Yesterday was my daughter Rebecca’s 26th birthday, and it occurred to me how much her life and my life have differed when it comes to church. 

Here’s my favourite picture of her, taken this fall with her son:

Rebecca Alex - When Church Goes Backwards: Why We Should Apologize to Millennials

I was supposed to write something else today; I had the pre-order bonuses all ready to go for The Great Sex Rescue, but they’re quite explosive, and we need a few more days to edit. So they’re coming out on Friday instead!

I didn’t have time to write another post yesterday because it was Rebecca’s birthday, and I spent some time with her and made a big family dinner.

But as I was lying in bed last night, I figured out what I wanted to say.

I wanted to say I’m sorry to millennials.

And to explain why, I’d like to tell you about my teenage years and university years with the church.

I started attending a Presbyterian church in downtown Toronto in my teens. It was evangelical; they taught Jesus; they loved the Bible.

Our youth group was small; maybe 12 people came out every week. But we were great friends. At first one of the parents ran it; eventually they hired a youth pastor.

We had the usual dramas of who is dating whom (I caused many of those dramas); we had hurt feelings and heartaches. But most of all we were just very, very good friends.

Before COVID I contacted many of them again, seeing if we could do a thirtieth reunion, and I was amazed. Of the core group of people I remember, all but maybe 1 or 2 are still following God, even some who weren’t following God then. Most are in ministry of some sort. We all have great families. It was just lovely to see.

It wasn’t a large youth group, but we stayed focused on Jesus, and it made all the difference. I still want to do that reunion; hopefully COVID will end (we’re on major lockdown here in Ontario) and we’ll be able to.

In that youth group, I never heard of purity culture.

It honestly just wasn’t there. We studied books of the Bible (I remember going through Thessalonians once, I believe). I just don’t remember talking about sex in youth group. I remember praying, and talking about how to read your Bible, but nothing about boys lusting and girls being modest and your purity being your virginity. Certainly we talked about a biblical sexual ethic, but it wasn’t in your face, all the time.

The first time I heard that kind of talk was when I stepped outside my Canadian bubble and went on a Teen Missions International trip. I’ve written about those trips; I do believe that Teen Missions is an inherently spiritually abusive organization, and I was subject to that. I get emails from so many people telling about their own experiences, and I hope that one day somebody collects the stories that have been sent to me and does something with them.

Sheila construction Teen Missions - When Church Goes Backwards: Why We Should Apologize to Millennials

Doing construction work in the Philippines with Teen Missions International in 1986.

But it was on that trip that I first heard the modesty message, and it was pushed big time. I also read a book from Elisabeth Elliott that talked about how a girl could never be the first one to talk to a boy, and how you must always submit to the man. It said you couldn’t kiss until you were engaged. I thought it was crazy. It was like looking in on a different culture, it was so far from my own.

When I went to university, there was a deep sense that change was coming.

I met Keith at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Our InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Group was large, and filled with people truly loving Jesus. We studied parables together, and books of the Bible together. And pretty much everyone had this sense that the church was becoming more interested in justice and equality and doing what was right. There was a sense that all of this silliness over keeping women out and keeping women down would be done in a few years. We all felt the same way; there was no debate that I remember on campus. It was just accepted that women were gifted in the same way men were.

Interestingly, one of my roommates from university, Amanda Benckhuysen, has just written a book on women in the Bible too–The Gospel According to Eve. I lost touch with Amanda for several decades and found her again when her book came out. I was so excited to see how similar our paths have been!

housemates in university - When Church Goes Backwards: Why We Should Apologize to Millennials

Two of my housemates and me in university. Amanda’s the one on the right.

At university we all went to different denominations, but we pretty much all believed the same way. It was easy to fellowship. Our main focus in our discussions was how to change the world. How do we do missions in a fair way? How do we feed the poor? How can we make a difference with our lives? What does it look like to be sold out for Jesus?

That’s what I associate teenagehood and young adulthood with: the search for your identity that naturally happens at that age was more of a search for God’s calling on your life. In fact, likely half of the talks that I heard at conferences were just that: how to discover God’s will and how to hear God’s voice. That’s what we were focused on. That’s what mattered to us.

If you had told me back in 1991 that in thirty years we’d still be fighting about women’s roles, I honestly wouldn’t have believed you. To us at the time, the question was settled. Sure, a lot of the older people in church didn’t agree with us, but we had time and numbers on our side. Our generation was good. This would all be fine really soon.

My girls had a completely different experience of church than I did.

By the time Rebecca hit 13 and 14, youth group had changed. Instead of being focused on learning the Bible and changing the world, it was focused on numbers–making sure the youth group was fun enough that kids came out (we never cared about numbers in our youth group).

