How Not To Speak for a Generation: Rachel Held Evans on Millennials Leaving the Church

Rachel Held EvansLet me preface this post by saying that, most of the time, I’m a big fan of Rachel Held Evans. I appreciate the way she treats her blog readers as conversation partners. I enjoy that she’s the rare Christian writer who tends to come off as more self-deprecating than self-righteous. And I admire that she generally treats the limits of her own knowledge as prompts to ask hard questions — of herself above all — and to hold in tension conflicting answers. (See her excellent May 2013 post on abortion.) I even gave a copy of A Year of Biblical Womanhood to my mother last month for her birthday.

As RHE becomes more and more popular, I hope she continues to play to those strengths — rooted as they are in humility, complexity, and particularity — and avoids the temptations presented by the mass media to make self-important, oversimplified, sweeping claims as a spokesperson for her generation.


In a recent post for CNN’s Belief Blog, RHE shares her experience of talking in churches (she primarily means evangelical ones) about their struggles to retain and draw young adults. It’s not the most sophisticated analysis of that complicated topic, but I buy her larger argument: that in the face of this pressing challenge, churches should not delude themselves into thinking that “the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates” — though for a more interesting critique of this trap, see what Andrea Palpant Dilley had to say a couple weeks ago in Faith & Leadership.

Then things take a truly unfortunate turn. Having described herself as straddling the divide between Gen X and the Millennials (“I own mix tapes that include selections from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I’ve never planned a trip without Travelocity“), RHE starts using the first person plural on behalf of the latter group:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

Kinnaman and Lyons, unChristian
Not to say that these claims are completely baseless, as David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons found in their research for unChristian

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Now, any reader of this blog should know that I long for Jesus and don’t want churches trafficking in partisan politics, homophobia, or anti-intellectualism. But precisely because I do agree with a significant amount of the critique, I wish it had been articulated much, much differently.

First, far from rebutting the stereotype that Millennials are narcissists obsessed with their own preferences, RHE presents a Millennial creed in which “We want” replaces “We believe.” Or, rather than framing these important issues as a personal confession of where one person falls short and could use the help of the larger Body of Christ (“Help me to live simply… to care for creation… to balance my allegiances…”), we get a self-satisfied manifesto in which one person ignores planks and points out specks on behalf of a generation that, we’re told, doesn’t want “predetermined answers.” (RHE, to her credit, has announced that she’s writing a follow-up post entitled “7 Reasons Millennials Need the Church.”)

McCracken, Hipster ChristianityHer suggestion that church leaders trying to draw Millennials “sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community” prompted this response from Brett McCracken:

How about the opposite? Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?

And for pastors, church leaders, and others so concerned with the survival of the church amidst the glut of “adapt or die!” hype, is asking Millennials what they want church to be and adjusting accordingly really your best bet? Are we really to believe that today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation of Millennials has more wisdom to offer about the church than those who have thought about and faithfully served the church decade after decade, amidst all its warts, challenges and ups and down?

And if you’re surprised that the author of Hipster Christianity would take issue with Rachel Held Evans on her post, well… So was RHE:

Second, much as I might want to think that all the Millennials I know would nod along with me (I’m Gen X by a few years, but do use Travelocity, Google, a cell phone, and the other things RHE cites to demonstrate her Millennial bona fides) on elements of her manifesto, I know from having taught hundreds of them that that generation is far too diverse to permit such sweeping statements. While I’m sure she thinks that she’s pitched a big tent beneath which the lion’s share of that generation can fit, Nathan Gilmour at The Christian Humanist Podcast thinks that the “We want” statements signal particular positions within our fractious body politic:

My suggestion for understanding this confusing bit of text is to think of it in terms of social codes.  I’ve retained enough of my Critical-Theory background to remember that certain words, in certain language games, in certain historical moments, mask realities that, named differently, would make code-speakers far more uncomfortable than they would be worth.  In this case, the phenomena that Evans is naming, if one were to name them differently, might be thus: the folks who tend to be friends with Rachel Held Evans, and who tend to read her books and blog (both quality productions), and who tend to attend events at which she speaks, tend to hold political views closer to the modern DNC than the modern GOP…

Now please understand me: as an educated Christian living in the South, in other words as a member of the Rachel-Held-Evans-reader demographic, I resonate with much of this.  I can tell that she’s frustrated with the Southern GOP, and I also don’t have much patience for the Southern GOP.  And there’s nothing wrong with saying that evangelicals shouldn’t be so ready to be the GOP-at-prayer.  What troubles me is the code phrases like “too political” and “a single political party” when it’s the Southern GOP, not “politics” in the abstract, that’s on the table.  If Evans’s main claim is that Southern Christians tend not to go to church when they’re tired of the Southern GOP, then that’s something that seems to be true.

