Gen-X, Gen-Y, and the Church

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Around some circles, the issue of the day appears to be the blog post by Rachel Held Evans on why Millennials are leaving the church. Her basic premise is that it's because Millennials can't find Jesus there. Church is a bunch of rules without any reason. Not enough compassion, acceptance, or concern about social issues. In her article, she specifically asserts this is a Gen-Y issue, and not Gen-X.

There have been myriad counter-proposals to why 20- and 30-year-olds are leaving the church. Jim Allen says it's because of the apostasy—in large part, the role of emotionalism in evangelism. Hermant Mehta says atheism is drawing them away. My friend Alan Cross says it's because Millennials have grown up thinking the world is all about them. Richard Beck says it's because Millennials have so much access to social media that they don't need the fellowship of church. Meanwhile, Brad Wright says not to worry; it's temporary.

Lots of ideas. Probably all of them have some truth in them. But here's another:

Where Gen-Xers are too depressing, Millennials are too idealistic.

If I were to list off my Gen-X credentials, it would read even more convincing than Paul's resume in Philippians 3:4-6. I have friends across the spectrum, though. And it strikes me recently how much Millennials and the Boomer generations have in common in one particular area: they have unrealistic expectations of institutions and individuals. On my Facebook FList, it is the generations I'm sandwiched between who post the most political rants. They complain about the government, specific politicians, and how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

My Gen-X friends post about their families and, occasionally, the specific social issues they are interested in.

This is not universal, in that generational viewpoints do not strictly follow birth years. Dev, who was born in 1966, had a very different childhood than I did, and often takes the path of the Boomer. It more follows the generations my friends most closely identify with.

So, how does this play out? Everyone knows the sad story of the Gen-Xers: latch-key kids, broken homes, cynical to a fault, distrust authority, independent—but hard working and very loyal to family and close friends. Millennials, on the other hand, had a fairly easy childhood. Their parents saw the mistakes made by the parents of Gen-Xers and perhaps over-compensated. Instead of coming home to an empty house, Millennials loaded in the minivan for soccer practice. Instead of "vacations" to grandma's, they went on family extravaganzas. Instead of three networks, one local station, and PBS, they had their pick of cartoons any hour of the day. And there's the social media. Groups of like-minded friends available at the click of a button.

I think that's the rub there. Gen-Xers, whiney as we are, are used to being on our own. Our work, entertainment, and beliefs are influenced by a few, but we've had to decide for ourselves. We have small packs of family and close friends; Millennials have tribes. We are used to being surrounded by people who think differently than we do; Millennials are engulfed by great groups of those with shared experiences. Gen-X, once we finally decide on a social cause, work and give quietly to help others; Millennials blast the world with Kony 2012.

This translates directly to the church. Gen-Xers don't have a problem fellowshipping with others of varying views as long as they are authentic and dedicated to the community we crave. Gen-Xers have grown up to be fiercely independent and, even in the context of fellowship in the church, that is an asset. We wish to be related to, but not spoon-fed. We want to be identified with, but not smothered. We don't need a conference in an arena; we need to learn how to study from the Bible ourselves. The problem becomes it's easy to reject what the Bible says when it doesn't seem to mesh with what we experience personally. Sometimes our desire for community trumps our spiritual conviction—we don't necessarily live what we believe.* It was Gen-Xers and not Millennials who developed the emergent church—high on community while light on theology.

Millennials are the opposite. They have lived their entire lives in community so they have the luxury of expecting a place where everyone has the same beliefs. Their worldview is strongly influenced by their tribe, not necessarily the truth, and certainly not by any organization that threatens anyone in their tribe (like those who are convinced the Bible does not allow for women pastors or that gay marriage is inappropriate). They also know that if they can't have unanimity of beliefs and priorities, they can leave and find it elsewhere. Where Gen-Xers know how to find our niche in the crowd, Millennials know how to find their crowd.

In a way, Gen-Xers and Millennials have a lot they could learn from each other. Xers' independence and outsider-ness have made us extremely wary of institutions and slow to commit to things outside our little world. While Millennials' expectation of being surrounded by those of like-mind can come across as entitled, they are pros at getting stuff done in groups. Gen-Xers have to fight so hard for community, sometimes we have no energy left for cause. We so guard our hearts that it puts shackles on our hands. Meanwhile, it would be good for Millennials to learn the art of independence of thought and place. Not only because personal responsibility for one's identity is a good thing, but also so they can learn to play well with others and not have so many unrealistic expectations about the groups they're a part of.

But mostly, both generations need to fill their gaps with Christ. If Gen-Xers took their understanding of the fallen world and guarded tolerance of others and mixed it with Jesus' love, they'd be fierce warriors for the Kingdom of God who easily deny self for others with no expectation of payment in return. If Millennials let the Bible as God's Word—and not just the touchy-feely-feel-good parts—inform their worldview, their energy would save bodies and souls.

Why are Millennials leaving the church? I dunno. And as a Gen-Xer, I can't fault someone for leaving an institution that someone finds inauthentic. But as a Christian who believes the Bible is the inspired Word of God, I can't understand why someone would abandon what Jesus says is truth for mob-think. This independent, cynical Gen-Xer promises to obey Christ by actively loving others and not just tolerating them. My prayer is that Millennials will obey Christ by accepting that the Church—the messed up, multi-faceted, many-layered church—is their tribe. And that loving Christ does not guarantee conformity.

Published 8-6-13