There is a common saying when an occurrence causes a chain reaction: “That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back!” In other words, there were a chain of events that occurred where the camel could not carry anymore. I believe this analogy is fitting to explain why Millennials are leaving the church. As an apologist for the institution known as the church, and as a candidate for ordination of one of the oldest and largest mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church, I believe in the church, its mission, and commission. However, as a Hip-Hop’er and Millennial, I am concerned about the condition of said institution. I remember growing up thinking everyone went to church on Sundays. My city grandmother would come to pick my mother and I up bright and early to attend church: rain, sleet, or snow. At my country grandparents home, no one, adult or child, was able to sleep beyond 7am on Sunday morning, regardless of the time we went to sleep. Church on Sundays was MANDATORY. This was the first straw for Millennials.
Many Millennials, like me (although I subscribe to the association of Hip-Hop’er, not Millennial.), were forced to attend church because our parents and grandparents believed this was the right thing to do. Before any of my elders come for my head, let me add parenthetically, I do not feel that was the wrong thing to do. The church was the center of our communities and safe haven from injustice, discrimination and inequality. The church gave vision to our communities, validated our identity, and reaffirmed our sacred worth. Churches were the foundation to a healthy society. Before social media, the church provided the connections needed to thrive in the world, and gave many direct access to successful people to model after. More importantly, elders drug us to church because it seemingly provided a moral compass to guide us in an evil world. The church was their foundation, therefore it should be ours as well. However, being forced to go to church, unable to establish our own desire for God and church, has pushed many away from the church. As “free” individuals, Millennials fled the church at the first instance. Now as adults, many have occupied their time with so many other things, church did not quite make the list.
The world around the church changed and the church did not change with it. Schools challenged students to question everything. The church taught to question anything that didnt “line up with the Word of God”. Culture encouraged individuals to be explore their creativity. The church discouraged this cultural creativity, considering it “worldly” and not effective for God’s Kingdom. Music allowed for honesty and relevancy, stemmed by current events and personal passions. The church increased its focus on tradition and doctrines, creating dogmas. The church, in a nutshell, remained stagnant while the world around it moved. This was the second straw.
As Millennials, and those like me, affectionately of the Hip-Hop Generation, see the church as irrelevant and dishonest. Irrelevant because many churches do not or are unwilling to accept within its walls conversations, technology, and people that Millennials and the rest of society, engage daily. How many Millennials walk into churches without a bible are scolded by ushers and church mothers for using the bible app that is on their smartphones? How many pastors have condemned the music many Millennials and Hip-Hop’ers listen to Monday-Saturday? How many churches are led by older men, with few to no opportunities for young women and men? Relegated to secondary leadership positions such as youth and children’s pastors? When Millennials fail to see individuals who look like them in leadership it further confirms the lack of relevance they feel inside our churches. Yes, there are a few churches who have screens and upbeat worship, with younger pastors who preach hip messages, but they are few and far between.
Hip-Hop is praised for its honesty, its cultural awareness and its ability to influence young people toward action, both for good and bad. The church once was a place where honest critique of society took place. It also critiqued itself. The church evaluated the good and bad of its institution. Honest critique caused Richard Allen to leave the Methodist Episcopal Church due to racial inequality to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Yet Millennials fail to see this honesty in a lot of our churches today. They say “come as you are” but have restrictions on dress, sexual orientation, race, and gender. The church claims to be a refuge for hurting, socially ostracized, and marginally disenfranchised, but if one cant contribute to the budget, give an offering, or join the church, those benefits are not available. Millennials learn in school about scientific theory, evolution, and other discoveries that have allowed for human advancement. The church wants to paint science as inaccurate according to the bible, as if the two cant coexist.
Some of the more enlightened saints of the church used to say persons can be “so Heavenly minded, they are no earthly good!” Millennials feel this way about some of our churches. All this talk about heaven ignores the current issues we face in our world. Millennials see a need for action, and while Jesus’ return to make the world a better place is needed, there is work to be done while we wait… and Millennials dont see the church working.
If churches want to stop the hemorrhaging of Millennials leaving their churches and the Church as a whole, we must strive to be relevant and honest. We must create room for honest critique and critical reflection. We must engage in dialogue about current event and cultural issues. The church must seek to be diverse and inclusive, able to work beyond cultural differences which will cause Millennials to appreciate the Church and what it should stand for: To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Will the Church add more straw or lighted the load to allow space for Millennials to return home? Only time will tell…