Rachel Held Evans, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” (CNN Belief Blog)

Folks who have been along for the ride will know that sometimes I find Rachel Held Evans insightful, sometimes wrong  but interesting, and sometimes just wrong.  And then sometimes I think she just misses the point.  (I say this as the chief of point-missers, of course.)  On 27 July CNN’s Belief Blog featured a post of hers that fits this last category.  I found it interesting enough to respond to, though, mainly because of the rhetorical moves that the article makes on its way to missing the point.

Before getting to her main claim, Evans recites her credentials for discussing the exodus of “Millennials” (I’m always suspicious of labels that would encompass that big a hunk of the population) from Protestant churches:

Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.

So far, so good.  Evans has established her authority to speak on the subject.  Aristotle would approve.  Then she gets into the content of her talks, and this is where the text goes sideways in my eyes:

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Did you catch that?  Taken at face value, the concerns of “the Millennials” seem to contain some difficulties, if not blatant contradictions:

  1. Evangelicals, according to these surveys, are “too political” and also “unconcerned with social justice.”  Is the problem too much politics or not enough?
  2. The hostile binary opposition between “science and Christianity,” hardly a given in a historical survey, remains unquestioned in these surveys, yet “tough questions” seems not to include whether that opposition is true.
  3. Evangelicals force people to abandon “intellectual integrity,” yet evangelicals’ (usually moderate, and please don’t insult my intelligence by citing Fred Phelps) “wrestling with doubt” concerning current orthodoxies about “sexual identity” are perceived as “hostile.”

Obviously Evans is not responsible for the content of the surveys, but one might expect, even if in a short disclaimer, some recognition that some of the categories that the surveys assume are themselves a bit facile intellectually.  However, rather than addressing those contradictions and calling for some more rigorous investigations of “Millennials'” departures, Evans makes a bizarre claim about the tendencies of “Millennials” to seek out more ancient traditions:

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

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.

I retained her hyperlink because, rather than the sort of statistical/social-scientific sources that she cites with regards to the Millennial flight, all she can muster for that claim is an autobiographical opinion piece.  But rather than developing that claim, she moves on to a manifesto of sorts, using “We” as a refrain to make her voice that of the “Millennials”:

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Again, the contradictions, if one reads them at face value, are more than a bit confusing: “We” are for “questions that don’t have predetermined answers,” but to question whether the “culture wars” should continue is out of bounds.  “We” want to “stand for” something, yet any “standing for” a “single political party” (more on that later) is out.  And once again, although the (brief) text does not say so directly, the assumption seems to be that current evangelical approaches to LGBTQIAW questions, which in my experience are analogous to the call to repentance issued to anyone else perceived as enslaved by sin, do not make them feel “truly welcome.”  (I realize that this is the most contentious point here, but as I argued in an earlier post, I’m still not convinced that either “side” of the LGBTQIAW conflict is paying enough attention to the analogies that drive the protests.)  In many of these items, Evans, speaking for “The Millennials,” seems to want things that don’t make sense together.

My suggestion for understanding this confusing bit of text is to think of it in terms of social codes.  I’ve retained enough of my Critical-Theory background to remember that certain words, in certain language games, in certain historical moments, mask realities that, named differently, would make code-speakers far more uncomfortable than they would be worth.  In this case, the phenomena that Evans is naming, if one were to name them differently, might be thus: the folks who tend to be friends with Rachel Held Evans, and who tend to read her books and blog (both quality productions), and who tend to attend events at which she speaks, tend to hold political views closer to the modern DNC than the modern GOP.  (Please note that I’m not saying that they’re DNC voters; as other surveys indicate, old people still vote more than do the young.)  Thus what turns them off, especially in the South, are those things which align evangelical Christianity with the modern GOP.

I realize that this might seem reductionist, but look again at the two litanies, first of what’s wrong with evangelicals and then at what Millennials want.  Would an anthropologist from the future, looking at those two lists, see a correlation between Obama 2008 rhetoric and the blog at hand?  My hunch is that she would.

Now please understand me: as an educated Christian living in the South, in other words as a member of the Rachel-Held-Evans-reader demographic, I resonate with much of this.  I can tell that she’s frustrated with the Southern GOP, and I also don’t have much patience for the Southern GOP.  And there’s nothing wrong with saying that evangelicals shouldn’t be so ready to be the GOP-at-prayer.  What troubles me is the code phrases like “too political” and “a single political party” when it’s the Southern GOP, not “politics” in the abstract, that’s on the table.  If Evans’s main claim is that Southern Christians tend not to go to church when they’re tired of the Southern GOP, then that’s something that seems to be true.

