E-pistle April 30

Lost or Let Go – It’s not about guitars and drums

The teaser on the news page first caught my attention, “The last generation to go to church on a regular basis…” The story (told just slightly differently here) reported an address given to a large gathering of Presbyterians by the vice-moderator of our General Assembly, Pastor Byron Wade.  I have been impressed with Byron since his election. He has been a winsome, candid and faithful voice during his almost completed two years of service; refreshingly honest and orthodox in situations often controlled by the bureaucratic spin doctors.
So Wade is talking to the assembled Presbyterians and asks for a show of hands for those born prior to 1970. That’s when he told them, “You are the last generation to go to church on a regular basis.” I wish the news stories, or Byron himself, had provided a reference or a footnote to offer some data or research to verify his contention, but we really don’t need it. It makes sense. It’s intuitively and experientially apparent. And if you’re wondering, here’s a good starting point: Mark Roberts at Beliefnet summarizes what we’ve been hearing increasingly clearly for the past decade or so. The church has lost the younger generation – and this is about much more than kids “taking a break from church” during college and for a few years afterwards.  “They’ll come back when they start having kids,” we try to kid ourselves into believing.  But they don’t and they won’t. And, by the way, it is not just those in the Millennial Generation – our own studies show that LPC people are almost exactly typical of those in a huge national survey, attending worship 23-28 times per year. Half-time is the new full-time.

There’s been a lot of hand wringing over the absence of those under 40 in the church and we’ve rounded up the usual suspects and offered the same tired solutions. It’s our music or our committees. Pastors ought to wear golf shirts instead of preaching robes. We need to be “seeker sensitive” and tone down the sin and guilt stuff. Replace the cross with its man of sorrows with rainbows, doves and diving dolphins. The mega church did its best, but now confesses its failure to make much of a difference.  More recently, the emerging church has sought to be a relevant church by not being a church at all. “They like Jesus, but not the church, we are told. It’s hard to disagree. It’s a nice line and it’s true. But to agree with the underlying premise is heresy. If you love Jesus, you will love the church – the body and the bride of Christ. And if you don’t love the church, you really don’t love Jesus.
I wish we had simply lost the younger generation. If we had, we could send out a search party to go find them and bring them home. We could promise better music and fewer committees. We’d tell them that half-time is the new full-time and that happiness is more important to us than obedience.
Listen, pastors know more than most that the church must change and that it hates change. But don’t think for a moment that if we just change a few things – or everything –the lost generation will return. In fact, I’m not so sure that we lost a generation so much as we let them go. We allowed them to believe the lies and fall to the seductions of the culture and of the devil and never said a word about it. When they said they wanted to be spiritual but not Christian, we did not argue. When they said they like Jesus but not the church, we nodded our heads in agreement. We told them that it was up to them to make their own decision and find their own way. We allowed them to think that it’s possible to follow Christ but not be different than those around us – that in the end justice and holiness are matters of personal preference and secondary to self-fulfillment. We told them that half-time (and maybe half-hearted) is good enough.
“When did we say all that?” we might ask. It wasn’t so much in a conversation as in the way we lived.
Two final points:  First, God specializes in finding the lost and in never letting go.  Thanks be to God. Second, we have hard work ahead of us. Sure, we’ve got programs to change and create, old ways to ditch and new ways to go. But the main thing, the hard thing, is that we – all of us; Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers, Builders and even the Greatest Generation, can’t settle for half-time or half-hearted in our love for Jesus – and his Bride.