Straw Men, Millennials, and Rachel Held Evans

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July 29, 2013 by J. Truett Glen

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Let me state that I appreciate Rachel Held Evans as a writer and a culturally engaged pundit. I have found myself agreeing with her on several issues and I’m sure we actually agree on many more issues on top of those. I think we also share a common love for Dayton, TN and Bryan College. However, I found myself wanting to push back a bit while reading her latest CNN article. So, I have decided to have a short conversation with her article. I’ve included some of her statements in this post and then wrote responses to them. This post is not sufficient to address her whole article and its assumptions, but hopefully it will add a different perspective to the conversation Rachel is attempting to have with some of you on these important issues. Just to clarify, Rachel’s quotes are italicized, in bold, and in quotations marks. My responses are in plain text:

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”

“But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.”

If these millennials, of whom Rachel speaks, had “highly sensitive BS meters” then they would learn to call “BS” on themselves for being so pretentious. I teach my students that we need to have contempt for our contempt. My favorite saying when I was a boy was, “People are stupid!” This was my common response to the observed weaknesses of others until I figured out that I was “people” and I was “stupid.” I’m sure that every generation struggles with narcissism, but the statisticians and sociologists also point out that this generation is highly narcissistic. Let me be clear, I know a lot of hard working, respectful, humble millennials who think of others more than themselves. I simply wish to show that if Rachel is going to frame her discussion around statistics concerning millennials, then she should probably note the important psychological and sociological statistics that could point to causal factors other than “my daddy’s church doesn’t know how to relate with me.”

“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

This is partly an issue of generational pendulum swinging. I see the holes in my dad’s generation and therefore I look for an available option that makes the appropriate correction. All too often though, the correction goes too far in the opposite direction or is made on faulty assumptions or presuppositions. Many people make pendulum-swinging decisions based on the wrong paradigm. Instead of questioning the very foundation of how we “do” church, they make corrections based on surface issues. Bouncing around denominations looking for something that feels more historical or smells more authentic without actually being able to base the decision on the principles found in the Bible is shallow at best. The reason that Luther,  Zwingli, Grebel, and Manz revolted against the status quo of worship practices among the “high church” Roman Catholic tradition and the age old theological beliefs was based on the observed dissidence these practices and teachings had from what they read in scripture. They had a legitimate “BS” meter that was primarily informed by scripture rather than fluid cultural foundations. Roman Catholic theology has not remained static over the last thousand years, and I assure you that all the other liturgy-based denominations have changed a good deal as well. What this conversation needs is something more than a shoot-from-the-hip surface level response based on placating an increasingly narcissistic culture.

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

“We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.”

And yet this (a culture war) is exactly what Rachel’s outlined demographic of millennials are continuing to participate in and will do so until they either win or grow tired of trying. To want change and to fight for it means you are participating in a “culture war.” Every generation since the beginning of time…as far as I can remember…has participated in culture wars. Humans are not satisfied because most of us get the fact that things are not as they should be. We seek to find consensus with one another on what the problem is and how to solve it. Christians have a very different foundation for discerning what is wrong with the world and therefore their desired socio-political environments will look different. Even within Christianity and the millennial generation there are real strong disagreements concerning what is good and what is not good. You can’t have a “truce between science and faith” when someone makes the broad assumption that those are two clear sides in some war. The only way you could pit those two against one another is if you took one perspective on science (secular humanism or naturalism for instance) and pitted it against a limited perspective on Christianity.

“We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”

“We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.”

As much as this sounds nice, it builds a straw man argument against most congregations and it is a bit unrealistic where it brings up a legitimate issue. Like-minded individuals flock to one another in order to enjoy community based on shared beliefs. This is, for the most part, a healthy phenomenon. Most major theological differences among denominations are not arbitrary. They have deep meaning and the reasoning behind the separations should be approached with respect rather than condescension. I would ask Rachel to please explain what she means by “allegiance to the kingdom of God?” Rachel, what is your definition of the kingdom of God? I think we would all be hard pressed to find a Christian congregation that does not state a desire to hold allegiance to the kingdom of God over a political party or nation.

“We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.”

Who is we? What is your definition of “welcome?” Do all millennials want homosexual sexuality taken off the sin list of all Christian denominations so that practicing homosexuals can feel comfortable in every Christian community? If that is what is meant then it sure sounds like a culture war to me. I’m not sure how you could get so many people to hand over strongly held foundational beliefs other than a culture war that intentionally and strategically attacks the communities in question.

“We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.”

I totally agree with the words of this statement. In fact, I would say that the majority Christians throughout history would probably agree with this statement. Unfortunately all these words found in the context of Rachel’s post are packed with distinct nuances that represent a much smaller cross section of Christianity.

“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

“Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”

I would say every generation needs Jesus, but the Scriptures are fairly clear that most do not long for Jesus. There is a difference between longing for a feeling and longing for a reality.

Here’s a concept to consider in light of the conversation that Rachel has raised concerning the church-going practices of the current generation. Some have observed that the current generation wants to feel like it’s doing something without actually having to try hard. This isn’t a new concept, but millennials might be more prone to it than others because of the pressure of producing appearances brought on by frequent social networking. Add this current social phenomenon with the natural desire to fill the need for transcendent meaning in one’s life and you have a powerful desire to feel and look religious. Nothing, short of sacrificing a lamb on a pile of rocks, feels more religious than participating in a high church ceremony in a visually rich atmosphere. I’m not saying this is evil, just that the motivations behind attending these services can be driven by misplaced desires and ignorant assumptions. That said, the same accusations can be made toward those that attend church because of great kid programs and emotionally moving sing song times.

My family and I have attended many different types of worship services over the years and we found some really positive aspects to most of them. We still have our preferences, but more than anything we want to find a place where we can serve based upon a common foundation, and a healthy place to nurture our children in our faith. I’ve found very few non-Christians that walked into a church and said, “I just really long for Jesus!” I think I’m in agreement with Rachel in saying that people should definitely get to know Jesus when they attend a church gathering, and this often times doesn’t happen. I share her frustration with consumer driven communities that don’t enjoy each other’s presence more than an hour on Sunday morning. The old illustration used by pastors for years that counterfeit investigators study real money more than they spend time learning all the counterfeit money still rings true. If you want to see what healthy church gatherings look like, then study the Bible and see how you can implement the principles found there in a culturally relevant way.

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