From churches that meet in steepled buildings with stained-glass windows to those located in former Walmarts, (churches) vary more today than perhaps any time in American history. Despite this variety, unprecedented numbers of Millennials are finding ways to exit church life rather than join it. Why? Who is to blame for this mass exodus?
The Church is called the bride of Christ and is clearly important to Jesus. Yet many churches have failed to reach the next generation, while many Millennials have failed to recognize the important role the church can play in their lives.
A Bad Trifecta
There are three major ways in which the Church is failing Millennials:
Valuing tradition over people. The most notable way the Church has failed Millennials is by considering tradition to be more important than people. Unfortunately, praying for and pursuing young leaders often takes a back seat to what happens next Sunday.
Two extremes have developed in response to this unhealthy focus on “business as usual.” Some churches have decided to start new ministries or completely “rebrand” the church to appeal to the next generation: A new Sunday night service launches, leaders start wearing jeans instead of suits, and everyone expects revival to break out. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. The unchurched community doesn’t even notice the new dress code or sign on the highway.
The second is an unhealthy change in doctrine. Some congregations and entire denominations have shifted convictions regarding marriage and even their belief in Scripture as God’s perfect, inspired Word. These changes may or may not appeal to seekers, but they certainly do not please God, the One we are called to ultimately honor. If the goal of the Christian life is to bring glory to God, then remaining faithful to biblical convictions is essential.
Making safety more important than service. Over the last few decades, parents sought to guard against “evil” influences by restricting their children to only “approved” music or films. Many churches moved out of urban locations and into relatively safer suburbs. Christian schools expanded, as did universities, so many children were exposed to only “safe Christian kids” until young adulthood.
That abundance of caution led away from serving real needs in local communities. To their credit, many Millennials see the importance of social justice as a vital part of life—serving the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the orphans, the widowed, the enslaved. Unfortunately, many churches have not prepared this generation for such service, leaving young adults serving through secular organizations because they consider the Church irrelevant. Worse, some have moved beyond Christ-centered causes to support social justice efforts that conflict with biblical convictions, such as same-sex marriage or pro-choice efforts.
Choosing comfort over cause and community. The Church has become more corporate, seeking to compete with Fortune 500 companies in the pursuit of “excellence.” While seeker-friendly churches have helped some people, they’ve generally left a bad taste in Millennials’ mouths. This generation tends toward an anti-corporate mind-set that values informality and seeks family. They couldn’t care less about the next building project, but they deeply care about finding a small group of friends they can call in a time of crisis.
Millennials are more likely to ask what the church is doing for the poor than whether there is a specific Bible study available on Thursday nights. There is a growing desire to be part of a cause rather than to simply attend a church with convenient meeting times, facilities or location. A Millennial is likely to pass five megachurches to attend a new startup with 20 friends who really care about his or her life.
A Rigid Church
Many Millennials have distaste for how rigid church has become. They do prefer a church with structure, but not one so rigidly traditional that they don’t have a say. Much of the feedback we have gotten from Millennials about growing up in church was that it didn’t feel natural to them. They were told it was a place to be free and open, but generally Millennials never fully engaged. They kept to themselves.
Some Millennials raised in the church experienced an old-fashioned, exclusive, judgmental form of Christianity with a chip on its shoulder. Thus, they perceive the older generation as forecasting “gloom and doom” for America’s future. They hear preachers warning of the chaos outside the walls of the church. Occasionally they see those same preachers eventually destroyed by moral failings.
A few years ago, Rachel Evans wrote a column for CNN called, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.” Here are key reasons that speak to the generational differences defining Millennials:
What Millennials really want is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have pre-determined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
We need to remember that Millennials don’t oppose spiritual things or religious observances. They are opposed to a watered-down version of Christianity that emphasizes a whole lot of judging and not a lot of loving.
Ten Ways Churches CanImprove Effectiveness
But it’s not too late to successfully impact the next generation. The following 10 recommendations identify how churches can better reach and engage the Millennial generation.
Redefine ìchurch.î Most of us realize the Church is not a building, but the people of God gathered for worship. This gathering can occur at a coffee table or in a cathedral. The early church simply met in temple courts (a public outdoor venue) and in homes. If we defined church attendance to include those who gather for worship regularly in homes as well as public locations, we could redefine “church” to encompass outreach to a broader community.
