The Transmission of Christianity Is Not a New Task
by Nathanael Devlin
As a child I was captivated by sacred stories of lostness. My ears perked up in church at a retelling of the lost sheep, the lost coin, or the lost son. These parables played on my imagination in a deeply formative way. They were serious, urgent, and required resolution. There was something precious about what was lost that caused pain in the one who lost it. These parables conditioned me to be on the lookout, to seek and to find that which was lost. The urgency of the stories created urgency in me.
In my adult years I have been given the privilege of serving Christ’s church as a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. My role gives me opportunities to seek that which is lost and to nurture within the church a compassion for lost things. Being a pastor also puts me in contact with many other pastors and with denominational superiors. In addition, I stay fairly up-to-date with the news and keep an eye on what is being said by Evangelical leaders, ministries, and publications seeking to impact the world for Christ today.
With increasing regularity, I have been hearing from colleagues and the larger Evangelical world about growing concern over a particular category of lostness that they suggest is unique to this age—the absence of millennials in Evangelical churches. With this concern there appears to be an attending nervousness that is growing, producing impassioned pleas on the part of church leaders and millennials alike to have churches reevaluate and even retool their ministries so as to make them more attractive to the millennial demographic. The church needs to respond to this situation decisively and persuasively, they tell us; not doing so will be catastrophic for the future of the church.
But what is the nature of this new category of lostness? Is our concern truly for lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children? Or might it be that these voices, in a moment of urgency, are summoning us to a great quest—a quest they say is ordained by God—to seek after something that, in the end, may not really be out there?
Who Are the Millennials?
According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are those who were in the 18–34 age range in 2015. They have eclipsed the 74.9 million baby boomers (ages 51–69 in 2015) of America to become the nation’s largest demographic, according to population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Barna Group, in a 2014 study titled Americans Divided on the Importance of Church, paints a bleak picture of the future of the church in America, telling us that “Millennials stand out as least likely to value church attendance; only two in 10 believe it is important. And more than one-third of Millennial young adults (35%) take an anti-church stance.” The study goes on to list some of the reasons why millennials are opting out of church:
35% cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether. In addition, two out of 10 unchurched Millennials say they feel God is missing in church, and one out of 10 senses that legitimate doubt is prohibited, starting at the front door.
These numbers are indeed alarming, but perhaps more alarming are the observations and reflections of self-identified millennials themselves. Sam Eaton is one; his article, “12 Reasons Millennials Are Over Church,” went viral in September 2016. Eaton laments the fact that so many millennials are absent from the church, but he also wonders why churches simply continue with business as usual rather than searching for this lost generation. To aid the church, he writes, he is metaphorically nailing “12 theses to the wooden door of the American, Millennial-less Church.” He offers what he believes to be solutions, but in the end he concludes that the church has put its head in the sand:
It’s obvious you’re not understanding the gravity of the problem at hand and aren’t nearly as alarmed as you should be about the crossroads we’re at. You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction. A smattering of mostly older people, doing mostly the same things they’ve always done isn’t going to turn the tide. Feel free to write to [sic] me off as just another angry, selfy-addicted millennial. Believe me, at this point I’m beyond used to being abandoned and ignored.
Nathanael Devlin is the Associate Pastor at Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He and his wife have three children and live in Mt. Lebanon.
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