winning back millennials… ad nauseum. Furthermore, when we market the Church to millennials, we lead them to believe we have a continual responsibility to earn and sustain their product loyalty. And this cycle of customer service and deliverables feeds into a collective ego problem, which prevents the only approach to God that will bring about conversion: humility.

So, now the issue becomes, as Rosman states, why are millennials leaving the Eucharist? In Rosman’s estimation, it would be because their perception is tainted with certain factions’ attempts to grasp it, to use it for their own purposes, to align it to a particular ideology.

Let me rephrase that:

Why are millennials leaving Christ?… because their perception is tainted with certain factions’ attempts to grasp Him, to use Him for their own purposes, to align Him to a particular ideology.

To be honest, I wish my generation could have a collective, Good-Will-Hunting-style final counseling session with the Church.  We would be Will Hunting, the Church would be Sean Maguire. Only instead of the famous “It’s not your fault,” montage, the Church would look at us with love, shake its head, move closer and say, over and over again:

“It’s not about you.”

Then, after the whole awkward breakdown and tear fest, we would be offered the Eucharist.

Why are millennials leaving the Church? Because we don’t allow Christ to be Christ in the way he asked to be Christ: “Do this in memory of me.”

Maybe we should start right there. Let’s have a humongous come-to-Jesus meeting, 20- and 30-somethings. And let’s let Jesus do the talking.

Photo credit: Sarah Ahmed