88: Church Isn’t Working

In this episode John and Gregg discuss an article from Relevant magazine, concerning an interview with Rachel Held Evans on how Millennials feel alienated from most church settings, and are looking for a committed community rather than for a church with “the right” programs or music.

John notes, despite not being in the Millennial age bracket, that for a long time he’s had similar feelings to Rachel’s. He explains that the worship music has never been that important to him and that he too feels more comfortable in the Episcopal church.

Where the article also focuses on church attendance declining, John notes that when his lack of church attendance comes up with others he is most often asked simply whether he is attending (and never about the deeper, more causal issues such as how he’s thinking or feeling about God, where he is in terms of his spiritual journey, etc.). Yet he finds this line of questioning assumes too much, such as that if you’re attending a church then it must be a good one (or good enough) and that ‘truth’ is being spoken there.

Gregg notes that he found this same disconnect within the article itself. It claims that Millennials want church communities where they can have connection yet nowhere spells out what this is, as though we all somehow know it and so can create or muster it. So he wonders what “worked” for John about the Episcopal setting?

John notes particularly that in the Episcopal church he never had the sense that they were trying to evoke or play on his emotions: it was allowing John to “be himself.” So John also wonders if the sort of churches referred to in the article are not places where Millennials (or he himself) would feel comfortable because they are places where people feel obligated, rather than want, to be?

John links this to the familiar evangelical “guilt trip” about the need to attend church or else see one’s life and practices deteriorate. He explains that he stopped attending church three or four years ago, yet it took about three years for this same guilty feeling no longer to occur to him on a Sunday morning. And while John is realistic about the church being composed of imperfect people he still identifies fear, guilt, and obligation as the main reasons why he was attending church, and instead highlights the good times and sense of connection that he had with his non-Christian work mates.

John attributes this lack of connection mostly to himself, because he believes that at least some of the people attending church actually want to be there and church is working out well for them. Gregg is doubtful: he sees John as being “on a quest” for authenticity and yet John can’t connect with those who are comfortable with authenticity? John replies that he thinks that has grown a lot regarding his openness toward vulnerability and authenticity.

Gregg expresses confusion with the article concerning authenticity and connection: on the one hand Rachel says that the people in her church knew and loved her better than any others. Yet on the other hand she indicates that she felt so lonely in church because the people were so disconnected with the way that she sees the world, and she could no longer accept their perspectives.

John wonders: How can we be loved and supported by people who don’t understand us? Gregg thinks similarly: How can the people who “know and love me best” fail to be engaged with (or even aware of) the things that matter most to me—how is this either knowing or loving me?

Further, Gregg thinks that Rachel’s description actually misrepresents either the people in the church or the church as a whole. This is because, in Gregg’s view, the Christian’s main main pursuit is to be fully dedicated both to living with God and living life authentically. Yet how can the people in Rachel’s church be doing this and yet be so “off track” in relating Christianity to real life, such that people like Rachel end up feeling alienated?

Gregg answers that one reason is a lack of self-love by the people in the church (by acting in a way that undercuts their main goals: living with God and living life authentically). The result is that if we cannot love ourselves well, we cannot then be in a position to love others rightly (i.e., correctly to understand where others are at and how to meet them there).

If this is so, then the real issue here is not Church attendance (and church generally) being in decline for / out of step with a certain group, such as Millennials. Instead, the issue is how the church is continuing to lose credibility, and how this lose of credibility is discernible not just to those outside the church but also to those within it.

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