It seems like on at least a weekly basis I come across an article reminding me of the millennial crisis: they are leaving the church in droves and the church must do something about it. What should the church do about it? Is there a tactic the church could use to stem the tide of this millennial exodus from the body of Christ? One blogger named Addie Zierman recently suggested the church could lessen millennial discontent by abandoning five “churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials.” While this article is anecdotal and not based on any scientific research or data, it sheds some light into the thinking of millennials and how the church might handle relating to them. Taken as a whole, this article indicates that there are three critical issues to millennials, issues where the church has missed the mark in speaking to that generation: authority, feelings, and community. Let’s take a look at these issues to see what millennials are saying and how the church might respond.
Millennials tend to have a problem with statements like “The Bible clearly says…” according to Zierman. What is so problematic about this phrase? Through social media like Facebook and Twitter, millennials are conversant enough with biblical scholarship to know that nothing is ever that simple. Rather than this kind of clichéd certainty, millennials “want to hear our pastors approach these words with humility and reverence. Saying, ‘This is where study and prayer have led me, but I could be wrong,’ does infinitely more to secure our trust than ‘The Bible clearly says…’” Much could be said about this statement, but for the sake of space, let’s focus on two issues here.
First, notice the reversal of authority. Zierman begins her critique by noting what millennials want to hear from their pastors. In 2 Timothy 4:3, Paul says that critiquing your pastor because he is not saying what you want to hear is a mark of those who will not endure sound doctrine because they want their ears tickled. Paul then adds that the end of this approach to the church and preaching is to turn aside from the truth to myths. Any argument against a preacher of the Word of God that begins by noting what the hearer wants to hear reveals a dangerous way of thinking that can and does ultimately lead to rejecting God’s Word for human wisdom.
Zierman also insists that a hermeneutics of humility resulting in biblical uncertainty “does infinitely more to secure our trust,” but trust in whom or in what? Trust in the Bible? Trust in Christ? Trust in your pastor? Trust in your ability to read and understand what God has communicated in His Word? Here Zierman reveals her inherent bias against authority. Anyone who speaks authoritatively is immediately suspicious. The problem with this thinking is that we simply do not have examples in the New Testament of the kind of preaching Zierman wants to hear. The Apostle Paul didn’t preach and close his sermons by saying, “But I could be wrong about all of that.” The Gospel of John does not end with John admitting, “That’s just my interpretation.” The Bible speaks with authority, and Paul told his non-apostolic protégé Titus, “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). Paul understood the authority of Christ and His messengers as they preach His Word does infinitely more to secure the trust of people in Christ and His Word than uncertainty of the truth preached with no spiritual authority.
Millennials, according to Zierman, also place a premium on feelings, which means they often feel left out in the cold by the church when people say things like, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Paul says something similar in Philippians 4:13, but millennials do not like this kind of talk. Why not? Because Christians do not always feel like this is true. Zierman notes, “We know that life often feels like entirely too much to handle.” Every Christian knows that is the case, and every Christian knows that our faith should not stop with our feelings. Our feelings need to be informed by the truth, and the truth is that you can handle everything God brings into your life through the power of Christ. Millennials, however, “want to know that this [feeling like life is too much to handle] is okay with you and with God.” The fuzzy language of these feelings being “okay” is hard to understand with precision. If she simply wants to know that God and His people still love her in the midst of feeling overwhelmed, then the answer is that yes, He and we do. But if by “okay” she means that she wants not to be challenged, comforted, and equipped to overcome feeling overwhelmed, then the Psalms would be a good solution to this problem. The Psalmist often felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, but he was never content to wallow in his feelings. He repeatedly uses the truth of God’s Word to gain victory over his feelings, to end in a place of praising the Lord even when he might not be sure how God will help him in a trial. Feelings, while important, cannot be the driving force of our Christian life, our self-understanding, or our doctrinal foundation; we must bring our feelings under the authority of the truth of God’s Word so that our feelings are shaped by truth rather than by our moods.
To her credit, Zierman is a millennial who has returned to church despite the ways the church has offended her or made her feel uncomfortable. She explains why she went back to church, “I went back because I needed community.” Whenever we read articles by or about millennials, the issue of community arises. Millennials often place a premium on “doing life together” or community. Biblically, we see the importance of community as Jesus spent time with His disciples, the church in Acts spent time together regularly, the epistles talk of our union as the body of Christ, and God instructs us how to treat “one another” throughout the New Testament. Ultimately, though, believers do not attend church for community; we attend church because of Christ. What should drive professing believers who have left the church to return to the church is not that they need friends but that they need to hear the Word of Christ preached in the power of the Spirit of God. We should have a deep and voracious hunger for Christ that will not let us neglect hearing His Word preached any more than we might neglect our physical sustenance. Yes, the church provides marvelous community when it functions as a healthy body, but the only way that can take place authentically is when the people of God are most hungry for God revealed through the Scriptures.
Zierman concludes her piece by summing up the central desire millennials share: “What millennials want is to be seen. Understood. Loved.” None of these desires are unusual for any generation of people, as Zierman notes. The problem, however, comes when we begin to think these desires should dictate how the church carries out its God-given mandate. When a believer thinks of being part of the church, what should be significant does not terminate with me being seen, understood, or loved. We should instead, like Moses, want to see the glory of God. We should want to understand the One who called and redeemed us. We should long to know the love of Christ that is beyond comprehension. The fundamental problem with Zierman’s view of the church is that it asks the church to be millennial-centered. The church, like all of creation, is Christ-centered. For the church to be faithful to millennials it must reject what they want and instead give them what they need: the authoritative truth of God’s Word that exalts Christ as the preeminent one over all things.
Zierman does have one thing exactly right: the phrase “love on” does need to go.