“Why are millennials leaving the church?”
The issue of millennials leaving the church has been a perplexing one for many Christian leaders. Many polls, articles, and other studies have been done in attempting to answer the question, and they are, for the most part, done by people who do not fit into the “millennial” generation, at least from what I have read. Note for further reference: “millennials” are in other words “Generation Y” (usually born early 1980’s to early 2000’s). “Generation X” (early 1960’s to early 1980’s) are those “people outside of the “millennial” generation]. So, here is my opinion, an opinion from a “millennial,” on some issues that contribute to the exodus of millennials from the church (in no particular order).
1. What is the Gospel? And why can the “Church” not agree upon it? In many parts of the country, in many denominations, the message of the gospel comes in all sorts of forms. Some groups promote a theologically-rich Christ-centered message of salvation and life-transformation (think Piper, Mohler, MacArthur, Chandler [only using bigger names in evangelicalism for recognition, not as a sort of preaching standard]). Others have a focus on social justice and the gospel message being the message of Christ transforming lives and those lives working, with an emphasis, on producing change in the lives of the poor and neglected, for the environment and in government (note: not saying that it is a bad thing)(think Keller). Unfortunately, some groups teach and promote a prosperity gospel; a message of material and financial prosperity with much emphasis on self and personal health and well-being (Think Osteen). Lastly, though I know that these are very broad in category, some promote a sort of spiritualistic-supernatural-Holy Spirit-centered gospel where one can heal and be healed, believe and it will be done (Think Hinn, Bill Johnson of Bethel Redding). These last two are troubling. These last two forgo either teaching or adhering to important theological staples of the Christian faith: Trinitarian nature of God, doctrine of judgment and hell, suffering/persecution perseverance, justification by faith alone in Christ alone, sufficiency of Scripture. I say all of that to say this: which group of “Christians” (I use quotation marks because I do not believe some of these self-professing groups are Christian) have the “right” message? What should I believe? What really is the gospel in a broad (theologically) “Christian” culture?
2. What does the Church have to offer me? This question is very self-centered but important. For the most part, my generation has grown up being showered with great advances in material goods that have the purpose of enhancing our lifestyle or our quality of life; things like technology, a zealous and continual focus to improve education, advances in social justice issues. For the most part, we were raised spoiled. We got whatever we wanted, and for many it didn’t hurt that America’s economy was much better than it is in today’s day. Though our parents may have raised us to be of the giving spirit and not the receiving, society has pressured us differently. T.V, music, movies friends, sports stars, all of those and perhaps much more have (quietly and sometimes not-so-quietly) encouraged us to “get, get, and get some more.” With this mentality, why should church be any different?
3. The neglect of the previous generation. Preface for this section: my aim is not to be hyper-critical or cynical, but just to express the serious difficulties in relating moderns with postmoderns. We didn’t feel included as the “church.” Youth group was a separate entity than “big church.” Not to offend here, but I think, in part, those outside of this millennial generation has failed us in a way. We needed to be shown how we are a important part of the church. We needed to be accepted and thought of as equals in the body of Christ, not a sub-group or a financial burden to the church body at large. In other words, there seemed to be (and in part still seems to be) a disconnect from the senior adults to the youth. Is the finger not in connection to the foot? Of course it is. The body should be unified, overlapping, and members supporting other members. However, I remember as a youth older adults complaining about us being too loud or being a financial weight or being brats because we didn’t vacuum out the church van. Looking back at those who I went to youth with and where they are not, I would say most of those folks are not practicing Christians (if they are indeed Christians at all). Why? Perhaps it was because there was no functional means of transition into Christian adulthood or “big church” and “adult Sunday school,” so many students, when they get out of high school, get lost in the shuffle as they try to see how they “fit” into adult ministries of the church. Much of the time, they don’t. Too old for youth and quite young for adults (in some churches). What does one do? It is easy to quit, and many do (of course, we can always go back to talking about one’s salvation and perseverance). Perhaps another reason is that the older generation(s) have not prayed for us, taken us under their wings, and lovingly discipled us. Of course, one can ask why don’t the youth become more pro-active in reaching out to the adults and not vice-versa. Its because 1) we are still young in the faith in comparison to the adults; 2) we think you all are too busy for us with work, family, and hobbies (with what little time you have left after the first two); and 3) we aren’t sure if you care. In sum, there is a chasm between adult ministry and youth ministry, though some are addressing the issue, it is still leaving many young people uncertain as to how they transition into older ministry areas (when and where college ministries are not present).
