I had a conversation with our grandson last night. He’s a church nerd, like his grandfather and his father (our middle son, who is an elder and the choir director in his church, and who also is an effective lay preacher.) Our grandson is a responsible young adult with a blossoming career in Intelligence Technology. His faith runs deep, and he’s brilliant, like you’d expect one of my grandsons to be.
Last night, he expressed concern about the lack of direction and focus in his church. Understand: he’s a millennial, and millennials don’t have much time or interest for meaningless head religion or emotionalism. Millennials want to know how to follow Jesus and become more like him; and that quest usually leads to a spirituality expressed through relationships and tangible actions of love and compassion. They're not seeing that in the church.
Since the 1990s, surveys have been consistent: 95%, plus or minus two or three percent, of North Americans believe in God. Since the 1980s, Millennials have been asking, “OK; I believe. Now what?” “What’s next?” And the church has been caught off guard—distracted—busy with infighting and denominational self-justification.
During the 1950s the American church began a decline that has not been reversed. Sadly, the decline has been related more to politics than to theology or biblical doctrine.
Post-WWII fear of the bomb and of the rise of Communism sparked a growing us-versus-them mentality which was fanned into a flaming paranoia called McCarthyism. The negative effects of McCarthyism are still present; indeed, they have worsened until, today, America is a house so severely divided that many are questioning whether our nation can survive.
Historically, the church always has been vulnerable to schism, and so it was sucked quickly into the political vortex of growing partisan belligerence. The denomination I serve was the fastest growing church in America; but, the issue that eventually divided us was purely political. A prime stimulus behind McCarthyism was Mao Zedong’s movement in China. In 1949, Mao’s People’s Republic of China forced Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China into exiled in Taiwan (Formosa).
Our United Christian Missionary Society had stations in China, and faced a dilemma: should our missionaries cooperate as guests of Mao’s government, should they remain neutral, or should they actively resist the Chinese government because it was Communist? The UCMS chose neutrality; nevertheless, some missionaries were forced to leave, and there were incidents of persecution.
Back home, our denomination was divided on the question, and it eventually became the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. In 1955, 800 delegates, who opposed neutrality and advocated resistance, walked out of our national convention in Cincinnati and formed what is now known as the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.
The Restoration Movement emerged as a venue for the reconciliation of the diverse denominations of Christendom. Ironically, it now is three distinct and often quarrelsome denominations—adding to the divisions of Christ’s Body, rather than reconciling them. The original split in 1905 was almost totally over doctrinal issues and biblical interpretations; however, while the same kinds of theological issues were present, it was political partisanism that provided the critical mass behind the 1955 split.
Other denominations have experienced similar divisions (more political than theological), and the differences between evangelical and mainline churches are more political than theological or biblical—conservatives and evangelicals generally siding with Republican ideology and mainline bodies more likely to align with Democrats.
And Millennials are calling bullshit. That’s not what church is called to be. Although we are blessed with some wonderful exceptions in the congregation I serve, Millennials typically are no-shows when it comes to organized religion. They call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and in the process caricature all organized religion as rigid, judgmental, and generally unlike Jesus. It’s difficult to fault their conclusion.
Meanwhile, the declining church struggles to remember or to re-envision just what it is that Jesus called it to be and do. We fight over whether evangelism is more important than ministries of compassion. We debate when and how—or whether—Christ will return to rule a physical, geographical kingdom on earth. We fight and divide over who should be included and who should be excluded—and how we should treat the excluded. We argue whether to feed the hungry unless they deserve it. Highly visible church leaders square off in defense of political figures whose ethics and morality are indefensible.
And Millennials are calling bullshit. Just stop!
“The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the (children) of God coming into their own!” (Romans 8:19 ~ J. B. Phillips)
The whole creation is standing on tiptoe, watching! (And at this point I’m going to adapt a part of my favorite blogger’s post from July 26):
“(It sees) us pointing fingers and declaring who is right and who is wrong.
“(It sees) us choosing power over love and profit over people.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
 Led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and others in the early 19th century.
 The 1905 split gave rise to today’s non-instrumental Church of Christ.