Recent research from Barna Group and Cornerstone Knowledge Network has found that in reality, 67% of millienials say a quiet church is more ideal than a loud one; 67% say classic is more ideal than trendy; 77% would chose a sanctuary over an auditorium. As Dr. Clint Jenkin explained in the research, “Most millennials don’t look for a church facility that caters to the whims of pop culture. They want a community that calls them to deeper meaning.”
Essentially, by pandering to trends they think millennials want, many churches isolate them further.
Rachel Held Evans understands this issue. In her new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, the best-selling author and blogger discusses her own, often difficult, church journey.
We recently spoke to Rachel Held Evans about the new book, her own church experience and what churches get wrong about targeting millennials
You start the conversation in this book as, “Hey, sometimes I’m not there [in church], and sometimes I’ve stopped going.” Can you talk about why that was and why that is?
So I just never really fit in. And also just felt really sort of lonely I guess, even though I was surrounded by really good people who loved me and supported me, and knew me better than anyone else in the world.
That church hour was still the loneliest hour of my week, because I felt so out of step with the way the people around me thought and engaged the world. And as wonderful as they were and as good of people as they were, I just wasn’t buying it anymore.
Now, only recently, in the last couple years, have I found myself going to church more often than not on Sunday mornings. Now we worship in an Episcopal church. I really am loving it and loving the centrality of the Eucharist, the sacraments, and I’m really getting into church again which is nice.
But I will say, there’s a lot of freedom and things to be learned when you’re in that in-between place or when you take a break from going to church. I actually think it can be really healthy for relationships, for yourself, for how you think about God and the world to take a little time away from how you’ve always been doing church and try something new for awhile.
How do you respond to pushback from critics?
Yeah, so my attendance record isn’t perfect. I think this just goes to show that there’s this sense that church is this duty, this thing you have to check off on a to-do list or a box. That somehow you have to show up between the hours of 9 am and noon on a Sunday to be part of a church, or part of a community, and I just don’t believe that.
I think church is something that we do, not just when we break the bread of communion at the altar on a Sunday morning. Church is something we do when we break the bread of communion among other believers around a dinner table or during a picnic. Or anytime that we confess our sins to one another. Anytime that we remind one another in the spirit of baptism that we’re beloved children of God. We’re practicing the sacraments of the church; we’re being church together.
I tend to favor being connected to local church community. I think that’s healthy, and I think that’s good. But I also know that it’s not the only place that I encounter God. It’s not the only place I encounter church. I encounter church in a lot of different places throughout the week. For people who especially have been deeply wounded by the institutional church, I think that time away from that can be incredibly healing.
You said, Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. They’re looking for a truer Christianity. Can you dig into that a little bit and talk about that?
I’m often asked to speak to church leaders about why millennials are leaving their church, because they think, “Here’s a millennial whose left the church but kind of returned to church, tell us your story. How do we get them back?”
So I go through this whole thing about the way our generation thinks is a little bit different, and how we feel about certain social issues is changing.
Our stages in life are different. We tend to spend more time being single. So if you marginalize single people in your church, you’re going to have a hard time connecting with them.
Nine times out of 10 somebody in the back of the room raises their hand and says, “So what you’re saying is, we need to bring in a cooler worship band?” And I proceed to bang my head against the podium, because time and time again there’s this assumption that what will bring millennials back to church is if we add a fog machine, put a coffee shop in the lobby, have a pastor who wears skinny jeans that they’ll just come flooding back.
I think that this tends to underestimate millennials. They think that we’re more shallow than we are. The truth is, sometimes those efforts will backfire, because we millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, and we can tell when somebody is just trying to sell us something. I think church is the last place I want to go to be sold another product. It’s the last place I want to go to just be entertained.
That’s one reason actually I think that I have found myself in this Episcopal church, which is like super old-school worship style. They’re not trying to be cool there. They’re just doing what they’ve been doing for the last centuries.
I don’t think that the key to reaching millennials is to try and make Christianity look cooler, or make the church look cooler. I think it’s to keep the church weird. The church is weird. The sacraments are kind of weird. But there’s so much power, and as much relevance in them just as they are. So I think what I try to do in this book, and what I’ve been trying to do with my work lately, is rearticulate the significance of the traditional teachings and sacraments of the church in a modern context.
These are all things that the church has been doing for thousands of years, and I think that they alone are sufficient to make the church relevant in this culture.
Ten years ago, two screens and a worship band was kind of great. Now clearly we’re seeing that go away, and I feel like we’re in this grey area where we wrestle between the pendulum shifting back to a much more liturgical tradition. Or is it just that music tastes change?
So to me, it’s less about the style, because you can certainly be a living, breathing, active, powerful church that reaches millennials and still have that very contemporary worship style. So I think that works for a lot of people, which is fine. But I think as soon as it crosses over into sort of this consumerism—like church is a show that we go to and either approve of or disapprove of and then leave—as soon as it becomes this show that we put on to try and keep people there instead of go out and make disciples and serve the community, that’s where I see it getting a little problematic.
When it’s all about image or style—and you’ve got the celebrities, you have the cool crowd, the not cool crowd, and it’s all about who’s with who and who looks good—as soon it becomes a product, that’s when it starts to get a little scary and to not feel like church to me.
I think when you look at the people who Jesus surrounded Himself with, that’s what our churches are supposed to look like. They’re supposed to be filled with super uncool people. Folks from the margins of society, and folks who are misfits and oddballs and sick and hungry and homeless, outcasts, the people who are typically despised by the religious.
So when the church looks like that—when it looks less like a country club and more like a recovery group—that, to me, signals that it’s a healthy church.
Note: This interview has been edited for length. You can listen to the interview in its entirety here.