08/15/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

5 Ways Jesus Was a Millennial


A raft of new studies and articles have come to a common conclusion: That the millennial generation (those born after 1980) is walking away from faith. The walkout has played a big role in the plunging attendance numbers at churches of all types. When asked, the young people tend to explain their disaffection by describing modern Christianity as too rule-based, too hostile to those with doubts, too obsessed with sexual sin, too political, and too shallow.

Strikingly, this is much the same critique that Jesus had of the religion of his own time. Jesus made the same points, repeatedly, that the millennials are making. Their complaints echo those of the man who died on the cross, in at least five important ways:

1. Churches are too much about rules

First, what about all those rules? The Jewish law in Jesus' time contained over 600 principle rules. Perhaps the most significant teaching in all of the Gospels portrays Jesus's rejection of a rule-based theology. A Pharisee and expert in the law comes to Jesus and tests him: "What is the greatest commandment in the law?" It is a trick question, of course, and the only reasonable answer would seem to be "all of them." To put one above another would be to rank-order the law of Moses.

Remarkably, Jesus doesn't give that answer. Instead, he gives us the Two Great Commandments and describes them as the most important: To love God, and to love one another. Contained in that answer is something deep and powerful, because what he is elevating are not rules but principles. It is easy to know how a rule works, but principles require the application of our own conscience and reason. This changes everything. Yet, somehow, what millennials hear in church is the primacy of rules, not principles. No wonder, as Rachel Held Evans explains, they feel that their intellect is not engaged!

2. Churches are unwelcoming to those with doubts

What about the second (and related) concern, that churches are hostile to those with doubts? Again, Jesus sides with the millennials. Consistently, he was critical of those with rigid certainty and sympathetic to those who were working things out. Those with rigid certainty were the Pharisees; again and again they tested his belief in strict rules, and Jesus rejected their bright-line certainty. In one instance, he broke the rules by healing on the Sabbath, for example. In fact, it is the Pharisees and their equally-certain priestly rivals, the Sadducees, that generated real anger in Christ. These were the "experts" of the time. The Sadducees held dear the Temple that Jesus stormed through to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, and it was to the Pharisees that Jesus delivered his harshest insult, calling them a "brood of vipers."

Though he honored those of great faith (which is different than certainty), he also was supportive and kind to those with doubts -- they are not the "brood of vipers." For example, he took a great risk in talking to the woman at the well, who is an outcast Samaritan. In their conversation, Jesus even discerned that she was living with a man she was not married to. Yet, his response was not to rebuke her or lay down a rule, even when she expresses doubt ("Are you greater than our father Jacob?"). Instead, he responded to her gently. Rather than declaring her a sinner, he talked to her about what she knows (water) and revealed his true nature to her in what must have been a profound and intimate moment. Even when his own apostle, Thomas, doubted the resurrection, Jesus came to him with a blessing of peace, not a rebuke.

3. The Church is obsessed with sex, especially regarding LGBT people

The modern church's obsession with sex is galling to many millennials. In particular, this generation is much more accepting of LGBT partnerships than older generations. Once again, Jesus modeled a different way than that which we see in our churches (which seem to extend either affirmation or rejection). He rarely talked about sex or relationships, in fact. When he did encounter those involved in sexual sin, such as the woman at the well, he did not make a big deal about it. What was important to Jesus was a larger story. While faith might direct one's choices about sex, to Jesus faith wasn't defined by sex.

One of those few times that Jesus talked about sex, he was again being challenged by the Pharisees. They took him to the scene of a stoning, where the adulterous woman was about to be executed. The Pharisees were right, that the punishment under the Mosaic law was death by stoning, but Jesus does something remarkable. By inviting the person with no sins to cast the first stone, he both frees the condemned and tells the mob they do not have the moral authority to judge her. In the end, he said "go and sin no more," and I often hear that used as justification by our own ministers to judge others. That works, if you are the Son of God. If not, you are one of the rest of us, the mob holding stones that Jesus disarmed.

4. The Church is too political

This cuts two ways, as various churches emphasize either a conservative or progressive agenda, extending even to issues and positions only distantly related to faith. Again, Christ rejected this kind of injection of micro-politics into faith. When the Pharisees ask him whether it is right to pay tax to the Romans, they are inviting him to get involved in the debate over Roman occupation. He demurs, asking for a coin and asking whose face appeared on the coin, leading him to teach that we should give "to Caesar what is Caesar's." Jesus easily could have been a political leader, but chose to address deeper, personal issues.

He also stayed out of the political fight that was all around him, as the Pharisees and Sadducees battled for primacy. He was critical of them for their angling, and critiques them for empowering themselves rather than helping others.

If nothing else, consider this: Jesus always chose influence over power. Politics is almost always about power; faith should almost always be about influence.

5. The Church is too shallow

Finally, millennials are right in accusing the church of shallowness, and once again Jesus made the same criticism. His message almost always was jarring to his audiences. He disdained easy answers and nice architecture and comfort. When an Apostle turns to the magnificent Temple and says "Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" Jesus tells him that it will all come down; that "there will not be left here one stone upon another." The truth is that Jesus offered meaning, heartbreak, and disruption. He even promised that families would be divided because of him -- a troubling assertion in any age. Importantly, when people encountered Jesus they always walked away angry or amazed or crying out in thanksgiving. Our churches very rarely give us that. It takes too much boldness.

The narrative here, in our place and time, is not one of "Millennials v. Jesus." It is more properly understood as "Jesus and the Millennials, and How We Have Disappointed Them Both."