Whether We Like It or Not, the Church Matters

Why bother? Why stay connected to a faith community? Why choose church when there are so many other things we can do with our time?
Good questions, all. They’re not mine. They have been raised countless times over the years because of our largest generation’s notable absence from church. No, Millennials—that is, those who came of age around the turn of the century (think your 20- and 30-something children and grandchildren)—are not the only ones who are not coming to church. Baby Boomers long ago began to check out of our congregations and Gen Xers, mainstays in the glory days of the youth group era, have become disconnected as well. What makes Millennials unique is the unprecedented number of them who are apparently done with church.
Since our young adults are the best expression of our culture, it would be good of us to listen to them. If we are going to be the Body of Christ, we cannot be satisfied with a paraplegic expression of Christ’s presence.
I cannot begin to capture the level of dissatisfaction and frustration that young people have for the church. As a member of the smallest generation in American history (and in full disclosure, a member of a generation known for its angst and cynicism), I’m not able to speak for Millennials. But a quick online search will yield a bumper crop of thoughts on the matter. Here’s just a sampling of their essays and blog posts:
“Five Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be”
“Dear Church: An Open Letter from One of Those Millennials You Can’t Figure Out”
“10 Reasons Millennials Are Sick of Church”
“Want Millennials Back in the Pews? Stop Trying to Make Church Cool”
“The Loneliness of Being a Millennial in Church”
“12 Reasons Millennials Are OVER Church”
Depressed yet?
Well, I am. Daily, if not hourly, I am confounded, frustrated and dismayed by the Church’s (think Church universal, not necessarily our local church) apparent disconnection with 20- and 30-Somethings. But in truth, while Millennials seem to be the most accurate expression of our culture, they are simply exhibiting symptoms that we all have. Our church’s relationship with the American culture is complex at best and hostile at worst. Regardless of how we got here, empty pews, vacant parking lots and missing people groups trouble me.
One particularly frustrated voice that I heard recently (see the blogs noted above if you want the gory details), reminded church leaders that Millennials (and the rest of us, for that matter) have at our fingertips a vast collection of sermons and services ready for download, streaming and podcasting. Technology enables us to be able to eliminate the voices of preachers and would-be prophets who we’d rather not hear. We can hone in on the best, the brightest, the most articulate and the most entertaining when it comes to exposition of scripture and life application. I report these facts dispassionately, for this is the world that we live in. And none of this is bad, except for the fact that it can lead us to the inevitable question: With all of these resources, why bother with church at all?
Having spent the overwhelming majority of my ministerial career working with and serving the Millennial generation, I tend to see them from the vantage point of a concerned older sibling. Our young people are supremely gifted and uniquely skilled for the world in which we live in. They are motivated and passionate about making a difference in the world. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious, and their capacity to love the ‘least of these’ is unmatched. This is why I’m sad that they are not more represented in our churches. This is why my heart hurts when I read such angry ‘open letters’ to the churches who taught them about Jesus in Sunday School, chaperoned their youth retreats, cried with them when their boyfriends broke up with them, prayed for them when their best friend was hospitalized, and sent them care packages when they went off to college.
So what do I think? Why should any one of us bother with church? We should care about the church because the church is how we encounter God. The church provides multiple voices, experiences and perspectives that help us to understand scripture and life. The church is an intentional community, charged with the responsibility of carrying us from our birth to our death—framing our experiences with the love, grace and convicting words of Jesus.
We bother with church—regardless of our age—because of community. When young people are not with us on Sunday mornings, they are often investing in community that encourages and sustains them…whether on a disc golf course or at a chic restaurant serving brunch. But what our church community has to offer that these other (often healthy and well-intentioned) communities do not have is a commitment to hear and follow the commands of Jesus, the Christ. And as followers of Jesus, we stake a claim on the fact that Jesus makes all the difference in our lives, in our relationships, and for all of eternity. So, we choose church because we choose Jesus, remembering that Jesus chose us, even to the point of death.
How can we better reach a world, a community, or a neighborhood when they couldn’t care less about the church? Well, for one thing, we should seek to be as healthy a community as we can be without sacrificing the prophetic reality of Jesus’s message. A healthy community welcomes all (First Baptist, we are uniquely gifted at this as our newcomers routinely report how hospitable we are), and invests their time, energy and attention in all. Hill Harper captures the core of this well: “Fundamentally, we all want the same thing. We want to love. We want to be loved, and we want to matter.” Since Jesus taught us what love looks like, the church is well situated to provide this kind of community.
Have I oversimplified this? Oh dear Lord, yes. But I don’t think that negates the truthfulness of my claims. Yes, we should talk about ‘how’ we do things. We absolutely want our worship and discipleship efforts to be representative of our community. Yes. But this should never be the main thing. The main thing is Christ revealed in community—what Paul calls the Body of Christ. And our goal together is to keep the main thing the main thing.
The final moment in worship on Sundays is to grab the hands of those with whom we have been worshiping and to pray together. The answer to our questions—as it has always been—is that we must do far more than simply clasp one another’s hands. We must hold fast to one another, to one another's lives, to our terrors, to our disappointments and to our triumphs. It’s Christ that holds us all together in life, and we’re all the stronger for it.