by Aaron Tsang, TFF Summer InternCollege of William and Mary
Recently, many articles have surfaced that criticize the church and its inability to connect with a younger generation, the Millennials, as they have been named. Many people bring valid arguments when pointing out reasons why Millennials can’t be bothered to come to church. They argue that the church often treats Millennials as a market segment instead of communing members of the body of Christ--which is true. They explain that the church must not shy away from tackling the tough issues of the day such as homosexuality and divorce; also true. They continue by saying that Millennials need to be enriched, not entertained; another truth. Lastly, they urge churches to make the experience meaningful. They explain that instead of the church trying to become like the culture, it should attempt to stand out and stand for something.
Every one of those points is true. So why I am I writing? The answer is that although all those would positively impact the church’s influence, it merely touches upon rather than deeply addresses the root issue behind the problems we the church are facing. Millennials no longer come to church because church is decaying. Church as a Western socio-cultural institution has strayed far away from God’s original design--corporate communion with Christ and the edification of and fellowship among those following Christ. While what these contemporary writers advocate would increase church attendance, what I view as truly necessary for the revitalization of the American church is a total cultural shift in how we view the role of church.
“We need to do a better job at reaching Millennials.” I’ve heard this many times, usually by Godly men, women and pastors who are truly invested in the body of Christ. However, this neediness is both unattractive and unbiblical. First off, one of the foremost rules of a good business negotiation is to rid oneself of any neediness that may exist in your party. This is because people are turned off by neediness. It infers that we don’t have confidence in the value of what we’re offering. The church often has a needy mindset, like our legitimacy as a church hinges on us convincing Millennials, among other people, to come to church. We have become so caught up in trying to sell ourselves to the world that we forget what exactly it is that we are offering. Thus, in trying to become attractive to the world, we come to offer absolutely nothing. God’s design for the church cuts out neediness. Paul speaks confidently in the value of the church in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 when he declares,
“We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance, in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Far from feeling the need to change to attract people, Paul is filled with confidence that the church has something valuable to offer even if the rest of the world seems to reject it. The church today must rid itself of the need to attract more people and stand firm in the fact that we are holding out the unchanging word of life.
I, not Him
The second issue in the church is pretty straightforward. We truly have fallen into an “I”, not “He”, mentality. At the end of the day, we make it all about us. It’s become what we as the church want, which is imperfect. When we try to bring more people into the church, it’s because we want to grow the church. When we raise money, it’s because we want a new building. The real question is, “What does God want?”
Through the Bible, God tells us that he wants two things from the church. The first is repentance and righteousness within the body of Christ. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” The second thing God tells us is to go out into the world. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus commands his disciples to, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” However, we as the church want to bring people into the church and make them converts, which is actually completely different than going out and making disciples. Salvation wasn’t meant to be something that the body of Christ only offers on Sunday mornings and evenings and Wednesday nights. Christians are called to be in the world, engaging people and offering the full life found in Christ.
Church isn’t all there is to Church
In our quest for the engagement of Millennials, the church so often becomes fixated on simply getting people to come to Sunday service. Maybe we also have a Wednesday night service, or a small group, but the goal is still to get people into the building. With that thinking, we accept the lie that if we don’t get them in the building then they’re not part of the church. Jesus specifically outlines the church as the body of Christ. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus states that, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Other translations have “two or more” instead of “two or three.” This is important because it shows God’s focus on the church as simply people who have a relationship with him being together and focusing on Him. In short, church can be as simple as two or more people who have a relationship with God praying together, or just talking about what following God looks like together. Unfortunately, we’ve made it into a formal process that is represented by a building and institutions. When we do this, we sell ourselves incredibly short as the church. We miss out on the fellowship God wants us to have, both with him and others, when we only ceremonially invest in that fellowship once or twice a week. We’ve become orphans, eating crumbs every Sunday when God’s laid out a banquet for us. We have taken the most dispensable parts of church, the building and church service, and turned them into the objects of our affection.
It’s About the Relationship
On the path we as a church traveled to get to this point, we neglected the first commandment; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.” Consequently, we’ve also neglected the second commandment to, “Love our neighbor as yourself.” Many of the voices for church reform speak about the need for the church to treat Millennials as members and not a market, as well as addressing the tough issues. However, the church cannot really do that for Millennials when they’re not doing it for any other demographic to begin with. Both of those things come from having real relationships with the people we’re interacting with. Paul makes this point when speaking about his own interactions with the church: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us”( I Thessalonians 2:8). Paul highlights the importance of real relationships. It is absolutely true that the church needs to address the harder topics, such as homosexuality, adultery, divorce, and all the other hot topics in our society today. However, the ability to talk about those things stems from having relationships in which members of the church are ministering to each other through, as Paul puts it, “sharing our lives with each other.” In order to have the right to expect to shape people’s beliefs in things like life, marriage, government, and other very personal subjects, we have to have a relationship with that person. Before we can try to influence someone, they need to know that we value them the way they are.
City on a Hill, Not a Buffet Line
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” Matthew 5:14. Nowadays we seem to have forgotten this verse. There is this idea that we have to find ways to get people to come to church. So we have free coffee at the doors, contemporary worship bands, and pulpits pouring out cheap grace. And while free coffee is excellent, the mindset behind it is often treacherous. Instead of doing things like that because of a desire to be relational, we as the church often do it in order to entice people through the door; simply another warm body filling up a seat. By trying to give everybody what they want, we do God and His people a disservice. This is because God calls us to be a city on a hill for a reason. As the body of Christ, we have the privilege of communion with the God of the universe. If we really have the kind of life and purpose that we say we do, we as a community should look a lot different from the rest of the world. We should be standing for different things and having different values, but more so than that, we should be loving each other sacrificially as outlined by Jesus in John 13:35 when he said, “By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” However, because we lost our focus on loving God and loving one another like we were mandated to do, we have lost what makes us different from the world. Instead of returning to the giver of all we have, and standing firm in what he’s given us to offer, we’ve attempted to just give everybody what they want and in the process have given nobody what they need.
Conclusion: Church as an Institution or as the Kingdom of God
The conclusion of the matter boils to one mistake, idolatry; the greatest sin. The first commandment of the ten found in Exodus 20 is “You shall have no other gods before me.” The second is, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Sadly, this is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve taken something from the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, and socially constructed it into an institution of man’s doing. We’ve fought unendingly over things that are really just the different ways that people experience God: the music, the prayer, and how much water to baptize with. At the same time we’ve compromised on things that God is absolutely clear on: our call to love, our call to justice, our call to unity, to purity, to humility, to grace, to mercy, to truth, to marriage, and to fellowship. If we as the church don’t possess these qualities, is there any reason for Millennials, or anyone for that matter, to be drawn to the church? Really, if church is just a place for aspiring good people to meet and feel good about themselves, then its function could be filled by any civic organization. The disengagement with the church comes from the fact that people know that church is supposed to be more than that. Church as an institution is a corporate and relational effort to live in fellowship with God and to follow his command to live differently in order that we might live our lives to the full. And while we as the church will never live up to the standard to which we are called, our ability to bring about real change depends on how close we pursue God’s outline for the church instead of falling into the idolatry of building our own.