Treatise of a Hypocrite: Attachment, Millennial Migration, and the Problem of the American Church

Before you begin reading, please know that I am coming from a place of love, not of judgment.  Also, like every other imperfect human being in the world, I struggle on a regular basis with living a balanced life of love and truth consistently.  In essence, I’m a hypocrite– down in the trenches alongside everybody else who’s trying to figure things out.

A few days ago, I posted a controversial little article on Facebook about how the church drove Millennials away because it offered more judgement, hatred, and bigotry than love.  The people who’ve left the church, “liked” it, while those who still attend church, said, “But truth!  Truth!”  So, being the person who loves people on both sides of the proverbial fence, my mind has been churning with a small bit of the complexities as to why, I firmly believe, something seemingly unrelated is of utmost importance to the church.

First, let’s look at the two viewpoints of those who have left the church and those who’ve stayed.

Here are the 4 most common reasons I’ve heard from friends who’ve left the church:

  1. Hypocrisy (anti-abortion but also anti-human rights—like refugees, immigrants and the death penalty)
  2. Judgmentalism/self-righteousness (believing ourselves superior to others)
  3. Inconsistency between beliefs and practice (saying you love everyone, but hating the LGBTQ community, for instance.  Chick-fil-A sandwich, anyone?)
  4. Irrelevance (where’s the church when ___________ was happening?)

(It’s interesting to note that people who’ve left the church and espouse zero love for it, still believe its people should live up to a higher standard than the rest of society. Example: Those pointing out the hypocrisy of Joel Osteen not opening his church in the Texas flood.)

The #1 reason many current church-goers believe so many have left the church?

  1. Because they don’t like the Truth

Since the beginning of time, truth hasn’t really changed, but now, people are leaving the church in droves.  And since I don’t buy that this generation has a greater aversion to truth than former generations, what’s really changed?  I think it’s more complicated than simply Love vs. Truth.  So, let’s look at a bit of historical context to get a better idea.

Beginning in the 1730’s, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield led what would come to be known as “The Great Awakening.”  This, most would argue, was also the birth of the Evangelicalism.  This period emphasized high moral standards, hellfire and damnation, personal redemption, and introspection.  This movement was in contrast to the Enlightenment period whose hallmarks were Rationalism, and adherence to rituals and traditions.

The 1790’s-1850’s brought the “Second Great Awakening,” characterized by emotionalism, and super-naturalism; eventually spawning the Restorationist Movement.  That, in turn, featured the concept of preparing and cleansing ourselves for the end times.

From there came Pentecostalism which began at the 1906 Asuza Street revival.  It emphasized miracles, inter-racial worshipping together, and emotionally charged services.  In reaction to this movement, came the Fundamentalist Movement alongside of it, which emphasized strict literal interpretations of certain Scripture passages, rigid adherence to dogma, and making clear distinctions between themselves and other religious groups.

By the 1960’s, the Jesus Movement was the newest trend and paired well with the hippy mindset of peace and love.  It emphasized miracles and feelings, and much of it was Restorationist in theology.  This movement spawned what we think of today as the “Christian right” and “Christian left.”  The left sticking with the more Charismatic nature, and the right veering into the reactionary Authoritarian/Fundamentalist side of things.  Is it clear how this pendulum swing of love and truth is throughout each generation?

And now we arrive at those “damn Millennials.”

By the time I was born in the 1980’s, the Fundamentalist/Authoritarian mindset was in full swing throughout much of the country.  The church was great at boldly stating what it didn’t stand for and took on a fight-the-culture mindset: home schooling became popular, Christian music became a thing, and Christian movies and actors got their start.  The church created its own sub-culture to shelter its people from the common sinful pitfalls of the heathen culture around it.  We were taught to live by strict rules, to keep ourselves pure from evil influences, and were judged harshly if we didn’t.

And it is this little history lesson of pendulum-like reactions that brings me to why I believe that Millennials have left the church.

For one more moment, I beg of you to take a seemingly large, unrelated leap with me. I’d like you to consider the two following scenarios.

Scenario #1: It is your first visit to a new doctor.  You admit that you smoke frequently and immediately he responds, “You know, you need to stop smoking because it can cause A, B, and C…”

Scenario #2: Your beloved spouse of 10 years tells you, “Today, you really worried me because you were wheezing and breathless as you were going up the stairs.  Please try to quit smoking because I want you to still be beside me 20 years from now.”

