Young Adults and the Church: Will the Mainline benefit from Evangelical Dissatisfaction?


Are you following the hubbub in the blogosphere of the growing disaffection among young adults with all things Evangelical? First Andrea Dilley, who left Neo-Calvinism for an Anglican church, posted Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Three days ago Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing narrow, simplistic Evangelical answers and desiring greater social engagement. Yesterday Pastor Keith Anderson posted “Millennials, Consumerism and the Idolatry of God in which he suggested that millennials have been over-marketed to and are cynical of a “God about you.”

Will the Mainline see a resurgence from this growing discontentment with Evangelicalism? After all the Mainline is everything all three authors are advocating: We have always done liturgy. We have always been engaged in combating social ills. And, lets face it, we have never been very good at packaging and marketing. Even more, our churches are often strategically located in inner-cities, the very place that upwardly mobile, educated young adults are flocking. Our churches even have the sense of space and permanence they crave. We should be what Millennials flock to!

Will we be?

Don’t bet on it.

Here are three reasons:

1) We don’t have money. Most of our churches are theologically progressive. Progressives tend not to tithe. According to Barna 24% of Evangelicals tithe. Less than 1% of Progressives do. (Here) As a result, we tend to have far less money than evangelicals, for whom eternity is at stake. Related to this (as it takes money to fund leaders) is a second issue:
2) We don’t develop leaders. Evangelicals push toward ordination people who a) Have a lifetime of leadership (student body president, captain of the volleyball team, etc), and b) Have succeeded in a smaller church roles first. Then they c) Train them by mentoring them on the job in their own system of leadership development. We usually find someone who is young and nice and has the desired theology, and, whether or not they have ever led anything before, send them to three years of expensive seminary. They graduate and we put them in a college ministry or small church alone and then wonder why they flounder.
3) We don’t have momentum. In Phoenix alone I can think of 7 Evangelical young adult groups with an attendance of greater than 100 (including 2 more than 500). I cannot think of a Progressive young adult group with more than 30. I have actually heard our people say, “They have 500? What are they doing wrong?” Young adults are not nearly as numero-phobic as Progressives. In fact, since they tend to be dating and looking for social connections, larger events attract them. Unfortunately, we tend to fear large.
Until we solve these three hurdles, most of the crowd will run past us…probably back to Evangelical churches, who are pretty resilient and entrepreneurial. Not surprisingly, Evangelicals have begun to regularly ring my phone to talk about liturgy.
One thing we do have going for us: Some of those disaffected Evangelicals are leaders and some of them join us. When they do, they bring the leadership skills they developed elsewhere to bear in our world. In the Episcopal Church, two incredibly gifted Evangelical crossovers come to mind: Gil Stafford, former national champion baseball coach and college President and Julia McCray-Goldsmith, a former missionary. In our diocesan office, of the five clergy mission-staff, NONE of them was raised in the Episcopal Church. Each came to the church in adulthood from other traditions.
Let me say what non-Episcopalians regularly point out: We have a leadership identification and development issue. And until we address that issue many of those running from Evangelicalism will run right past our door.

25 thoughts on “Young Adults and the Church: Will the Mainline benefit from Evangelical Dissatisfaction?

  1. this pastor moses ssendawula in Uganda our church mission community l want join and l ask you to panther we us in ministry . to help our community thank you

    • Hi Luke, How are you these days? Theological “progressives” generally are in Mainline denominations (but increasingly in Evangelical churches). This is painting with a really broad brush here: Progressives generally oppose the Evangelical standard: the verbal-plenary view of Scripture. Progressives say things like “I take scripture seriously but not literally.” Some are creedal (as in Nicene creed trinitarians), some are more unitarian in their view of the godhead. Many find substitutionary atonement offensive “divine child abuse” is something you will hear from Progressives. Many focus on Jesus rather than Paul “red letter Christians”. Many are more interested in what people do than what they believe. Most are more interested in spiritual practices and doing good in the world than personal salvation. Progressives tend to emphasize the group rather than the individual. Progressives tend to be to the left on political issues (as Evangelicals tend to be on the right)…such as same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. These are all tendencies rather than laws. In practice, much of what gets said by Progressives and Evangelicals against each other is a parody of the worst of each world. For instance, I don’t know any true biblical literalists…everyone knows that some things were written figuratively. I also don’t know any progressives who actually think the bible is all bunk. Everyone I have ever met is somewhere inside the poles that each group parodies the other as. Am I answering your question at all?

        • It isn’t that it is either, it tends to be a bit of a progressive number sticker, much in the same way a conservative might say, “it’s the Bible, not a Luby’s Cafeteria.” Conservatives generally think that morality is objective, set by Revelation. Progressives tend to think it is more subjective, with a much higher role played by reason. Again, this is painting with a pretty broad brush.

    • Hi Jordan,
      I read your blog!

      Yeah, we are sqaundering a great opportunity. It would help many of us to follow the advice of Vince Lombardi: block and tackle. We are sometimes so bad at the basics. We could worry about being the church. Sometimes we forget that we exist to do the Great Commission rather than just the Great Commandment. We have been pretty busy engaging in divisive theological and cultural fights, “embracing questions” and playing with goofy Eucharists. Loving Jesus, offering the depth of liturgy and theological orthodoxy, and serving the least and last all help. So does good preaching. Man, we have some bad preaching!

      Thanks for commenting.