Of course, to go that course would make some folks uncomfortable: if in fact it’s one party, and not “politics” in general, that bothers folks, then that’s going to call for some self-examination that might reveal a “political” streak just as prominent as the Baby Boomers’. That’s alright, if “politics” is not a dirty word, but it will mean realizing that “we” are playing on the same field as “them,” and that might do some damage to one’s self-image as above the fray.

If Nathan’s read is right, then RHE probably speaks for the 23% who are “religious progressives” (according to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute). But does she represent the moderates (38%) or conservatives (17%)?

She might be articulating some of what keeps the “nonreligious” (22%) from the Church, but Hemant Mehta (also posting at CNN) would argue instead for the growing strength and diminishing stigma of atheism — perhaps some Millennials truly don’t long for Jesus. (Well, I think they do, despite affirmations of nonbelief, but that’s a different post. The point is that I’m not sure RHE’s voice is the voice of young adults who don’t just reject politically and socially conservative evangelical Christianity, but religious belief altogether.)

Dale M. Coulter
Dale M. Coulter – Regent University School of Divinity

Then historical theologian Dale Coulter, blogging for the Center for Renewal Studies at Regent University’s divinity school, points out that Millennials are more diverse yet. He implicitly asks a version of the questions that every white, middle-class, Western Christian ought to ask before they make grand claims about the status of the Church: Does what I’m saying reflect what’s happening anywhere beyond the parts of the United States that I’ve inhabited? In particular, is it descriptive of the Two-Thirds World, where Christianity is growing dramatically?

…one wonders whether most who use the term millennials (or Gen X or any other generational designation) realize just how western, even–dare I say it–American(!) it is. It says nothing about global Christianity in the southern hemisphere.

It says nothing about the resurgence of Christianity in say, France. I was talking to a colleague the other day who informed me that the kind of Christianity that is vibrant and growing in France is largely charismatic Christianity regardless of whether it’s Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, or something else. For example, the largest church in Paris is Charisma Eglise Chrétienne, which runs around 7,000 every Sunday.

It says very little about Central and South America. And how much does it actually say about Latinos/as or African-Americans in this country? Instead of taking my word for it, however, read the introduction to Diverse Millennial Students in College and you’ll get a sense for how “white” some of these descriptions are.

Read a follow-up to this post>>

17 thoughts on “How Not To Speak for a Generation: Rachel Held Evans on Millennials Leaving the Church

  1. Chris,, this is a really interesting conversation,and one that I’ve had (in my head sometimes) many times over. Last evening, in a discussion I was having with a good friend (who happens to be in her 50s) it came up that some research she had recently read stated that boomers tend to be knowledge based (“teach me first, then I’ll decide how I feel about it”), gen xers tend to be feelings based (“get me passionate about something, then I’ll want to learn more”), and millenials tend to be value based (as in “what is it in for me? What’s the value of either learning more or being passionate about this?”). This theory at least sheds some more light on the topic and why some, like Evans, feel the need (and feel entitled) to make demands on the older generations in the church.. I have to agree with the gentleman who exhorted younger people to do a little more listening and a little less demanding. Or,if they are truly unsatisfied, they could “Be the change they seek.”

  2. Another thought: This article seems to have come from conversations Rachel Evans had with leaders who wanted to know why Millenials are leaving the church and how can churches appeal to them. But maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe we should be asking how they can be engaging, rolling up their sleeves, and using what they have to offer to build up the church. We should dismiss the consumerist approach and replace it with an expectation of dying to self and giving out. Maybe we have just gotten way off course here. Hmmm….I feel a blog post coming on. (but I am also hosting a play date, so it may have to sit for a bit). Anyway, thank you for your post!

    1. Thanks, Laura. (And for your post at Rock and Sand — love that book of Eugene Peterson’s!) I’ve been musing about “dying to self” a lot lately for a post on the purposes of education that just won’t write itself… May this be the nudge it takes to get me to finish!