Which of these two scenarios seems more likely to move you, the smoker, to action?  If you have a healthy relationship with your spouse, probably scenario #2, because even though your spouse is not the expert, you have a long relationship built on trust.  The truth was told in both scenarios, but one told you the truth out of love and used your trust of their intentions to communicate to you.  In other words, your spouse used your attachment to him/her.

What is attachment and why is it so crucial to the everyone, especially the church?  My own definition would be this: attachment is love and trust over time.  For anyone who’s parented a child with attachment issues, you already know that attachment is EVERYTHING.  Without it, there is no relationship and especially, no disciplining your child.  If you discipline a child who has a tenuous attachment at best, the child is likely to shutdown, meltdown, or run away.  And this doesn’t just apply to children.  Like the doctor scenario, it doesn’t matter if you have all of the right answers, if you haven’t taken the time to build that loving trust.  As my dear therapist once put it, “it’s okay to have high expectations if you have an equal amount of love to go with it.”

All human beings seek attachment: it is a biological necessity.  And this is the order in which it MUST proceed.

  1. Physical needs.  If those basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and safety are met, there is enough trust in place for the next level.
  2. Mental/Emotional needs.  Physically being there for the child, loving them, showing goodness to them, no matter their behaviors. This is the stage where children (aka everyone) learns that they are loved and they belong, no matter their choices. This is where they understand their precious personhood.  And only then, when they have learned that no one is abandoning them, or hating them, or judging them, are they ready for the next step into something deeper.
  3. Spiritual needs.  This is where children can observe and emulate a parents’ moral compass, develop empathy, guilt, learn right from wrong, and hopefully, develop their own beliefs.

Reading this list, can you see the connection between the generation raised in Fundamentalist (and for me, Evangelical) churches that emphasized lots of truth, sometimes outright hatred, very little love, and the strong reaction (historical pendulum swing) of those tenuously attached Millennials to run the other way?

I find it interesting how many New Testament verses there are about adoption.  My favorite, which I believe, sums up the very foundation of our faith is this one:  “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15)  This verse explains the intimacy that we are supposed to have with God our loving Father.  So how do we, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, help people to build that connection with God?  I truly believe it’s through being a kind of placeholder, building attachment over time.  Here are my ideas.

  1. Physical needs.  The church does this pretty well.  Keep providing for basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, but make sure it’s consistent over time.
  1. Mental/Emotional needs.  This step is probably the most lacking in the current American (especially Evangelical) church.  Our job as Christians is to be Christ-like, not to be Christ.  It’s not our job to change hearts nor to judge.  It’s not our job to hurry things along, which, as an impatient person, I’m very bad at.  It’s our job to give time, love, compassion, and space to everyone. We must wait with them in love.  It’s hard because it may mean sacrificing our time, our comfort, etc…  And we must do all this, without believing we are somehow better than “them.”
  2. Spiritual needs.  This is where most church-goers assume that everyone around them is at.  But honestly, many people are stuck back at the second step.  The time for the big “T” (and by that I mean truth) will come when it comes.  We don’t have to hide it or shy away from it, and more often than not, a ready heart will seek truth out; especially when it’s safe to do so.  Truth from a loving place is sometimes hard to give, but if we must confront someone, we must first ask ourselves, “Do they already know that I love them?  Do they trust that I want the best for them?”  The answer may be no.  You may not be the right person or it may not be the right time.  And so many times, if we’re really living out God’s truth and love in our own lives, not much needs to be said.

To my dear friends who’ve left the church:

Yes, we, the church, have failed you and even though we have, God won’t.  Maybe you no longer believe in God, or maybe just not his people.  Either way, please keep telling us the truth in love—hopefully, sometime soon, we’ll get the hang of listening.


  1. Well said. “Those damn millennials” are the future of the church whether we want to be or not.

    The church history is helpful. Maybe it’s the Southerner in us both, but you can’t understand a thing unless you know its story. The psychology is likewise helpful

    I think this is getting toward what I wish I’d have put in as a “part 4” of a series on my blog (part 1 here:, that gets more at the relational structure of the church.

    Again, well said! You are a wise and patient person with much to share from your experience and learning.

    • Thank you, Justin. Coming from you, your kind words mean a lot. And yes, I suppose it is the Southerner in me that is always interested in knowing how we got where we are today. And on a side note, although I didn’t comment, I did enjoy your “Chalmer Option” series 🙂

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