Along with the hand wringing over the now undeniable Millennial Bailout on the church comes a sense of desperation among ministry types. Over the last four years the tenor has gone from denial “We have lots of young adults“, to fear. The question one hears over and over is “How do we get them back?”
Perhaps a better place to start the conversation would be to ask, “How have Christians faired in similar circumstances?” Because we have actually been here before: A world that thinks Christians are narrow and bigoted. A world that thinks Christians are superstitious weirdos. A world that thinks we are out of touch with our prudish sexual ethics. That was actually the Roman world the early church was birthed in. Isn’t it odd that in 3 centuries that same empire made Christianity the state religion? (Although I am fairly certain the negatives outweighed the positives on that one.)
So a better question for me is: “How did 11 scared dude’s take over the Roman world?” The answer, when reading the early Fathers, seems to have had three touch points: 1) A multi-ethnic, multi-social class body and leadership team (Acts 11-13 was the origin), 2) Serving the least, last and lost in Jesus’ name and making sure they told everyone in whose name they were serving, and 3) worshipping in a seeker-insensitive manner that gave deep formation to those who had met Christ in the streets.
What have we done? 1) Diversity? According to Mark DeYmaz, 92% of American Christians worship in a mono-ethnic setting and the average church is 10x more segregated than the neighborhood it sits in. 2) Serving? Whereas in the early church Christians were notoriously sacrificial, most of us tithe of neither our time nor our money. 3) Deeply Formative worship? In the early church non-believers were kicked out before communion (the Orthodox still have a vestige of this when they chant “the doors, the doors” in their service for the closing out of the unbaptized). We turned our sanctuaries into revival tents for the lost. Now we no longer have a sanctuary for Word and Sacrament. We no longer have a place in which we immerse God’s people in God’s story, a locale for the forming of the faithful in the Scriptures and experiencing the power of Sacrament. Those are lost in the “seeker” model…and, as a result, passionate but immature Christians wonder why our churches can elicit emotional response but not sanctified living. Is it any wonder young adults want out!