The Bible studies were more topical focused. Instead of studying a book of the Bible, which was the norm for me in high school and university, they would study snippets or look at different themes.

And chances are those themes had to do with dating rules or withstanding peer pressure.

Brio magazine from Focus on the Family was big when Rebecca was an early teen, and she devoured them. They were filled with rules for your clothing–how you had to be able to “pinch an inch” of fabric of your jeans would be too tight.

They were filled with articles about girls who had their purity ruined because they had kissed too much.

Instead of Rebecca’s teaching being focused on how to find your spiritual gifts and your unique calling for your life to change the world for Jesus, she was taught that life was a constant struggle not to fall into a deep sin that will ruin your life.

When Katie joined her in youth group, everything just accelerated. The youth rallies they went on were not about missions and making a difference; they were about not drinking and not having sex.

Girls Teens Grand Canyon - When Church Goes Backwards: Why We Should Apologize to Millennials

My girls as teens in the Grand Canyon

And a big part of their story is hearing time and again that they can’t do things in church because they’re women.

In fact, it’s worse now. Far worse. The churches that we have been to are far more against women teaching or having any roles that use gifts other than cooking or nursery than the ones I went to as a teen.

It’s like we went backwards.

Even something like Young Earth Creationism–I don’t ever remember hearing about this as a teenager. It just was a non-issue. Certainly I believed in dinosaurs; everyone did. But I never, ever thought about it.

Rebecca and Katie were taught young earth creationism as children in Sunday School; as teens in youth group; in their media. You had to believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed; that the earth is only 6000 years old; or you don’t really believe the Bible.

I have no problem with people believing anything they want about creation, as long as we realize God did it. I don’t think it matters HOW or WHEN it happened; as long as we get the WHO DID IT right. And belief in a young earth is very modern; C.S. Lewis believed in an old earth; so did Augustine and most Christians over the centuries. But my girls were fed this constantly, and told that if they didn’t believe it they weren’t Christians. Our Christian radio station carried Creation programs (Keith used to make the girls listen to them in our homeschooling to help identify logical fallacies).

And this belief was used as a litmus test of whether you were a real Christian or not.

I believe Generation X had a better upbringing in church than Millennials.

I could be wrong. Sarah Bessey was posting on Twitter this week wondering if a lot of the problems we’re having in the church in Canada today is that at some point in the 1990s American Evangelicalism crept in in a way that it hadn’t been before. Maybe she’s right; my own experience with purity culture was on an American missions organization.

But I think it goes farther than that. I think in the 1990s evangelical publishing doubled down on very conservative themes. That’s when purity culture came out (you can actually see the change in Brio magazine over the early 2000s; it’s really interesting). That’s when big denominations started fighting “the women’s issue”, and many settled it by keeping women out of leadership roles. That’s when we all took a collective step inward, trying to preserve what we have.

I remember my faith in the 1980s and 1990s being focused outward; Rebecca Pippert’s book Out of the SaltShaker and Into the World about how to evangelize in a normal, non-creepy way was something we were all talking about and discussing. Our faith was something worth sharing.

And yet somehow along the line faith became about preserving and about being different from the world rather than trying to change the world in the same way. The emphasis has definitely shifted, and I think not for the better.

Our prayer is that the conversation is shifting–and I do believe that it is.

I hope when my grandson grows up, he goes to a youth group that isn’t paranoid about whether or not he’s going too far with his girlfriend, but is instead teaching him to read Jesus’ parables with open eyes, and to see Jesus’ heart for the world. I hope and pray he grows up learning his prayers should be focused on how he can be the hands and feet of Jesus far more than they are on stopping him from being impure.

I think we’ll get there. I think millennials were given a rough ride, and it wasn’t fair. But because of that, so many millennials are energized to do it better. Seriously–if they know Jesus after all they went through, they are real changemakers!

And I think they will change things. I think if we step back, and listen to millennials, we’ll see a better church grow.

And maybe I’ll get to have that reunion one day with all my old friends, and we can talk about these trends together!


Here’s How You Can Help Me!

Can I ask a favour? If I can get to 10,000 Instagram followers, it will be so much easier to share blog posts and podcasts and talk about The Great Sex Rescue (our book that’s about to be released!). I’m at around 7,200 now. 

Help me get to 10,000, and follow me on Instagram!

Thank you!

What do you think? Has the church changed for your generation? Which direction is it heading? Let’s talk in the comments!

4d5d2dc667e7acd64221c42a103248a4?s=96&d=mm&r=g - When Church Goes Backwards: Why We Should Apologize to Millennials

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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