My buddy Jeff – who I met via these blogs – has written a thoughtful response to my Godless Millennials post. Thought it was worth publishing so others could see his thoughts. So, here you go! Thanks, Jeff, for your email!
Jeff here again. I recently read your blog about Millennials and felt compelled to respond. As the Generation X father of 2 Millennials and a GenZ, it is no mystery to me why they respond in the way highlighted in the surveys you cite. To me, it is painfully obvious why these young people are turning away, and it is NOT their fault. In fact, I’ve been warning about this for almost 20 years, that the church in America was destroying itself from within. The reasons young people are resisting and rejecting the church actually has nothing to do with God or Jesus. In fact, it’s because they don’t see a church that actually lives like Jesus. The reasons fall into a number of categories: their personal experiences in the church, the church and how it has represented itself, politics, Trump, and generational behavior.
I’m not sure how you identify your Christianity, but most of what I will speak to is in direct response to the minority Evangelical Christians that seem to dominate the faith and leadership today. The experiences of my children occurred in an Evangelical church. When I first moved to Kansas to be with them, I found a really fantastic, small Evangelical church. The people were great and really were like family. They helped all of us through a very difficult time. And we loved services, which were energetic, and included all spiritual gifts including prophesy and speaking in tongues. However, after a few years, the pastors, a really wonderful older couple, decided to retire. Because of the small size of the church, they chose to affiliate with a large mega-church from Colorado Springs rather than hire a new pastor. And that is when it all went downhill.
So what were my daughters (and my) experiences under this well-known church? This was about the time Harry Potter became popular. My daughters, being voracious readers, devoured these stories. And we were all criticized by members because of the “evil nature “of the Harry Potter books. What did those who criticized us do? They came into the movie rental store I managed and rented their children the most graphically violent video games you can imagine. Next, as a former history and government teacher, I witnessed this new pastor teaching some history incorrectly. Since we were separated by 300 miles, I wrote him a respectful letter pointing out his mistakes. I never heard from him on the subject and he repeatedly taught the same verifiably incorrect information because it fit his political ideology, not because it was the truth. During the 2008 recession, they witnessed the church request donations from the congregation to “upgrade their sound system” in what was a relatively new and magnificent building while people within the church were losing jobs, losing their homes, and facing bankruptcy because of medical debts. There never was any effort to assist these struggling members. Evidently having a better sound system was more important than regular people having homes. And of course, the pastor had to have a new plane (the old one just wouldn’t do). Finally, a youth pastor told one of my daughters, an incredibly intelligent and talented young lady, that all she should worry about is becoming a wife and mother. That was her last evening in the youth group.
Some of their experiences were outside our church, but in our proudly Christian community. They were appalled when a pastor ran an experiment in which he dressed as a poor, destitute man hanging out at the door of the church. The response? They goaded him to leave, asked nothing about him or what he needed, and then gleefully moved inside to worship Jesus. My oldest daughter married a really nice young Hispanic man, which makes my 2 grandchildren Hispanic. How do many of the good Christian people act toward them? They scream at them to “go back where they came from”., even though both generations were born in Kansas. And that doesn’t include the vile things they had to listen to about President Obama. And they were constantly hearing that you couldn’t be a Christian and be a liberal (which would be a huge surprise to my grandfather, a minister for over 60 years and the most Jesus-like man I’ve ever known). Or that if you didn’t accept their exact faith and political views, you weren’t really an American.
It took them very little time to recognize, witness and experience the deep well of hypocrisy that reigns in today’s Christian church in America, at least on the more vocal conservative side. What they were experiencing had little resemblance to what was being preached in the pulpit (when they weren’t talking politics).
And what about the church “globally”? As my daughters grew toward adulthood they witnessed churches cover up and minimize sex abuse scandals, affairs within the ministry, and televangelists becoming multi-millionaires, even deca-millionaires, with mansions for homes. They studied their Bibles and then listened as the most important “lessons” upon which church members focused weren’t actually in the Bible. Things like “God helps those who help themselves”. Their question to this was, “wait, aren’t we supposed to seek God’s help in everything”? Or how about “God won’t give you more than you can handle”? Their response: “wait, doesn’t God say we shouldn’t try to handle things ourselves, implying more than we can handle”? You get the point. They were surrounded by good Christians who didn’t actually know what the Bible says. They had similar questions around the issues of immigration, wealth, the poor, the widowed, the sick, the lonely, the hurting, and those in need of any help. They have come to see the church as institution that reads one thing, but actually acts according to another set of beliefs. Their take from all this is the Christians in the “church” talk one way, and live a completely different and contrasting way.