  3. Thanks for exploring these posts Chris!! It is truly an interesting and thought provoking discussion. I do usually appreciate RHE and the whole conversation and important nuances that her article have provoked continue to intrigue me. I am often compelled to believe that Christ called the church to rise up and to reach out. I don’t love the “we want” verbiage, but overall I believe the “fat” western church does need to get off her duff and to reach out. Maybe not so much to placate the “religious progressives” who are merely bored but in order to engage a generation or perhaps multiple generations who associate Christ with an uncaring and inactive church. Let’s be among the Christ-followers who choose to lead the charge to bring Christ’s redemptive and transformative power to every tribe and every nation starting with the tribe of Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers or builders, or others who are our neighbors. Great discussion!

    1. I was thinking about this blog entry again this morning, and particularly about what Nathan Gilmour had to say about RHE speaking for a demographic. I think what Christi says above about multiple generations is true. I also am bothered by “we want” language, but a lot of what RHE has to say about what “millennials” want is true for me as well, and I am solidly GenX. Honestly, I think the Church in the U.S. is often misheard and misunderstood and hated not because of Christ (which is a fine reason to be hated) but because of a not-fully-Christian message. We are obsessed with sexual sin (and only some kinds of sexual sin — how often do we talk about rape without implying that women who were raped deserved it?) and have precious little to say about social justice. While I believe there is such a thing as sexual sin, it has gotten to the point where I don’t want to talk about issues in that area at all, because I believe it obscures the Gospel by getting us involved in debates on hot-button issues. I’d love to be able to identify myself as a Christian and not have people think “Oh, you hate gay people, you want women to suffer, you vote Republican (note: I’m NOT saying you can’t vote Republican and be a Christian — I don’t like the assumption that I am a Republican), you don’t care about the poor and oppressed, you’ve turned off your brain… Why should I listen to you?” I’d love it if the Church in the U.S. corrected her stance by emphasizing sex a little less (much as we fear that will set our society into chaos — our society is already in chaos anyway) and talk more about (1) God’s love for all of us very broken people, even those broken people we don’t like and secretly think we are better than, and (2) God’s deep concern for justice for the poor and oppressed.

      1. Great discussion! I think the burr left in my saddle so to speak is the conviction I have felt recently to be an actively engaged, boots to the ground member of the body of Christ. What fundamentally bothered me about the article is the consumer attitude that looms behind it-” change or we’re out of here.” The problem, I think, stems from talking about The Church like we talk about The Government, like some faceless institution that is out there. When we (I include myself) remove ourselves from the equation, whether we are speaking of a specific church, a denomination, or “the Church” at large, it then becomes far too tempting to take a critical stance. The Church should… or The Church should not… But when we see ourselves as all members of one body, each with our own passions, our own skills, and our own specific spheres of influence, more energy can be poured into being used by God in the very specific way He wants to use us. I know we come up against criticism from the “outside” and feel weary from trying to say “that’s not me.” But I’m not sure that’s our job. If people know us,and we are able to be winsome witnesses, we do not need to apologize for The Church. We can be the parts of The Church that we feel called to be. And I honestly believe there are those who will find every reason to dismiss Christians and Christianity, and you could talk until you are blue in the face- if they do not have ears to hear, they will not.. I’m not going to fight those windmills. I think our job is to keep moving forward, progressively with each new conviction placed on our heart, loving but not compromising. (I say all of this more in response to my feelings generated by the article, and humbly knowing those involved in this specific conversation could teach me a thing or to about being missionaries in their own spheres of influence)…