Put people first. To successfully reach the next generation, we must focus on reaching people, not getting them into a building or program. That means becoming passionate about the things Millennials are passionate about, which will naturally lead to connection.
We must be willing to find out the needs and interests of those we seek to reach and work accordingly. We don’t need to compromise our message, but we might need to compromise some traditions along the way to make an impact. For example, some churches now take one Sunday a year to lock the doors for a day of community service. This can be a great start, but what about the rest of the year?
Reaching out requires embracing diversity: Some recent research reveals Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in history, at 43 percent non-white. Our churches should reflect the ethnic composition of our surrounding community. This will only take place when we look at people as family, regardless of external factors like race, disability, tattoos or piercings.
Start where they are. Jesus commanded His followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). We tend to look at this command for missionary strategy, but it also works next door and in our own community. Instead of inviting young adults to attend your Sunday service, try going to your local college campus with free pizza. A few recruited young adults play some music, a crowd gathers, and a few people share their testimonies. Repeat for the entire school year and see how many lives are changed. You may end up reaching more people on a college campus than in your Sunday service.
Translate your message. We don’t need to change the Bible’s message to reach the next generation, but we do need to translate it. To reach new people, you have to communicate the message in meaningful words and structures others can understand and respond to. Many Millennials did not grow up in church, and neither did their parents or grandparents. They only know the Bible as folklore. We must start at the beginning and explain why the Christian message is important for today. We must honestly communicate that God calls us to live differently if we choose to follow Him. We can no longer live any way we want but are called to serve the Lord and be different from those around us. The way of Christ is amazing and filled with love, but it is also difficult and will include many struggles.
Accept Millennials as family. More than 40 percent of today’s young people are born into unmarried families. Even those in traditional, two-parent families have often faced abuse or neglect. The great cry of this generation is for family relationships that withstand the ups and downs of life. Accept Millennials as family and they will be family.
Release creativity. The average Millennial knows at least some computer programming, can build his or her own website, and can put together messages that reach thousands within minutes through social media. Many have amazing skills with music or art and literature or design. Wouldn’t you like to have more of these skills in your church?
Many of the highly creative Millennials in your community would pitch in and serve if you gave them a compelling reason to do so. We can no longer be afraid to hand over a project to a twenty-something because he or she “might not be mature enough.” If we’re honest, we weren’t mature enough when we started either. We learn best by doing, not watching.
Mentor each Millennial. Simply put, Millennials are open to receiving help. They often don’t know how to go about getting it, however. We are all about making disciples through mentoring. If we become more intentional about creating one-to-one connections between younger and older people in our congregations, we’ll experience deep relationships that keep people close—better than any program.
Where can we begin? In most churches, leaders of the congregation can set the pace. Typically a leader will mentor one person who then commits to mentoring one other person. Start small, stay strong, and keep investing in each other’s lives.
Help Millennials with everyday life skills. Without the influence of a father, many young men do not know how to interact with other men or how to properly behave toward women. Others—male and female alike—don’t know how to do laundry or manage their finances. What could your congregation do to help? Some offer financial literacy classes. Others offer programs for young men such as Trail Life (traillifeusa.com) or AWANA classes that support parents in raising children of character. No church can address every need, but every church can help.
Include Millennials in leadership decisions. We must include those we wish to reach. To get younger people into the choir, let them choose some of the music. To see more young people leading in the church, put them in charge of something significant.
Send out Millennial missionaries. To reach Millennials, we must plan to release them. What often attracts young people is the chance to tackle a big challenge. There is little appeal in sitting through music and a lecture on a Sunday morning. But send them into a local juvenile center to serve among incarcerated youth? Now you have their attention. Help with a winter shelter in subzero temperatures to save lives? Finally, something that sounds interesting!
The paradox of the Millennial generation is that despite the reputation for apathy, many desire to take on truly great challenges to make a difference. They want to be heroic. Millennials don’t get too excited about attending the monthly business meeting, but tell a young person you’re ready to minister to gangs in your city, and somebody will say yes. Tell the young women in your church you need someone to minister to victims of sexual assault, and someone will make time to show up. The more extreme the situation, the more it appeals to those seeking adventure in life.
Think about it. You may have the next Billy Graham or Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr. in your community. You don’t know it yet, but creating and supporting compelling ministry opportunities may be the missing ingredient your church needs to call out the next generation of leaders.
Taken from Abandoned Faith by Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.