Of course, to go that course would make some folks uncomfortable: if in fact it’s one party, and not “politics” in general, that bothers folks, then that’s going to call for some self-examination that might reveal a “political” streak just as prominent as the Baby Boomers’. That’s alright, if “politics” is not a dirty word, but it will mean realizing that “we” are playing on the same field as “them,” and that might do some damage to one’s self-image as above the fray.

And if likewise one pays attention to the graying, not the youthful rejuvenation, of the high-liturgical traditions, then it might just be the case that folks leaving evangelical churches are far more likely to become part of the nebulous “nones” than they are to go Episcopalian.  (Yes, I’ve got friends who have become Catholic and Episcopalian, but again, I’m part of the RHE-reader demographic, and we’re not by any means typical.)  In other words, saying “Jesus” loudly might not be the easy solution that this essay suggests.  When I see Episcopalian and liberal Presbyterian churches full of recent college graduates some day, I’ll be glad to say I was wrong, but for now, the reports I see point to an aging and declining Mainline.

I’m well aware that the standard complaints that Evans is writing for a popular audience, that she isn’t going for scholarly nuance, and other such excuses are on the way.  Bring ’em on.  For what my input is worth, though, I’m going to echo Alasdair MacIntyre: what lies ahead for the Church in North America is not a new Rob Bell but a new, and undoubtedly very different, St. Benedict.


19 thoughts on “Millennials in General?”
  1. I’ll mull over this, and then write a decent post. As a “Millennial” in seminary with “mellenials” I actually get the “too much politics” and not enough “social justice.” It’s not contradictory at all in my brain, but it needs some serious fleshing out to explain to the Xs and Baby-Boomers. I’ll give you a tease, though. Tolstoy and Lipscomb.

    1. AmberLeePeace Well, crud.  It appears I need to set the blog’s clock to EST.  I was going to give this one more revision before it went live, but it seems that it’s still set for GMT.

    2. AmberLeePeace”Social justice” is political. Suggesting that it isn’t is disingenuous at best. “Justice,” in its simplest definition, means “getting what you deserve.” “Social justice,” however, makes the political case that society is responsible for the successes and failures, especially the failures, of everybody, and thus the society (feel free to read here “government,” because that’s what it really is) has the right to deprive some people of property through coercion and then give that property to others who didn’t earn it. You can like my formulation of social welfare programs or not, but they are what they are. And they are political.

  2. I mostly resonate with your take on Rachel Held Evans.  One thing that sometimes irritates me with some of the more progressive/emergent crowd that RHE belongs to is their apparent unwillingness to admit to (at least what seems to me) to be a clear left-leaning political bent, and instead act as if they are “above the fray”, as you say.  And, I say this as someone who often resonates deeply with the issues and frustrations that RHE and others bring up.  I even identify myself on some days as some sort of “progressive Christian”, albeit one who takes seriously historical orthodoxy (small-o).  On the other hand, I also believe that many of these folks, including RHE, are sincere in their approach.  They really do wish for something beyond a mere left-right political dichotomy.  I just don’t think they’ve been successful in creating such a situation.
    Regarding the “Science vs. Christianity” dichotomy, I think I see here more where she is coming from.  In some circles of evangelical Christianity, and quite large ones at that, there is indeed an implicit perception that “Science” (as if science were some monolithic worldview rather than a body of knowledge and methods for studying the natural world) is at war with Christianity or the Bible, or at least that it ought to take some subservient approach to certain interpretations of the Creation narratives.  The situation isn’t helped much by the New Atheists who also perpetuate this warfare model, and are even less inclined to take prisoners than their funhouse mirror religious fundamentalist counterparts.  I do agree that the historical situation casts a much broader net and that in general, the broad strokes of Christian thought through history do not in fact conflict with Science, and in fact have taken a critical role in forming much of modern Science.  I think RHE would agree that the general situation is very nuanced, but I don’t think she is discussing the historical situation as much as what is going on right now on the ground in certain prominent segments of evangelical Christianity.

