Millennial blogger Sam Eaton—citing alarming statistics from a recent Barna survey—declares that millennials are “over church.” Eaton himself admits, “From the depths of my heart, I want to love church. I want to be head-over-heels for church….I desperately want to feel this way about church, but I don’t. Not even a little bit. In fact, like much of my generation, I feel the complete opposite.”1
I’m a millennial, but I’m also a pastor, and it grieves me that so many of my generation apparently feel this way. In fact, it grieves me that the church has done such a poor job of being faithful to its calling that millennials, by and large, can feel justified in their disenchantment.
The church is the bride of Christ—the one for whom He lived and died (Eph. 5:25–27)—and yet I have no doubt that a great many churches today are guilty of gross infidelity—spending much more time, effort, and money on trying to be hip and relevant than on trying to faithfully proclaim God’s Word and shepherd His people. But this does not mean we can simply forgo participation in the church. If you happen to get food poisoning the next time you eat, the proper response is not to quit eating for the rest of your life.
While I am concerned with the infidelity of the church, I am also greatly concerned with my generation’s attitude toward the church. When it comes to institutions and relationships, millennials are stereotypically committed to their own sense of enjoyment, purpose, and well-being, and not much else. We tend to exude the attitude that says, “So long as it serves my individual needs and makes me feel good, I’m in!”
Now, arguably there are lots of problems with this attitude, but for Christians in particular, one major problem is when it gets applied to the church. If the church is seen as a relationship that exists to serve my particular feelings and desires, then I can easily do without it when I don’t feel the need for it. Thus, I treat the church like joining a gym or going to a concert—it’s all about my feelings, goals, and desires. Participation is entirely optional.
But what millennials (and everyone else) need to realize is that, if we take the Bible seriously, commitment to and participation in the church is not optional. Why? Because Jesus himself established the church as a necessary institution for the good of His people. Though He knew He would finish His work and depart this earth for a time, He never intended to let His sheep fend for themselves in His absence and “do life” alone. Instead, He commissioned the founding of the church through His apostles (Matt. 28:18–20). As we see from the rest of the New Testament, the apostles carried out this work by preaching the gospel, baptizing converts and their children, and folding those families into local churches (Acts 2:41–47; 11:19–26; 16:11–15, 25–34).
As far as the New Testament is concerned, the millennial idea that the church might be irrelevant is entirely wrong. For Jesus and the New Testament authors, it is a foreign concept that people would identify as Christians and not be vitally connected to the church for the entirety of their lives. Jesus himself tells us in John 15 that He is like a vine and we are like branches on that vine. If we disconnect, we die. He also tells us, through the pen of the apostle Paul, that the church is His body (Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Cor. 12:12–13) and that He is the Head from which the rest of the body is nourished (Col. 3:19). Taken together, to separate from the church is to separate from Christ, the Head. To be a “churchless” Christian is to be a decapitated Christian.
Part of Paul’s point in using the metaphor of the body is to emphasize that individual Christians need to be connected to other individual Christians. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes—they all depend upon each other. God designed his people this way also, and He provides for those connectional needs through the church. One of those needs is community—walking through life with others at our side. Most people, millennials included, recognize and fully embrace the need for this type of connection in their lives.
However, another aspect of this need for connection is in teaching, training, oversight, and accountability. For millennials who tend to be individualistic and suspicious of authority, this might not be so popular. Yet, this is exactly what Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 4:11–16. Jesus gave specific gifts to the church; namely, ordained church leaders “for building up the body of Christ” so that we would grow from spiritual immaturity to spiritual maturity. This truth, combined with the New Testament teaching on the role of the elder (1 Pet. 5:1–5; Heb. 13:17; Titus 1:5–9) shows that Jesus intends the church to be His mouthpiece of instruction and His staff of shepherding.
Because We Need the Means of Grace
Now, as millennials, though we might be the casualties of unfaithful churches, we still have to acknowledge that Christians need the church. And when I say “need,” I don’t mean what my two-year-old means when he tells me that he “needs a cookie.” Instead, I mean that Christians need the church in the same way that my son needs food and water—he will not survive without them.
We need the church because Jesus continues to provide for our ongoing needs through the faithful expression of this institution. It is in the church that His ordained servants, who do not exist or function in any other context, preach the Word and administer the sacraments. As they do so faithfully, they are instruments of connecting the vine to the branches and the head to the body. It is also in the context of the church that ordained elders love, train, protect, and shepherd the sheep of God’s pastures, and as they do so faithfully, they are acting as the commissioned “assistant shepherds” to the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:1–4).
Jesus himself gave us the church to do something that is essential for the health and wellbeing of Christians, including millennials, and it is the only place where this is done. We cannot substitute podcasts, small group Bible studies, or personal devotions for the church. Regardless of how I feel or what I perceive my needs to be, the Bible tells me that I need the church. If I am a Christian, the church is not an option. It’s not a preference. It’s not even a choice. It’s a life-giving, soul-nourishing, indispensable, irreplaceable, and beneficial mandate from our loving Savior.