      • I did interpreting for the deaf in the Episcopal church for 20 years (not going into the reason here) and I agree – you all have some nice people but truly terrible preaching! Most Episcopal priests I know could not preach their way out of a wet paper bag even if their soul depended on it (sad) and I could probably stand up and give a better impromptu sermon – absolutely no kidding. As an interpreter of a language that is visual I often struggled to find the point, the meaning, in those homilies – lots of big words and quoting from anyone and anything except the Bible. Pathetic. I often wished they would just read from the Bible until their time was up so that we could actually learn something! Most Sundays it was spiritually painful (boring would have been an improvement) – as dry as a desert and desperately in need of the Living Water. Even the “progressive” interpreters found nothing there. It is no surprise that the hungry and thirsty sheep are going elsewhere.

        • Thanks for the sad confirmation…Although i really wish their was a parade of people disagreeing. Many of our sharpest young people were saying the same thing at our last national gathering in a meeting called the Acts 8 Moment. I found it a most hopeful sign.

          • It was a sad day when I left, but I was not surprised. I knew my time was nearly done when I heard the priest declare in her homily, and repeat, “Jesus is not the only way to heaven.” Why go to something that calls itself a church but doesn’t believe it’s own doctrine? This is why people leave – to seek a church that teaches the Truth. I take the Bible seriously and when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except by me.” He either said it or He didn’t, He was either raised or He wasn’t, and if He wasn’t, we of all people are to be most pitied.

            When the “pick and choose” mentality about the Bible is preached from the pulpit, who decides what is real or not? You? Me? If there is no certainty of a way of salvation except by the illogical idea of bribing God with “good works” and hoping it works out (all our righteousness is like filthy rags) no surprise folks leave or figure it’s not worth their time to get up on Sunday to show up for…what? A social opportunity? Like there’s not enough of that? Hey, they could hang in bars and get sloshed and spout “opinions” on the meaning of life with the rest of them.

            I remember the day a man came in and sat in the back sobbing because his nephew had been shot and he was looking for answers. The priest had none, and didn’t even know how to pray with him – she read one from the Book of Common Prayer. When she left, I went to him and wept with one who was weeping. We prayed and talked about our broken world and the Great Healer. Then I politely referred him to an evangelical church within a mile or two who could provide him better, long-term help.

            Why NOT just murder people and wait for “death by cops” if so-called pastors speculate from the pulpit about reincarnation, whether there is heaven or hell, and try to torture the unchanging Word to fit with ever-changing books, sciences and philosophies? If the so-called shepherds are embarrassed to take their own Lord seriously I start thinking of Romans 1:16 (I am not ashamed of the Gospel…) and from there to Matthew 7:21-23; 10:32-33; 15:13,14; 23:13-15; and Mark 8:38 and I tremble, because I BELIEVE, and I AM UNASHAMED.

            • I am really saddened that many of our shepherds seem to lack of food to give God’s sheep. Many Episcopalians think that I am hopelessly stuck in the dark ages on this one, but “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.”

              Some of that “all roads” stuff seems to be from a genuine attempt to engage people in the life of God without turning others off first. Some I think just honestly think all religions are the same. Steven Prothero, a former Episcopalian who calls himself an agnostic wrote a good book about this: God is not One.

              Thank you for your comments.

            • I agree with your “all roads” comment. Sadly, I have heard Prothero quoted in sermons too often…but never C. S. Lewis. Funny, they think they are so “open minded” and intellectual but they are unwilling to open their minds and look at any evidence that disagrees with their perspectives or challenges their “beliefs,” just like one of my brothers-in-law (an Episcopal priest, also). Stay strong and one day you will hear your Lord say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

            • Wow! I am so pleased to hear that – he was such a brilliant mind. Sadly, I’ve not met any here; the regional “divinity” school is very thorough in its indoctrination. There must be some, though, because we had an ugly split some years back and several congregations had literally EVERYTHING 😦 taken from them when they challenged the direction/theology of the Diocese, then found it necessary to join themselves to the evangelical Episcopal Church of Nigeria, I believe it is. I don’t know where they meet now, but wish I did. The Diocese shuns them and priests will not speak of them.

              An odd observation–few, if any, people in the area of the divinity school know/pay attention to what it is, but something about it (and we have close to a dozen old colleges/universities in the region) make kids call IT Hogwarts. Really! In PART, it’s one of the areas of the city where crows flock in the cold weather, although it has many wooded areas, but mostly because it has a dark, brooding feel about it, although it is quite pretty when you stop and look at it. After interpreting so long I finally “got” Lewis’ sci fi trilogy, esp the 3rd book.

            • I’ve actually not heard of it. It isn’t one of the Episcopal seminaries.

              The new direction in the Episcopal Church in young seninary graduates is more conservative theologically and more progressive socially. It is interesting.

            • Ahhh, it’s Bexley Hall. The guy who is the head of it blogs under “crusty old dean”- he is a great example of the emerging episcopal church. He has a thoughtful and well-written blog.

              We do have an issue of some extremely unformed people being sent to seminary. If they have him, I am confident they will get Jesus.

          • You know, I am glad young people were saying something, but the question is: will the Church hear and repent? In my experience, no, and it grieves me–how much more is God grieved? I still miss my friends, but not enough to subject myself to that cement-like vacuousness (all mixed up and thoroughly set). Ichabod.

            • I can understand your feelings. I am personally convinced that if the Gospel is true, then how dare I leave? Especially if it leaves a building with a cross on it without a witness to the transforming power of God.

            • That explains your interesting tone in your blog and why I follow you. I wish they could clone you. In 20 years I met exactly one supply priest who really believed the Gospel and his preaching had people bringing in friends! They mobbed him after the service telling him how much they adored his teaching (looking a little furtive on behalf of the priest who was out sick). Problem was, he was only there for 2 weeks. I understand – let your light shine and prepare yourself for the assault. You are in my prayers.

  2. Pingback: Are priests killing the church? | the gospel side

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