    1. Meteodan How large are they, though?  Perhaps it’s because I spend my time around Christian college professors rather than Creationist activists, but most of the evangelicals I’m around don’t consider the question a deal-breaker.  There’s room for inquiry, but that goes in both directions.  
      That said, I don’t have any hard data on the size of Creationist movements, so I have to assume that you’ve got as good odds as I do of being right. 🙂

      1. ngilmour Meteodan Nathan, I think that the fact that you and I spend much of our time around academics is indeed a factor.  Most of the Christians I know in my immediate academic and research environs also don’t consider this a deal-breaker.  As a case in point, in the church I attend–which is otherwise a pretty conservative evangelical church where I would wager most of the body believes in young-earth creationism–one of the elders is a physicist who teaches at OU, and, while not an evolutionist himself (he’s an Old Earth Creationist in the vein of Hugh Ross), has stated that theistic evolution is a valid option for a committed Christian, and he respects the fact that I hold this view, and I also respect his view.  We’ve had some good, irenic discussions.
        Anyway, I also don’t have any hard data on Creationist movements, but I will say this: some of the more hardcore YEC movements out there still wield considerable influence, regardless of their size.  I’m speaking specifically of Ken Ham’s group, but his isn’t the only one.
        Let me be clear, I’m not saying that YEC views don’t have a place at the table in Christian discourse.  What disturbs me is that many of them have an all-or-nothing approach.  Either you accept YEC, or you’re at best a “compromiser”, at worst an apostate.  On the other hand, I know of no theistic evolutionist who would question the faith of a YEC’er (though they might question their scientific integrity).  It was this attitude that kept me clinging to YEC long past the time that I could muster any true belief in it, because I honestly thought my very faith was at stake.  It took the presence of genuine committed Christians who held different views in my life to finally allow me to let go.  But, I’m getting too autobiographical here and digressing, so I’ll stop.  I really need to write a blog post about this :).  My point is, perhaps my own experience explains a little of why I resonate with RHE’s mention of young people having to choose between science and Christianity, because for a time, I felt I had to as well. 
        Apologies for rambling!

        1. Meteodan ngilmour Feel free to ramble, man.  We try to be hospitable here.
          I think much of this does come down to frames of reference.  Living in Georgia, I know some young-earth creationists, but because I work at a college and go to a church with a fair number of academics (including a professor of veterinary medicine), there are very few moments when they try to make things “all or nothing.”  The more common move they make is something more relativistic, an insistence that they have a right to believe (and teach their own kids) one way or the other.  People are aware of Ken Ham, and some folks hold him up as an exemplar of faithful thinking, but he’s not an unquestionable guru in the circles where I run.
          I suppose I’ve also been fairly intentional about framing the conversation rhetorically when I teach the teens at church.  I’ve taught two separate series on faith and science in the last three years or so (the files may or may not have migrated when I moved http://www.nathangilmour.com to the new web host), and I’ve been very careful to name actual Christians who are theistic evolutionists, old-earthers, and so on.  So part of my own picture, I suppose is that I’ve used my position of teaching authority to make the question of science and faith an actual question rather than an already-settled axiom.

  3. So RHE is “drawn to high church traditions” but also wants “to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers”? Okay. But I’m fairly certain that the RC, EO, and Anglican churches all have a long history of distinctive (nay, definitive!) predetermined answers to pretty much all the important questions. (Heck, it’s how doctrine was taught in the West: q&a catechism.) But, wait, I’ve misread her: what RHE loves about the high church traditions is their “unpretentious” and “authentic” liturgy. (Good luck convincing a 17th century English dissenter that high church liturgy is “unpretentious,” btw.) So, does that mean she really DOES want style rather than substance? I’m confused.

    1. dgrubbs I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one confused here.  I will say that, as intellectual traditions, Canterbury and Rome and the Cappadocians have strong histories of inquiry.  But yes, there’s also the catechism angle on things.

    2. dgrubbs My read of this is that many folks frustrated with their evangelical tradition perceive something new and fresh in the “high church traditions”, and because of their evangelical background, to them, this perception is reality.  Note, I’m not necessarily defending this attitude, but merely offering a possible explanation for it.

