On “Churchy Phrases” Scaring Away MillennialsFebruary 3, 2014
In Addie Zierman's recent blog, "5 churchy phrases that are scaring off Millennials" she purports to explain why the new generation of adults are leaving the church. She goes on to explain that for many, such as herself, the departure is only a temporary hiatus. In their 30s many are reluctantly returning with families in tow, but not without an attitude. It seems that according to her brief survey of followers on Facebook, they left at 18 because of shallow clichés. Now they want back, but don't want to hear those simplistic catch-phrases anymore. They have been surfing the internet and know better than to have confidence in the Bible and in the God who wrote it. After all, they saw it on the internet--it must be true. For those who are curious, here is the list. "The Bible clearly says…" "God will never give you more than you can handle…" "Love on" (as in, "as youth leaders, we're just here to love on those kids.") Black and white quantifiers of faith, such as "Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding." "God is in control…has a plan…works in mysterious ways."
Okay, I grant that these words often precede truly vacuous comments/sermons. I agree that often they are voiced when someone finds themselves in a situation (such as with a grieving parent) where they just don't know what to say and don't know that all the person needs is presence and a tender touch. But, really now…is this the best they can come up with? How shallow is their Christianity that they can abandon God's church--the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, because they hear too many clichés?
Living beyond three score and ten years may give some advantage here, but it seems to me that these "stats" Addie cites have been around at least as long as I have been alive. I recall the same statistics cited in the 60s bemoaning that young people were leaving the church about the time they went off to college and didn't reconnect until they were married and realized that the church they had been neglecting while they were prioritizing career, relationships, marriage, and children, may just be important once again to establish healthy friendships and to teach Christian truth and values to their children.
I know she doesn't want to hear this, especially from an old guy, but a young person's cliché may just be an old saint's short-hand for a worldview perspective that has worked like a road sign to guide them through many a stormy night for longer than Millennials have been alive.
She complains, "the Bible clearly says…" sounds too assertive to the internet-savvy post-adolescent who has downloaded the shared ignorance pervasive in his world. I was reading the recent interview with the renowned NT scholar, Dale C. Allison concerning the current internet driven rash of Jesus mythicism. Recent skeptics are claiming that a case can be made for the notion that Jesus never really existed. He was created as a sort of midrash on OT narratives. Allison's response was (to paraphrase)," Move on--nothing to see here. The issue is a century old. We studied this in Grad School. It was debated and debunked by scholars a hundred years ago." Before the internet, there were scholars who screened material that was published as serious scholarship. Now, all one needs is a computer, a fertile imagination, and a blank slate. Maybe if we would read the Bible more we might actually discover what it does say. And if we would be considered "scholars," perhaps we should read a few real scholars before we imagine that we belong to the guild.
Addie scoffs at the saying, "God will never give you more than you can handle." Most people don’t seem to know that it didn't come from the Bible. Perhaps, but 1 Corinthians 10:13 is in the Bible and Deuteronomy 31:8 is in the Bible, and yes, life is more complicated than what this catch-phrase may suggest. Maybe God's purpose is to "break" us. But when a believer is unable to see their way, sometimes the only thing they have is the promise of God's presence and protection. So if the misappropriation of the phrase is problematic, the denial that it is based on biblical truth is equally problematic.
I agree that some of the clichés cited can be a bit hollow and maybe even sound a little creepy. So change them! We don't love the people to whom we minister as "objects," but as "subjects." We are agents of God's love. With that we all agree, but to complain about how we "say" this is shallow and immature in the extreme.
On that note I wish to make one more comment/observation. A few years ago, The Lighthouse Community Center was formed as two people opened an empty building in the inner city in order to (if you please) "love on" anyone who came through the doors. People who came were lost, they were hungry, and they were homeless. Many suffer from mental illnesses and addictions that have brought them to their present state. We just loved them in concrete ways. We fed them. We clothed them. We sat with them and treated them with human dignity. Some are "believers," and some are "back-sliders." Some are "unbelievers." How else can you say this? We preached the gospel, "using words when necessary." We formed them into a worshipping community. A "church" was born as "believers" began to worship and serve the God they have just come to know and experience in a new way. They know from experience what the consequences of sin are. They already know the sulfuric smell of hell. When they discover the new life in Christ they begin to develop a new mind through daily reading of the Bible, prayer, and in communion with one another. They are not so sophisticated and nuanced in their new faith to be anything but filled with exuberance and joy. The thought of complaining about such silliness as annoying clichés doesn't cross their minds. They are thrilled that despite their situation, God is with them and will never forsake them.
If Millennials have enjoyed the luxury of surviving a decade and a half of neglecting the church and now they want to re-engage I suggest they take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. If the church has suffered it isn't always because of those that stayed. Maybe it's because of those who left. If all they want to complain about are the clichés, maybe they should sit behind a dumpster and talk with some of our parishioners. Maybe they should try to get beyond the smell and "love on" people they have never looked in the eye.
The new wave of emerging Millennial adults will bring a refreshing change in our churches as they put away childish things and take on the mantle of leadership for the next generation. I promise you that they will create their own clichés at which their children will balk. Paul's words are timely: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:11-13).
- Dan Mitchell, PhD
Professor of Theological Studies