The title, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” is reason enough to read Rachel Held Evans’ special post on CNN’s “Belief Blog.”

Rachel is a 32-year-old author. She writes on this topic as an “evangelical leader” based on “the latest surveys,” along with “personal testimonies from friends and readers.”

Presumably, Rachel is concerned about “The Disappearing Church,” as is the staff of The Lutheran and many of us in the pews. This sets a context for trying to understand and learn from her comments. What’s needed, of course, is not just a read of my comments and then getting up to wash the dishes. What’s needed is to gather at church with copies of what Rachel wrote and in a wide-ranging and open-minded conversation identify how, in your congregation, what she says is, or is not, reality.

To give you a taste of Rachel’s argument, here are three quotes from her essay:

… 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.

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.

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.

I am 45 years older than Rachel, a product of very different leadership voices that have swayed my beliefs and my values over time. Yet, I find myself agreeing with much of what Rachel has to say.

But this is curious. What Rachel describes is not what I read elsewhere or hear on the streets about what young adults are seeking as part of their bargain for staying in the church. Yes, I realize that what Rachel describes as the voice of the millennials is really her voice summarizing the voices of her friends. But then so are the voices advocating more casual, free-form services that “fit younger lifestyles.”

Is it possible that the issue that connects Rachel’s younger adult generation with my older adult generation is that we all seek that our church leaders truly listen to what we have “to contribute to a faith community” (quoting, Rachel).

I wonder though, if what I suggest is too difficult? Truly listening to one another and expressing appreciation for what is said by another person is not a natural way of communicating for way too many of us, especially if we don’t agree with what is being said.

Church leaders who choose to listen to us may have to set aside their own history of beliefs about the “right” way to do something and ask us for the details (and rationale) behind our suggestions — and then give sincere thanks for our contributions. We will then know we have been heard and we may find ourselves engaging more judiciously in the ongoing conversation.

I remember years ago when our church was contemplating whether to move from once-a-month communion to communion at every service, one of the respected lay leaders of the congregation was very much against this move. From my perspective this seemed preposterous. If communion is an important part of our beliefs and our religious life, why would not including communion in the every-week liturgy be even better? But in conversation, I understood her perspectives. She had grown up with a once-a-month communion and believed that this was the way it always should be. For her, to participate in communion on a more frequent basis made it less special. Once we all understood the history behind her belief, we felt more comfortable in expressing our own history and seek a healthy compromise.

We need to sit down together, we older adults and younger adults, so that as the leaders in our church truly listen to us talk from the heart about hope, grace and well-being in the community of our church, we opposite-poled-generations can express our appreciation to each other for our commonalities.

Bruce Roberts
Bruce B. Roberts is a professor of psychology emeritus at St. Olaf College, one of the 26 colleges and universities of the ELCA. He currently teaches in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium in Northfield, Minn. Find a link to Bruce Roberts’ blog Aging And The Church at Lutheran Blogs.

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