Millennials and Mainlines: When 'Relevant' Christianity is Irrelevant

John Stonestreet | BreakPoint | Thursday, August 08, 2013

Millennials and Mainlines: When 'Relevant' Christianity is Irrelevant


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Recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped the hugely popular hymn, “In Christ Alone,” from its hymnal after its authors, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, refused to omit a reference to Jesus satisfying the wrath of God.

In a powerful response over at First Things, which we’ll link to at BreakPoint.org, Colson Center chairman Timothy George quotes Richard Niebuhr who, back in the 1930s, described this kind of revisionist Protestantism as a religion in which “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

The response from the PCUSA, that their problem was not with God’s wrath but with the idea that Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath, doesn’t change the fundamental problem of what George calls “squishy” theology. Theology is supposed to be true, not palatable.

Along these lines, maybe you’ve seen the recent viral opinion piece on CNN by my friend, Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans. In it, Evans offers her answers to the truly important question "Why are millennials leaving the church?"

To counter the exodus of young people from American churches, Evans says it’s time to own up to our shortcomings and give millennials what they really want — not a change in style but a change in substance. The answer to attracting millennials, she writes, is NOT “hipper worship bands” or handing out “lattés,” but actually helping them find Jesus.

Amen. I couldn’t agree more.

Then she goes on: “[The church is] too political, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to [LGBT] people.” Well, okay — anytime political programs co-opt our faith, or we ignore the needy and fail to love those with whom we disagree, we do the Gospel of Christ great harm.

But when she writes that attracting millennials to Jesus involves “an end to the culture wars,” “a truce between science and faith,” being less “exclusive” with less emphasis on sex, without “predetermined answers” to life’s questions, now I want to ask — are we still talking about the Jesus of biblical Christianity?

The attempt to re-make Jesus to be more palatable to modern scientific and especially sexual sensibilities has been tried before. In fact, it’s the reason Niebuhr said that brilliant line that I quoted earlier.

He watched as the redefining “Jesus Project” gave us mainline Protestantism, which promotes virtually everything on Evans’ list for millennials. The acceptance of homosexuality, a passion for the environment, prioritizing so-called “social justice” over transformational truth are all embodied in denominations like the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But religious millennials aren’t flocking to mainline Protestant congregations. Mainline churches as a whole have suffered withering declines in the last few decades — especially among the young. What gives?

Well, in an another essay which appeared in First Things over 20 years ago, a trio of Christian researchers offered their theory on what’s behind the long, slow hemorrhage of mainline Protestant churches:

“In our study,” they wrote, “the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief — orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.” This, said the researchers, was not (and I add, is still not) a teaching of mainline Protestantism. As a dwindling denomination rejects a hymn which proclaims salvation “in Christ alone,” this research sounds prophetic.

Evans is right that evangelical Christianity is responsible in many ways for the exodus of millennials. But ditching the Church’s unpalatable “old-fashioned” beliefs to become more “relevant” to the young won’t bring them back.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: August 8, 2013

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