I used to read every article, every Barna report with dread and fear.
Millennials are leaving the Church.
Fewer Americans than ever identify as Christians.
“Oh no!” I thought. The Church is shrinking, losing influence, becoming irrelevant. Soon, Christians will be a minority on the sidelines of American culture and we’ll all be sitting in sackcloth and ashes.
Last week, I discussed the exodus of millennials from the Church and the oft-repeated idea that is because they are “entitled.” Today, I want to take on the whole exodus itself. Because invariably, the statistics come across as some kind of apocalyptic doomsday scenario for the Church.
But one day very recently, I just stopped panicking. I stopped believing that the world would end if the Church ended.
I started wondering what if it was actually a good thing for a generation to leave the Church.
Confusing Church With a Capital “C”
Like a grain of sand, one tiny thing started bugging me about the discussion around Millennials leaving the Church.
A seemingly insignificant, tiny detail…
In fact, it’s only a single letter. The letter “C.”
You see, this entire conversation (including this blog post) hinges on a capital “C;” the one in the word Church. That capital letter shapes the whole conversation. For Millennials are said to be leaving the Church…with a capital “C.”
In that capital letter is the implication that they are leaving the whole Church, the global Church, the universal Church. They might as well be buying a one-way ticket to hell.
But as I see it, Millennials aren’t leaving “the Church.”
They are leaving churches with a lowercase “c.” There is a huge difference. The Church is an eternal thing, the Body of Christ, built by God himself, which cannot be destroyed.
But churches are human institutions. They are imperfect. They are mortal. They are built by people. At their best, they are still only shadows of the real Church. Young people are not leaving the body of Christ. They are not leaving the Kingdom of God. They are just leaving churches. And that makes a big difference.
The difference it makes is this:
Why are Millennials leaving churches? They probably have a myriad of reasons in their minds. But I have a suspicion…
I suspect that people do not leave so much as they are driven away from churches because churches fail to represent Jesus Christ. Human nature dictates that the laws of inertia would keep a lot of people in their seats just out of force of habit. But when people are getting up out of their seats, breaking lifelong habits in the process, it is not just their own free will. Something is nudging them.
Let’s reframe the question. How many people are actually leaving Jesus? How many people are rejecting the gospel? My guess is that if the surveys were framed in this way that the numbers would be very different. What if people who leave churches aren’t rejecting Jesus, because in all the time they’ve gone to church they never met Jesus? What if people who leave churches aren’t disavowing the Gospel, because they’ve never heard the gospel in their churches?
God Does Not Need Churches
So I am at the point where the statistics do not panic me. They do not worry me.
If “the Church” is half its size in twenty years, so be it. There are some churches out there that are the last place Jesus would want to be. There are some churches that deserve to be left. Every time someone leaves a church where Jesus is not evident, I applaud. I’d rather people go wander the wilderness where at least they are surrounded by something God created, then stay in a church where Jesus is not present. Yes, I have enough faith in God to believe that He doesn’t need our churches to get through to people. Whether people are right to leave or not, God can still find them.
So it doesn’t matter how many of our wooden and brick and stone churches close their doors. The Church (capital “C”) will never die. God will find a way to preserve the Gospel. The Russian revolutionaries tried to stamp out the Church and nearly succeeded. Except that when they were burning all of the literature, they forgot to burn Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Churches in a generation might look very different. But let’s not confuse our churches that we build with the Body of Christ, the Church that God is building.
Tell me what you think. Have you ever been panicked by the doomsday statistics? Why do you think people leave churches? Have you left your church?