Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church: A Response

By Alastair Sterne July 31, 2013

Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a feature on CNN titled, Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church. The gist of the article is this, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions … precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.” 

A very thoughtful response, Rearranging The Chairs, was written by Richard Dahlstrom. He affirms Evan’s argument that Millennials want a Christianity of more substance, but then makes the point that substance isn’t bound to specific forms. It can take many shapes. He responds well by writing, “Can we please, please, stop arguing about big church over small, traditional over contemporary, pews over chairs, Eastern Orthodox or Evangelical Free or whatever is the conflict de jour? The substance that’s needed has never changed:  A world thirsting for Jesus is thirsting for hope, community, justice, peace, contentment, meaning, reconciliation. That substance can be found, or missing, no matter what it looks like on the outside.” 

Dahlstrom has shifted the conversation in a better direction. The research is showing that Millennials are leaving the church because they want a deeper, more qualitative Christianity. The question is, what forms of Christianity meet this desire and need?

Substance is not limited to its form. Dahlstrom is right about this. Yet form still matters. It matters a great deal. Certain forms of worship are more conducive to helping people find the substance they’re longing for. 

There are brands and companies who make great products, but have terrible marketing and design. You get to their website and you can hardly navigate it. You can’t figure out how to get to the shopping cart to give them your money! My wife and I just experienced this with the “Tucker Sling.” It’s an amazing product to help our baby girl with her reflux. While the product they’ve created is fantastic, their online presence does a great disservice to it. They have substance but no form. On the other extreme you have a company with an incredible website, a clever brand with witty copy, but all of this masks a mediocre product. Just because something is pretty doesn’t mean that there is anything behind its looks. It can have all the form in the world, but dismally lack substance.

The relationship between form and substance, from a design perspective, is key. In my branding days, I could make your product look beautiful but it’s only cheap veneers if the product itself is mediocre. It may increase sales initially, it may widen your audience for a moment, but eventually it won’t stick because there’s nothing to hold onto.  What about the gospel message of Jesus? The message of the gospel can overcome any form, be it a fake 100 dollar bill tract or the distortion of a bullhorn, but that doesn’t negate our responsibility to choose forms that are more conducive to our message and that best express its depth and truth.

There is no accessing substance without the form. The form may be flawed, and it may make getting to the substance more challenging, but there is no other way around it. The form is the medium. If we use forms of worship that require almost no participation from people, where they can sit back or stand occasionally with great ease, and blend in and simply receive — the form may actually stand in contradiction to the gospel message. The form ends up conveying the substance in a false way. Christianity is not a comfortable, non-participatory, dip your feet in a see if you like it, sort of religion. If our forms misdirect people in this way, we may be in mirky waters.

Yet then there are forms of worship that are full of required participation from the community. Standing, kneeling, sitting, singing. Up, down, left, right — it suddenly sounds like we’re playing Street Fighter. Lots of hitting random buttons, but no explanation and understanding of what the actions mean or convey. The focus is so much on the form that it becomes the end rather than directing one to the substance.

At this point it may sound like I full heartedly agree with Dahlstorm, “substance can be found, or missing, no matter what it looks like on the outside”, but I don’t entirely. And it’s not that I just have an uncanny knack for splitting hairs. The forms we choose either compliment and enrich the substance of our faith — the gospel — or they don’t. Within both the contemporary or liturgical context, some forms are going to be more conducive to aiding in this, and others are going to distract or even contradict. 

Where I agree with Dahlstrom is that the depth and beauty of the full gospel message — hope, community, justice, peace, contentment, meaning, reconciliation — can be found in all sorts of expressions and forms, not limited to one particular stream of Christianity. Yet Evans is onto something when she says that many are leaving the contemporary form of church to cling onto something more historical, something more liturgical, something that is proven to be more enduring. The reason, in my opinion, is because the form is shaped more fully by the substance, hence allowing people to enter into the gospel message more readily. 

What I want to emphasize is “in my opinion.” We do not have a lick of research or statistics to back up this inclination that many are moving into the liturgical, high-church world. All we have are a few vocal bloggers speaking about their own experience, and a “trend” they perceive. But that hardly quantifies a statistical trend. The last I checked, contemporary multisite churches are the new norm and have the stats to back it up. Not only is there sustained growth, but surely the form is surely leading way to substance, unless you want to whitewash every person in such a church as shallow and misguided (and I certainly do not!).

The best forms will always let the substance be the controller, and nothing else. This can carry over into all sorts of forms, contemporary or liturgical. If we are going to help people get to the great substance of the gospel, then in our day and age we need to choose forms that are shaped by the gospel, and not by the newest marketing strategy, or the desire to “incarnate” so much that there is no distinction between the church and the world.

In a tiring world of new, new, new, better, better, better, it should be no surprise that some are beginning to cling to the tried and true, and to the dominant way the church has worshipped for thousands of years: liturgy. I myself have made the shift from being a minister within a contemporary church to an Anglican setting, but not just because I like how the incense makes my Asthma flair up. It’s not that contemporary forms of worship can’t get me to the substance I long for, it’s that liturgy does it better for me. Mark Galli, in his great little book Beyond Smells and Bells, writes, “Liturgy teaches about the story … but it does more, it also embodies the Christian story in its very structure.” Whether or not Millennials are moving over in droves to liturgical forms of worship, more and more should. Good liturgy is so shaped by the substance of the gospel, that the very forms themselves are dripping with the grace, truth, and love of Christ.

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