Typically I don’t comment on these types of things but this article has been getting enough traction lately in various places that I felt it warranted some interaction.
In the article, Rachel Held Evans makes some accurate observations and quotes a lot of compelling stats, but ultimately her conclusion here is massively flawed. According to her, churches who focus on marketing and the use of production gimmicks to try to appeal to millennials are probably going to see their efforts fall flat. I would agree. Our generation’s BS-o-meter for being marketed to is fairly acute. And I appreciate Evans’ love for the sacraments – we were just talking yesterday in our staff meeting about some of the various ways the church stands unique from anything else in culture – in her words, “the sacraments are what make the church relevant.” For the most part, yes.
And perhaps most significantly, it is absolutely true that if the good news of Jesus can’t stand on its own without the help of smoke machines and well-designed logos, then it’s not really very good news at all (although there is nothing inherently wrong with creativity, good design and production excellence). However, this is where Evans fails to see the heart of the issue and in fact completely and dangerously misses the point. According to her, for a church to be effective in reaching millennials the end-all factor is to offer the sacraments in an “open and inclusive” context. This is where she lands, and is an idea that clearly resonates with a lot of people based on the number of times I’ve seen this article shared.
Here’s the problem – while it’s true that the sacraments hold unique value and relevance, these “weird” practices are nothing more than empty ritual without the Gospel as their context.
And while there are elements of the Gospel that can certainly be described as inclusive, the Gospel is, by its very nature, GOOD NEWS because of its radical exclusivity.
The Gospel is GOOD NEWS because it reveals my inherent sinfulness – but there is a way to reconciliation with God. (Romans 3:23-24)
The Gospel is GOOD NEWS because it tells me I can’t accomplish my salvation – but Jesus did it for me. (Romans 8:3)
The Gospel is GOOD NEWS because it helps me realize I can’t remain where I am – but Jesus offers transformation and the promise of being made new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
If the Gospel were not exclusive, then it would simply be incapable of providing any real hope – because if it’s not exclusive, then it’s superfluous. This is what always has, and always will, continue to compel people of all generations to follow Jesus. Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” in the same breath that He says “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27-28)
So if we want to try to reach millennials, it’s true that “trying to be cool” is probably not going to prove effective. So yes, let’s fight for a faith that is authentic. Yes, may our churches seek to model real community and continue to celebrate the sacraments together in meaningful ways as we lovingly welcome and invite an unbelieving world into our midst. But simply aiming for a culture of “inclusivity” misses the mark by a wide margin and, depending on how you interpret the term (for those familiar with RHE’s writing, this means a very particular openness to some pretty heretical ideas), leads to a shallow and incomplete theology that ultimately offers no hope.
Want to reach millennials? Give them Jesus, in all of His exclusivity – clearly, lovingly, and patiently – and let the Gospel do its work.