I’ve written before about the work of David Kinnaman and the Barna Group’s research on young adults who attended church as teens who aren’t any longer part of a congregation. His book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, reports that “59 percent of young people with a Christian background report that they had or have ‘dropped out of attending church after attending regularly’.” So when I learned that they were doing a workshop on the book in Indianapolis on Tuesday, I figured that I needed to free my schedule and make a one-day road trip.
YouLostMeLive.Indianapolis was held at a large evangelical church northwest of town. From what I could tell, the vast majority of those in attendance were pastors or youth ministers with some parents thrown in. Granted, I’ve been following the argument longer than they have, but I was struck by some comments that they were looking for tools to get the millenials to accept The Truth.
But Kinnaman and colleagues did some great stuff. He kept referring to millenials as living in a digital Babylon — connected to the broader culture in all its dynamics while still holding to their faith, even if in nontraditional ways. He made some wonderful points about the nature of exile, drawing on the book of Daniel. Daniel and the fiery furnace boys maintained commitment to their traditions (purity) while still participating in leadership (proximity) in the dominators’ government (he highlighted the interesting fact that the leaders refer to the Israelites by Babylonian deity names). The millenial generation doesn’t live entirely in online community — they have real live friends. But they aren’t looking to the local congregation as the source of that social connection. Millenials live in a “two screen” world where the television is accompanied by a laptop, phone, or ipad.
Sitting in this nice church building with its projection screens, music stage, and high tech production values, I suddenly realized that I was literally right in the middle of a great contradiction. There was almost nothing about the way the church was structured that responded to the needs of millenials (the church’s two-screen world meant the one on the left side of the stage and the one on the right).
Here’s what’s at the heart of the contradiction — the evangelical church has organized itself around being separate from “the world” while millenials are characterized by cultural engagement. While the evangelical church created alternate prom events and harvest parties and jazzercise, millenials are navigating the real world. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they’re engaged.
Today I was teaching about Jean Baudrillard in theory class. It’s a bunch of postmodern stuff but it has to do with the separation between a sign and what it symbolizes. Eventually, we get to the point of hyperreality where experience becomes an end in itself. We talked about the hyper-structure of evangelical church services as an example. This stands in stark contrast to a millenial search for authenticity, honesty, and “being real”.
My Monday night class was dealing with the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr. I played audio of two sermons. The first was when MLK was completing his degree at BU and trying out for a church in Detroit. The second was delivered at the National Cathedral five days before he was shot.
That sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, opens with reflections on the story of Rip Van Winkle. When Rip went to sleep, the Inn had a picture of George III on the wall. When he awoke 20 years later, the picture was of George Washington. Rip Van Winkle, he said, had slept through the whole revolution.
In the next two weeks, I start participating in a collaborative writing project on the Future of Evangelicalism (watch for entries here starting May 1). This week has me wondering about the future of separatism and how evangelicalism works in a postmodern age. I have a deep fear that the church will sleep through its own revolution if we can’t adjust to the contemporary culture.
At the end of Tuesday’s workshop, Kinnamon listed five ways that the evangelical church could respond to the 59%. They were good suggestions (not unlike what I wrote here) that could make a real difference. But he ended with a somber challenge: “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” It’s a question the church desperately needs to answer and do so quickly.