A Millennial Mainline Resurgence Is Just Around the Corner!

Evangelical Protestants: “I’m Desperate for You” (and your really shady politics).

An interesting article by reformist evangelical and author Rachel Held Evans has been making the rounds on blog posts and Facebook. Evans speaks about her experience as a consultant to evangelical churches that are wondering why Millennials are leaving organized religion.

Evans rolls her eyes at churches that think they can win back Millennials with “hipper worship bands,” “pastors in skinny jeans,” and “an updated Web site that includes online giving.”  A lot of her suggestions for churches to recapture the Millennial generation were ones that my fellow mainliners found appealing, and even seemed to re-post with apparent glee. These were things we mainliners are already doing!

According to Evans, some of the qualities Millennials are looking for in a church are:

  • High church liturgy that seems “so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool.’” Check.
  • “Questions that don’t have predetermined answers.” Check.
  • “Churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.” Check.
  • “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.” Increasingly and decisively, check.
  • “We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.” Check.
  • “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.” Check.

Mainline Protestant churches offer most, if not all of these things. My own Presbyterian Church (USA) greets visitors to its Web site with these words:

“Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”

What Millennial couldn’t love that? It’s traditional, it’s uncool, and it has Jesus. Not like those slick, smarmy UCC’s who have that whole God Is Still Speaking thing.

Mainline Protestants: I’m desperate for this to be over so I can go to brunch.

Walk into any Presbyterian Church and you’ll find an order of worship that hasn’t changed in 400 years. Multimedia? Feh. That’s for evangelicals. We sing hymns—out of hymn books! And none of that ego-stroking “seeker church” crap here. You can barely get into a Presbyterian service without declaring your unworthiness before God in a group prayer of confession. There’ll be 2000 year-old creeds to recite and choir and organ anthems from as late as the 1970’s. And then the pastor will do something you will not see anywhere else all week. She or he will stand up and give a monologue—uninterrupted—for twenty minutes without any visual illustrations! It’s church unplugged!

If a Presbyterian Church does use multimedia or contemporary praise songs, they’re usually published by Maranatha! or Hill Songs or Word publishing or one of the other evangelical presses. These songs about the dominion of Jesus over all the earth, the masculinity of God, and the horrific blood and sacrifice of the cross are tried and true winners of souls.


I want to make a suggestion to fellow Mainline friends who, based on Rachel Held Evans’ article, might be tempted to think we are in for an influx of Millennials. Whatever she is suggesting that evangelicals have overdone, we have underdone.

We need hipper worship bands—performing contemporary music that is composed for our churches and reflects our theology.

We need more pastors in skinny jeans, or at least pastors who look and act like people you can interact with as human. We have some of the best trained, most creative and thoughtful spiritual leaders in the culture today—people who could provide real guidance to Millennials—but they are corseted by robes and sermon forms and worship traditions that don’t reflect how anyone communicates in this day and age.

We need to unwrap Jesus from our theological language and expose him for the spiritual revolutionary he actually was. Hint: if your main descriptions for Jesus include phrases like “triune,” “incarnate,” or “eternally begotten of the Father” you are not doing this.

We need to fill our musty old churches with creative multimedia, not prepackaged by church publishers, but using actual popular culture that people interact with every day, as well as music and art generated by congregation members or local artists.

And it’s not enough to “have Jesus.” To the spiritual but not religious generation, we need to help them see why Jesus is important and has relevance to their lives.

What I’m suggesting is radical change in the way we do church. We have to dump the organ and the anthems. Four-line hymns, which were once a form of popular music, but now are not, have to go. The 20-minute, uninterrupted, unillustrated sermon must go. The thick theological language that was developed to hide the truly revolutionary nature of Christ has to go. The aversion to the visual and multimedia has to go.

The club-like structure of churches where you “join” a place that has a building, a staff, an education wing, and a board of trustees, is already crumbling and will soon be gone. Using social media, vastly expanded Web content, and yes, online giving, are necessary in a culture where how you “belong” to an organization has changed radically.

Our teaching and focus on social justice, inclusion, and community that transcends politics are right for this generation, but our packaging is wrong. This is the opposite problem from the evangelicals.

I suspect that the Mainline denominations can find some forms of worship and expressions of theology that are true to their traditions and will speak to the 21st Century. But this will not happen without some significant postmodern reinterpretation. Simply doing things as they have always been done has not been good enough for some time, and there will be no resurgence in people looking for boring churches. There is a difference between having a tradition, and being staid, sclerotic, and comatose.