We can speak all we want about how the church isn’t about politics, but that would be a lie in today’s America. In fact, our national and state leadership is dominated by conservative Christians who believe the church and government should be one and the same. And Millennials and GenX are beyond skeptical about conservative Christian politics. They have endured scores of school shootings. And they are exhausted by the calls for “thoughts and prayers” after these events. They are asking “doesn’t prayer require action as well”? They are witnessing good Christian people threaten school board members, city council members, and election officials with violence for doing their jobs in service to the people. How is that a reflection of Jesus? They’ve witnessed Baby Boomers and Generation X turn poverty into a character flaw, and even to criminalize it in some cases. Our generations have made it acceptable to demean people in low paying jobs, especially those in which they serve us. They’ve watched us preach the value of education while continuously demeaning public school teachers (some in my state have even accused teachers of having sinister plans, even though teachers have the highest rate of Christian self-identity than any other profession). And they are well aware that there is a concerted effort to actually destroy the public school system. They’ve watched as good Christians have embraced the wildest conspiracy theories and called the cleanest election in American history “stolen”. They’ve been criticized for not being consumerist enough (buying homes, cars, etc), while following a faith that often says give it all up, and which they can’t afford on wages that haven’t kept up with productivity and inflation. They watched as Christians were more concerned with their personal comfort rather than with the benefit the simple act of wearing a mask would have for others. What happened to being taught to sacrifice for others? And they are very aware that the pro-life crowd is often the first to oppose social programs to aid poor mothers and children. So much so, they derisively refer to them as “pro-birth, anti-child”.
And why do I include Trump in this list? Because most of them came of age during his presidency and consider it the most glaring example of the hypocrisy of conservative Christians. They are well aware that the same people who contended Bill Clinton should be disqualified from the presidency because of his dalliance in the White House are the ones most supportive of a twice divorced, thrice married man who has admitted to other extra-marital affairs. They know the truth about his business practices, which would get most of us booted from our own church. They were deeply offended when Trump mocked others, especially those with handicaps not of their doing. And they know that Trump was never a church goer and clearly does not know anything about the Bible. They view these Christians as sell outs that traded their faith for their politics. And they do not respect that in any measure.
And finally, the behavior of the Baby Boomers and Generation X and their lack of awareness to how that behavior contributes to the attitude of Millennials and GenX add one last ingredient to this disappointment in the Christian Church. We’ve been criticizing these generations their entire lives, even as children. We blame them for “participation trophies” when in fact it was us who wanted those because it was too embarrassing to admit our own child might not be the greatest athlete, musician, or artist. They are much smarter than we give them credit for. And, in fact, it is they who will have to face up to the challenge of fixing the problems we created and have refused to correct. They didn’t create the massive government deficits and debt that is endangering our country. And what did we create with all that borrowing? Seriously, what did our generations actually create that is of value? Our parents, the Silent Generation, invested in building the greatest infrastructure and institutions in world history and we’ve neglected and starved those institutions. Silents built modern (at the time) schools, invested in expanding opportunities for a university education, built the interstate highways and airports, developed and succeeded in the space program, invested in medical and scientific research, not for profit, but for the public good. Just a small list. And what have we done? Children go to school in old, dilapidated schools, our infrastructure now rates no better than fair compared to the world, science is now nothing more than a foundation for massive financial profit, and university education is out of reach for most unless the want to take on the equivalent of a home mortgage. All so the obscenely wealthy can pay fewer taxes? How does this relate to Christianity? Because modern conservative Christians have come to view Christianity and Capitalism as one and the same. But they are not the same. And until we change this view, Millennials and GenZ will continue to feel more affinity to their Silent generation grandparents.
I know this is long, so I’ll try to wrap it up. While I understand your concern, which is certainly a valid concern for this believer, I think your view does what many in our generations do so often. We fail to see the issue from the perspective of their lives and experiences. And until we do, and we change our behavior, this is not a problem that will get better. And truthfully, I don’t blame them one bit. It’s our responsibility. We created these problems and unless we are willing to seriously reflect on them and stand up and say what we’ve been doing the last 40 years isn’t good enough, we offer nothing of value to Millennials and GenZ. We are to blame for their low interest in the church. The real question is not what they do, it’s what do our generations do to reconstruct respect and trust of the church?
Another way to look at the problem and maybe something to think about.
Very well written. Quite insightful.
Tom, this the most lucid, well-developed article I’ve seen on these subjects in, like, FOREVER. I’ve used many of them myself when talking with some of my “Conservative Catholic” cohorts with whom I share the Catholic faith. When I prayed to God to guide me to the Truth, I didn’t tell him what I wanted to hear. I truly SHUT UP and was prepared for whatever response I received. On Holy Saturday, 2010, I received God’s reply, loud and clear: “RETURN TO THE CHURCH in which you were baptized.” I went out and followed God’s direction, and I haven’t looked back. Veronica Meidus-Heilpern firstname.lastname@example.org *You are a Blessing.*