      2. Laura, you make an excellent point. I did sort of stand back as if I were not a part of the Church in that critique, and yet we are all one body. I think what gets to me and why I tend to stand back and criticize that which I am a part of is that I have many, many friends who are not Christians, and over and over I see a lot of pain and disgust in their critiques of Christians, and I can’t always blame them. They ask why Christian pro-lifers talk so much about the unborn and seem to not care about the already born. They believe we truly hate members of the LGBT community. They think we believe that women are less than men. When I turn on Christian talk radio (which I do from time to time) or read what some politicians have to say, I can see why they get these ideas. That’s where I am deeply troubled about the messages we are sending — because they seem to be messages about particular areas of holiness versus, as RHE points out, being holy in all areas of life (how often do Christian politicians decry greed among the wealthy?), and more importantly, the Gospel message that, simply put, is: we are broken people who can not possibly save ourselves, but God loves us dearly and offers us salvation through Christ. People feel hated by us, not loved, and they want to keep us a million miles away. It saddens me deeply, and I do think that perhaps we are in need of some radical movement of reform as periodically occurs in the Church. Maybe as more and more people reject us, however, and as we become separated from mainstream society, that will be just what we need. Sorry to go on and on about this. I just had a long walk and talk with a dear Christian friend of mine before leaving on vacation, and we discussed the messages we send and what people like my friends hear at great length. It’s been weighing on my heart, probably because of the FB posts I see from nonChristian friends day after day — it’s very in my face, and I feel like rather than trying to defend typical evangelical positions, I should be listening to my friends’ pain and responding with love.

      3. Like I said, you could teach me a thing or two 🙂 I hear the love of Christ in your words, Kate. Wow, it’s just not simple. I hear what you’re saying. It’s funny, though, because as I have hoped for a radical movement, it is a counter cultural one, because I feel the weight of the sinfulness of humanity in our world, and I believe we are to be in the world, but not of it. We are, in a way, called to separate ourselves from the mainstream- there should be a difference, and the world will hate us. We are promised that. (I hear you though-if it hates us, it should be for the right reasons, and not because of our self-righteousness and hatred).

        I frankly see the obsession with sex as a very worldly thing- it is all over our culture, and in our face- on tv, in books, movies, magazines, billboards-. Like you said, so much brokenness, everywhere, but I agree that we do no good by holding ourselves away or thinking we are above or that some kinds of brokenness are worse than others.. But I see the pendulum swinging and too many Christians shrugging their shoulders and saying “to each their own”. This is not love. This is not what Jesus did. He loved, and He said “go and sin no more.” I feel like we need this next generation to become strong in scriptural literacy and in the doctrines that have been the bedrock of our faith, not acquiesce so as to not offend or stick out. But I totally get that there are hurting people out there, and we are sometimes (or often) adding to the pain, which hurts to admit.

        Two things come to mind: one is that there are very loving but not compromising voices out there. John Stonestreet and the folks who work with Prison Ministries come to mind. Eugene Peterson, Ann Voskamp, and other authors are also out there. Second is that although I don’t know your specific group of FB friends, I have encountered some of my own who I have chosen to not interact with because it seems like they actively seek out the most outrageous and offensive “Christian” voices so they have something to rail against. I have no interest in trying to engage the intolerant “tolerant” folks. It is like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. Some seem intent on finding every reason to hate Christianity and I think there is a point of shaking the dust off your sandals. (I don’t mean to sound flippant, I know these can be the people you love the most). But I do think it is a waste of energy to try to come from the defensive or even apologizing position. You are not every Christian out there and you do not need to speak for every Christian out there.. I would think that anyone encountering you would see your love and humility, and that it would be very winsome indeed.

        A great book, if you are interested, is “The Secret Confessions of an Unlikely Convert”- this is written by a woman who in a series of conversations with a pastor as part of a study she was doing in her PhD in queer studies, encountered the love of Christ. This pastor did just what you and your friend were talking about- he listened, and listened, and loved. He asked questions and showed interest, and did not rain down with judgments or verses or altar calls. It was fascinating and gave me insight into ways that we can humbly engage our culture, without losing who we are and what we believe.

        Again, thank you- great discussion- has the wheels in my head turning, that’s for sure!

      4. Laura, I think you and I are more on the same page than not, but then I don’t think you are saying we’re not. When I had that long walk and talk with my friend, I did talk with her about how I felt like I feel like I’m walking a tightrope — I don’t want to be that Christian who shrugs her shoulders and says “to each their own,” but I also feel like I am personally called to not engage much in certain hot-button issues (the sex issues I mentioned), because I don’t feel the conversations are productive, and because — again, while I’m not saying I should not CARE about those issues at all — I feel called to focus more on social justice issues. I don’t want to fall off the tightrope on the left side, and start acting like sin doesn’t matter, but I don’t want to fall off on the right side either, and fall into the trap of judging others. Anyhow, you dropped a name I hadn’t heard (Ann Voskamp), so I’ll need to look into her, and I’ll need to read “Secret Confessions,” too.

