photo by by Jordan Waidelich

by Jordan Waidelich for Mennonite Church USA

Spoiler alert: Millennials are not looking for a hipper church.
They’re looking for the presence of Jesus Christ.

That was the point of Rachel Held Evans’ seminar Wednesday. Held Evans, a New York Times bestselling author and featured convention speaker wants to “keep the church weird.” She says millennials are looking for a truer, more authentic Christianity, not fog machines or coffee bars.

“Time and time again, the assumption is that the key is to make style updates,” Held Evans said, “but we millennials have been advertised to our entire lives. Everyone is trying to sell us something and entertain us, but church is the last place we want to be sold something.”

Held Evans is often asked why millennials are leaving the church, and her answer is always the same.

“Millennials are tired of the culture wars and party politics,” she said. “Jesus was certainly political, but not partisan.”

But millennials’ issues with the church go beyond just politics and the difference of culture that comes from different generations.

“They want to be real with people,” Held Evans said. “They want to ask real questions without predetermined answers, and they want to talk about all of the Bible’s messiness and weirdness.”

When millennials look at the church these days, they don’t see that. “They see racism, misogyny, lying and greed,” she said, “and they see it’s not the way of Jesus.”

Held Evans warned that millennials’ passion for social justice should not be ignored.

“The church without social justice or social justice without Jesus renders the church unnecessary,” she said.

That quote stuck out to millennials like Caleb Schrock-Hurst, from Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I think the church can keep millennials by being honest about its shortcomings and prioritizing Jesus while prioritizing justice,” he said. “Social justice without Jesus and Jesus without social justice are equally as incomplete.”

Held Evans’ talk of social justice also made an impact on Quinn Kathrineberg, from Salina, Kansas. “Faith and social justice have to be intertwined,” she said. “That was really profound for me.”

Churches often get in their own way, Held Evans said, usually because they don’t fully believe that baptism is enough to keep people in the church. Instead they focus on membership, their own ideologies and deciding who’s in and who’s out.

“We’re a little scared,” she said. “If we get out of the way, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, which God has an annoying habit of doing.”

Held Evans says she doesn’t have the perfect answer on how to keep millennials in the church. She does have some ideas, but she also encourages the church to not be afraid of death (dwindling numbers). “Maybe a little death and resurrection is what the church needs right now,” she said. “Death is something that empires worry about. Nobody ever said the fruit of the Spirit is success.”

Karl Lehman, from Evanston, Illinois, found that part to be extremely profound. “Whether you have to actually close your doors to have that happen, or whether you can do that spiritually and emotionally and then move forward,” he said, “that seems very applicable to the Mennonite Church and every other church in the world.”

While Held Evans isn’t sure what the resurrected church looks like, she is confident that it isn’t strobe lights or iPad giveaways, but rather it is keeping the church weird. “Baptism in and of itself is enough, as weird as it is,” Held Evans said. “We don’t have to dress that up.”

Read the full issue of the Orlando Squeeze here.