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You foolish Galatians!

Millennials and the Church

By Joseph Mosse | Contributor

Why are millennials leaving the church? It’s not because of our church buildings. (Photograph provided by Luke A. Wildman)

Why are millennials leaving the church? It’s not because of our church buildings. (Photograph provided by Luke A. Wildman)

The large-scale exodus of the millennial generation from Church has inspired a flurry of worried speculation about just what the Church is doing wrong. Millennials accuse the Church of hypocrisy, lack of engagement with political or social justice issues, exclusivity, close-mindedness and more. However, after reading many articles filled with complaints about the Church, I can’t help but feel that millennials often miss the point of both constructive criticism and engagement with the body of believers. We must engage any problems with humility, prayerfulness and love.

Before we blame the Church for failing to reach millennials, we need to question the motive for and method of our blame. Let’s look at the example of someone who deeply valued the Church while not being shy about offering correction.

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to conflict. In his dealings with dysfunctional believers, Paul provided a model for how we can respond to the Church’s heart-wrenching and sometimes repulsive brokenness. After all, American Christianity may have difficulty engaging with wider society, but few churches can rival the Corinthians for sin.

The Corinthians had it all: sex scandals, lawsuit scandals, class-conflict scandals, getting-drunk-during-communion scandals, etc. They achieved a unique synthesis of open sinfulness and religious self-righteousness that really is something of a marvel in its own sad way. Paul confronted their brokenness with an attitude that was uniquely confrontational yet redemptive: one that we as a generation should take careful note of.

Paul did not address preferences. He confronted sin. Paul never talked about relevance or generation gaps. When he encountered a dysfunctional church, he focused on the core problem. Whether this was sexual immorality in Corinth or heretical legalism in Galatia, Paul pinpointed sin and called believers to repent. Like those Christians, the Church in America isn’t in trouble because it can’t catch up with a generation; it’s struggling because we need to confront its sin, legalism, materialism, idolatry and discrimination.

However, Paul didn’t just level accusations. He paired every admonition with a reminder. You were washed, you were sanctified and you were bought at a price. You are sons and heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Sin takes root in the Church when believers forget their identity in Christ.

It’s never enough to be more culturally relevant or even to condemn sin; we must redirect the Church’s eyes back to the cross. This is repentance.

Paul wrote to churches with a spirit of deep humility. As millennials, we’d do well to emulate this. Even in one of his angriest letters to the Corinthians, replete with bitter sarcasm, warnings and admonishments, Paul was vulnerable with his personal struggles. He too fought with sin and weakness.

Despite its problems, the Corinthian church was still part of Christ’s bodythe bride of Christ, which Paul held in deep respect. Our local churches can be messy and toxic, but the spiritual, universal Church is a glorious body of eternal beings who are wedded to Christ.

Paul loved the Church dearly and was deeply grieved when it failed to live up to its calling. In every letter, no matter how difficult the recipients, Paul opened with a greeting of love and a prayer of thankfulness for them.

What about us? Do we confront sin or just address preferences? Do we criticize with humility? Are we rooted in our identity in Christ or our identity as millennials?

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity,” said Paul 1 Timothy 4:12 (NIV).

As we confront the Church’s shortcomings, we must live out our call to authenticity: the authenticity we as millennials supposedly crave. Let us find humility, learn prayer and receive and pass on God’s love. Let our criticisms of the Church, our commentaries on politics, our confrontations of sin, our engagement with social justice and our relevance in today’s society be bathed in Christ’s redemptive love. Otherwise, all the millennial-approved cultural relevancy in the world is just clanging cymbals.

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