        You do make a point about our society being sex-obsessed. I think you’re right. That said, I feel like, although Church doesn’t need to completely avoid these issues (that would be a serious mistake), the Bible really does address social justice more than sexual sin, and so we should not let society suck us into singing a one-note song. I also want to be very sensitive to the fact that there are some issues that can be messy. I have been on both sides of the abortion issue as a Christian, and while I confess that all too often I have looked on this with ungodly pride (“Look at me! I consider an issue and CHANGE MY MIND. Aren’t I just a wonderful person for being able to think things through? Too bad more people can’t be reasonable like me.” — ugh), when I have a right attitude toward it, I need to see it as a gift from God, enabling me to be sensitive to the fact that I really loved Jesus just as much when I was on one side of the debate as when I moved to the other side. So, for that reason, too, I worry about us elevating issues like abortion to such a high level importance. By no means am I saying that it is not a wonderful thing to be concerned about the lives of the unborn. But when Christian politicians run on a platform of making abortion illegal without concerning themselves with putting into effect policies that will make women WANT abortions less, I am deeply concerned. When they fail to acknowledge that women who have been raped or have been victims of incest can get pregnant and can really feel hurt if our answer to their pregnancy is merely, “Too bad, carry that baby to term,” then they have missed a chance to meet hurting women where they are and walk alongside them. These are the things that cause me great angst, but then, I tend to get wound up tightly, and that’s not a good thing. Like I said, I do think we are pretty much on the same page. I know we both want to live wholly for Jesus, though I have a lo-o-o-ong way to go to get there. You are a wise woman, Laura, and certainly I can learn a lot from you.

        I told you not too long ago that I am moved to pray, “Lord, teach me when to shut up and when to speak up, and give me the right words to say.” I don’t think we’re arguing, but I do think I’m blathering quite a bit now, so I’ll shut up and go to bed. 🙂

  4. Thanks for weighing in, everyone! Whatever my critique of the original post, credit it for starting conversations! I’ll try to share a few more responses in tomorrow’s links post. For now, I’m very content to step back and let you all continue this dialogue while I learn a thing or two.

    1. Oh I see this as iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17) and though it can be taxing I love it! As members of this body we certainly wont agree on all things, but I always feel I’ve been enriched when I have been able to engage in honest and respectful conversations. There are many rabbit trails to go down but for now I’ll just say again thanks to all for a great discussion!

  5. Prof. Gehrz,

    Thank you for posting this! A friend of mine posted RHE’s article the other day and when I read it I had a negative reaction. While RHE sees herself as straddling the Gen-X/Millennial divide, I am (as I understand it) solidly millennial. Her post struck me as evincing what I see is one of the largest faults of my generation: our arrogance. There is a temptation that I’ve seen, particularly among people my age, to think that the “modern” way of viewing things is, by its very nature, the more correct way. The flippancy with which millennials I know completely disregard 2000 years of Christian history, teaching, scholarship, etc. is shocking to me. Obviously I wouldn’t attribute that to RHE, but her column smacks of a similar arrogance, which you highlighted above. (Not to acquit myself of such arrogance at times, mind you.)

    I will also say that I agree with RHE in some aspects despite being one of the much-maligned political conservatives (for the most part). The hostility towards the LGBT community and anti-intellectualism too often found in churches today is something that simply must change. If for no other reason than that it is completely unnecessary. Anyone who thinks they have to “shut off their brain” to be a good Christian has no idea what they are talking about. The level and depth of Christian scholarship on any number of issues is remarkable and shamefully undervalued.

    In the end, I think RHE’s column is just another instance where 700 words is about 2000 too few. I’d be interested to read a much longer post where RHE could flesh out her ideas more as she did in the abortion post you linked to, which I thought was much better. (Although it will never cease to frustrate me how abortion discussions always seem to start in the middle of the story rather than the beginning.) Perhaps a longer column from RHE would assuage my fears, or perhaps it would reveal more of the biases I sense lurking underneath.

    1. Thanks, Chris! To your last point… This is one of my struggles with blogging: the ideal blog post is probably in the 500-1000 word range, but I struggle to write less than 1500 on any topic of this breadth and complexity. Maybe a better rule of thumb to write concisely but concretely about smaller topics than to write in generalizations about larger ones. (Though writers like Evans do spark conversation by the attempt to write something so big and so short. Which gives the rest of us something to pick apart…)

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