  4. Well this again. It seems this story comes up a lot but there is always conflicting info on it. I guess the best I can do is give my own testimony on the this latest “millenials and religion” story. The word Millennial itself bothers me (myself being a Millennial) because its arbitrariness (I know Generation Xers say get in line) But one must consider you are talking about two groups n that term: the generation that came of age after the Cold War and the generation that came of age around 9/11. I come from the latter (was born in 1990 so only one year of Soviet Russia for me) and can’t speak for what the 80s were like or remembering the US around the Bush Senior administration.  
    As for the religious aspect I see were she is coming from but I don’t quite think she is totally on it. I don’t think you are going to say you can speak for every Millennial and if that what she is trying to do with “my” generation she has failed from the start (we are a stubborn and individualist lot). 
    My own Confession is that I started out in the Baptist church (National Baptist Convention) and am now Catholic (though if there was a Lutheran church in my vicinity I would readily have joined). I grew up in a medium-large sized Baptist church and I was content then as time went on I started having questions. Not questions of political/ideological nature (I will speak on that in a minute) but questions about my religion (and denomination) in itself. I witnessed first hand my church go from ordinary church to mega-church and it left me somewhat disillusioned. I was already coming of age and questioning things but this started a rift in me about my faith. I left my neighborhood in Maryland for my mother’s hometown of Amherst, VA. I went to the family church which was smaller than I was use to and dominated by intra-and rival family politics. I soon found myself at in impasse; I had a lot of questions that I knew know one around me was capable of answering and I had a lot of ideas I was sure know one else had ever thought of. 
    Than I went on to college not thinking I would be a practicing Christian much longer and had stopped going to church. Than the craziest things happened. I don’t remember why but I started growing interested in philosophy and decided to take a class on it. Among the the philosophers we studied was Kierkegaard and my interest was significantly peaked. We spent the least amount of time on him and he is now my favorite philosopher (We spent many, many torturous weeks on Hobbs’ Leviathan and Kant’s Critique). Reading Kierkegaard was not just a  earth-shattering revelation but it let me know that I was not crazy-just an existentialist. I knew I had to go back to a church so I decided for various reasons to go to the small local Catholic church. I was not attracted their because of politics at all and for me personally religion has never informed my political leanings. 
    Now I don’t think this is a big deal but I will mention that I’m African-American and going from a mostly Black religious environment to a mostly White one was and still is interesting. The extent to which politics dominates religious culture in the two groups is incredible. I’ve never been to a White protestant church but I do live a short distance from Lynchburg, VA (the Falwell family HQ) so I have an “idea” what it is like. Ironically I had a very diverse taste in Catholic churches even before becoming one. 
    The church I go to is a small-medium church with a moderate to conservative leaning (Pastor is conservative but the congregation is pretty down the middle ideologically) and politics might crop but it is surprisingly small compared to the general partisan climate of the area. In my hometown (DC-MD area) I’ve been to 2 Catholic churches one mostly Black and the other Black-Latino congregation and it basically was not so different from the Black Baptist churches I went to with the politics being implicitly left-leaning but not too hyped on.  Now my uncle, who is also Catholic, goes to church in Northern Virginia and it is a different ball game. His Church is very conservative and rigid (parts of the mass like the Kyrie and Agnus Dei are still said in Latin) and I usually roll my eyes a lot when I got to that church. The church is huge (basically a mini-Cathedral) and is a mostly White and Asian congregation with a few immigrants. The Sermons in that church would know doubt fit the description of the Southern evangelical churches Ms. Evans is referring to. 
    As for the science vs religion thing I’ve never understood the conflict. I grew in Black and White schools and never felt uncomfortable in a science/biology class. Not until after High School was I aware that this thing really sparked so much debate as I thought God and evolution worked quite well and still do. Maybe if the culture I was raised in were different I would think differently but as it is I don’t by into the religious or atheist fundamentalist on this debate. 
    So I will take a breather here.

  5. […] calling it “an astonishing display of vanity.” Reading his post, it’s hard to disagree. Nathan Gilmour over at The Christian Humanist brings up the contradictions at play in Held’s post (noting, for example, her contention that […]

  6. You did a good job of taking apart the faulty and phony thinking in Evans’ article. 
    I am not a member of the Millenials or Generation X or Y or Z, and while I get tossed in with the Baby Boomers, I don’t feel as if I have anything in common with that group either. However, what I’ve noticed over the years is that many if not most young people who grow up in the church leave the church–for a while. They get tired of the attitudes and the rules, I suppose, but mostly they just don’t want to get up and go to church anymore.
    I grew up in the LCA (one of the precursors to the ELCA), and we had 3 years of catechetical training, culminating in confirmation and first communion at the end of our 9th grade year. Most of us considered that Graduation from Sunday School and Church!
    Then, after college and whatever comes after that, and then marriage (in the church), and then kids, suddenly we realize that we want our kids to grow up in the church, even though the church is quite different today (in the ELCA, first communion can come immediately after baptism, or that’s how it seems to this old man). Sometimes we look for something new in a church, but often we return to the church of our youth (though, again, it is not really the church of our youth–I teach at a somewhat fundamentalist Christian college, and the changes in rules regarding behavior that have happened over my 18 years there are far greater than I would ever have predicted back then). 
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

  7. ngilmour tonyseel “Whatever”? I mean, looking at the on-line conversation about LGBTQIA, where even the people who are writing assert that Q, for instance, can mean at least a couple of different things, and that there are categories that are not represented by LGBTQIA, I wonder if “whatever” is the umbrella term that covers “anything not covered by the letters above.”

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