Finally, I’m getting to my point. I will restate my original premise. The Church in America is dying (and has already died in Europe). Unless God works in some mighty way, I don’t see how the hemorrhage of Millennials and iGens will stop and after this present generation is gone, the church buildings will be up for sale as museum spaces. I have this pessimism, not because the challenge is so hard, but because there is a lack of will to do anything about it. I hope that I’m proven wrong.
The reason there is a lack of will, is human nature. We humans, to simplify and organize life, we create methods. Methods mature into traditions. The traditions is where behavior is considered automatic around some mutually accepted framework or mores. Traditions age into culture. Culture takes over all aspects of our lives, whether it is the corporate culture of our employer, our local club subculture, and certainly our concept of church. The problem is, to preserve this culture, we tend to institutionalize this culture as absolute.
We have been warned to not do this with the way that we think, Christianly. One of my favorite verse is Col 2:8, See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. Despite this warning, it is very hard to escape culture. Like my previous example of wanting to create a “bar-church,” the response I got was anger, pure anger (in other words, a subdued rage).
First, we must discriminate between the baby and the cultural bathwater. If our church culture is mostly bathwater, then it is extraneous, but not necessarily evil. But if it stands in the way of adapting to be inclusive to these younger people, then it could be evil.
Don’t Blame the Customer!
At this juncture, I must be clear. Whenever I start this conversation within the walls of a traditional church, they start to misinterpret what I am trying to say. I’m not saying their sense of church is wrong. I’m not saying we need to tear down the ancient institutions that they love. As long as they are alive on this earth, the old structures (both physical and organizationally) can remain to meet their needs and wants. The older generation should not feel threatened. What I am saying is, don’t force the younger generations to conform to your ideals of good church. They have already rejected that culture. Don’t take it personal.
The chatter, which I often hear from my generation, is to blame the younger people. They criticise them on the rejection of our culture. But we are tempted to make it a moral issue. The best example is the negative label of the Millennials as “snowflakes.” I see them very differently. I see values and morals that exceed my generation. They have less tolerance for bigotry than the Christians of my age. They have more respect for God’s grand creation. I could on and on.
But to blame them would be akin to the Coke corporation creating a new drink. They give away free samples across the country. They put millions of dollars into advertisement into this new product. Then, no one wants it. It taste like cat pee. So, in this metaphor, the Coke company gets really angry at their customers and calls then names. “Idiots, don’t know a good drink when they have it.” Or, “the customers are too lazy to enjoy our new drink.” But the real Coke company would never do this. They are too smart.
What I call “natural Christianity” in my book Butterflies in the Belfry, is that very raw form of original Christianity. To find it, simply read about Jesus’s ministry on this earth, without seeing it through our cultural spectacles. So, Jesus wouldn’t be walking around with his hands folded and his head surrounded by a halo. He also wouldn’t be speaking in poetic or mystical rhyme. Think of an organic Jesus, a man who walks on this physical earth like any man. Look at his relationships with his disciples. They hung out together, they ate together, and learned from him in the context of real life. It was relational. That’s it. That’s the baby. That’s the essence of the church. A relationship with other people, centered around the person and teachings of Christ. This is not what the Millennials and iGens are rejecting. They are rejecting the bathwater, the institution.
There must be a great resistance to adding to this raw center, at least not adding from what now exist. Allow the Millennials and iGens determine if they want to add any extraneous. I suspect that they would not choose a brick and mortar church or professional staff. They would not create new programs or projects. This would release them from the time and money it takes to sustain such a huge human institution. From my conversations with this group, they would not have the traditional Sunday morning worship service. If this seems strange, then go back to the raw ministry of Christ.
I have said many times, if the present generation could meet Jesus, they would adore him. What he teaches is still the ideal of what they desire … at least for the most part. This generation has a keen sense of fairness, and justice. They have a deep compassion for those disadvantaged. They devalue the material wealth that my generation was taught to strive for. If the real Jesus was known, he would instantly go viral.
The danger with such a loose interpretation of the Christian Church, is deviation from true Christian doctrines. However, with the present system of strict theological training, well-worked out theological positions unique to each domination, and the great emphasis on Bible study and Sunday school, most churches still get it wrong at points, some very wrong. There is probably more danger with having too much certainty, in areas that God is not so clear.
So, the essences of Christianity could be simplified in the same way that Robert Fulghum simplified life in his classic book, All I really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten. God has done this in His Ten Commandments and in the verse, which I often quote, Micah 6:8, He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. That’s it! I can see the hair starting to stand on the backs of some people’s necks. They are getting pissed.
I could add a few caveats to the absolute, theological, limits of Christianity, outside which, it would not be considered Christian. I would lay out the boundaries as the following;
- God exist. He (pronoun without sexual identity as God doesn’t have a penis or a vagina) is personal Vs simply an impersonal universal force. Such a universal force is typical of pantheistic ways of thinking, which are not Christian.
- Jesus was given by God, fully human and fully God, coming to take away the consequences of the failures of the whole world, and teaching us how to behave within a society.
- All humans have failures, and all who have confidence in Christ, have been fully exonerated.
That’s it. I will not be tempted to add more to the simple essence.
So, let the Millennials create their interpretation of the church, with the freedom to meet whenever they meet. To get to know the real Jesus of history and to put their confidence in his being and his method of living.