4. A focus on unimportant issues: Of course, we have some small stuff; things that we hear from the older folk that irritate almost instantaneously. Bible translations (like KJV-only folks ripping the NASB and its readers), bickering over carpet color, van cleanliness (mentioned above), church clothes (though modesty should always be the norm, but upset over a middle-schooler wearing shorts? Yep).
5. How does Christianity and the Church fit into a pluralistic society? This is important. How does Jesus fit into our culture? Can I not “do” church or faith in a different or less-formal way than my parents’ generation? Doubt: perhaps Jesus isn’t the only way? 2/3 of the world are not Christian; will they all go to hell?.. Younger people are asking questions like this. I’ve been asked some of these questions and have had to make my own conclusions regarding these issues. It is in the midst of a crisis of belief that younger people are leaving the church either out of trying to ignore the questions and the consequences of their would-be conclusions or they have come to conclusions and cannot stomach, if you will, the consequences.
6. Ultimately it is a faith issue. Do the millennials that leave the church have a real and lasting faith in Jesus Christ? Perseverance of the saints vs. the uncertainty of perseverance. If the people leaving the church had a real faith in and not just head knowledge of Jesus Christ, one would logically think they would remain, according to how I and many read Scripture. However, a variety of situations and events in our lives influence whether professing millennial Christians run to Christ and His Church or turn from it. Perhaps, for many (at least for a many young people I know), the church was a fun place to hang out but they didn’t take hold of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore when they got out of their parents’ house they didn’t see a need to go back; a lack of faith. Why go to church to worship and serve Someone they don’t really believe in.
Some solutions (for older generations and fellow millennials) to help keep millennials in the church:
1. Focus on Jesus. Talk about Him to us. Never get over the grace of God. Worship Him unashamedly. Much of my generation have been subjected youth groups that full of fun and games but lacking in the clear biblical gospel teaching and in theology. We were/are starved for solid and deep theological teaching. In other words, when things got bad or when we have to make big decisions, we have no ballast in our boats. We are taught morality and not much else, if we are taught at all. Jesus needs to be the center of everything; every ministry; every fellowship. We need to see how everything connects back to Jesus Christ.
2. Pray. Pray for us. We need all the encouragement and support we can get.
3. We need to know about the church. What is the church; or more accurately who is the church? Why is it important? (Corporate fellowship; worship; a family where the Lord of the universe unites a diverse people). We need to know why it is important to serve the church? How can we serve? We need to know, ultimately, the church is to be about Jesus and less about ourselves.
4. Invest in us. We need to be discipled. It is a terrible thing to have older folks in the faith among us who have been walking with the Lord and have much more life experience than we and to let that wisdom go to waste. We, as a younger generation, need to not take the older generation(s) for granted, and vice-versa. Please, invest in us younger people, even in the time period where we are in the youth program. Show us how to walk, worship and serve. We can worship together so surely we can learn from each other and serve together. Show us how to deal with hard situations and circumstances and how to glorify God in them (cancer, death, financial struggle, stress), as well as how to deal with a season of prosperity or blessing (humility, continued obedience and praise to Christ). There shouldn’t be a disconnect in the body of Christ. Let us work diligently to bridge any gaps between our generations and glorify our Lord in our unity.
5. Let some things slide. Not sin of course, but things like bickering over some issue like carpet v. wood flooring. There is a time and place for such discussion, and while “Yes” we need to learn how to care for the physical church building, we don’t need to witness angry brothers and sisters in Christ fight over something as unimportant as that. As our examples, choose your battles wisely; people (especially us) are watching and listening.
6. Again, pray. Mentioned this earlier, but cannot stress it enough. Pray for the faith of young (both in age and in the faith) Christians.
This is a tough issue to tackle, but it is of great importance. The problems and solutions mentioned above are just one person’s perspective on the relationship between a postmodern people and the modern church. There also is a responsibility and humility required of us, millennials, as well (which may be another post). We should all be praying for unity and deeper fellowship between an older, more modern generation and a millennial generation; one that is growing up and being educated in an increasingly post-Christian culture.