(Image by Noah Biddlecombe)
It is a well-known fact that millennials have left churches across North America in droves over the past decade. Barna Group and Pew Forum in the United States and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada records similar numbers: about 2 out of 3 young adults who spent some time in church during their formative years end up leaving.
Millennials don’t want to be sold self-help, a perfect happiness, a mute Jesus, a rock concert, or sunshine, puppy-dogs and rainbows. Smoke machines and hipster programming are out. Just because they are the tech generation whose brains have been structured by flashing screens doesn’t meant that church services need to be flashy. It doesn’t mean the gospel, Jesus’ values, or even the sanctuary’s décor needs to be molded into something easy to swallow to try to get them in your door.
Millennials do want a place that values relationship and community. They want the ability to ask hard questions, especially because Jesus often doesn’t make sense. They desire to be with a people with honest and vulnerable integrity, a people who value and act toward social justice. They want a place where people are authentic and their faith transforms. They want a place where they are taught by the older generation who walks alongside them how to live out their faith. Millennials want wisdom. Millennials want something of value. Millennials want something that transcends their culture because they are finding it empty. Millennials want what Jesus gives.
Millennials have a culture of easily-consumable candy and they are desperately craving meat and vegetables that sustain. If your church community knows Jesus, regardless of sermon length, regardless of congregational age, regardless of music style, regardless of robes or tattoos, regardless of time of day, regardless of programming, millennials will want to be there.
The thing is, all the things that millennials want are things that Jesus himself stood for. Some churches have already figured this out. Some churches have gotten it right the whole time.
The problem with Christian churches in North America is not that millennials are leaving. Millennials have only highlighted the problem. Well done, courageous millennials, for being the generation that won’t settle for a weak Christianity.
The problem actually is that we in North America have largely settled for such a watered-down, non-transformative version of Jesus. The problem is that church is largely based on tradition and driven by what people want, rather than what Jesus values. The problem is that church communities are sometimes focusing on taking a stand against culture, rather than standing for Jesus.
To be a church that millennials want to be at, you have to know Jesus enough to strive to live like him. In all situations.
Jesus should impact how conflict is managed. How relationships are kept. How money is handled. How the poor and widowed are addressed. How you speak to your children. How business is conducted. How vocation is viewed. How you treat the cashier at the grocery store. How tough decisions are made. How the finite time in your day is spent. How reconciliation is pursued. How you respond to those who hold different viewpoints.
Millennials don’t want anything that you haven’t got for yourself, no matter how hard you try to sell it. Millennials want to change the world, so if your religion isn’t changing even yourself, they walk out the door.
If church is something you only do Sunday, millennials won’t be there. If Jesus is only a distant deity mentioned one day a week, they won’t want to hear more about him. No matter how ‘tailored’ to their interests you make your programs.
And no, Jesus isn’t opposed to science, and he doesn’t require you to stash away your intellect and critical thinking. He created intellect. Read more about science and religion here.
Millennials want a place where they can question and compare Jesus’ values with their culture, and chew through it until they’ve found truth. They might make some mistakes, but so do you. So did Jesus’ disciples in the bible.
The beauty of the gospel is that it welcomes second and one hundred chances. The beauty of the bible is that it encourages conversation. The beauty of Jesus is that he does not replace culture, but stands as a pillar of truth within it. The gospel, bible and Jesus require community to be followed. Community requires vulnerability. And vulnerability requires courage.
Be a church of courage. Be a church of vulnerability. Be a church of conversation. Be a church of many chances. Be a church who welcomes. In doing so, you will be a pillar in your community, a pillar that millennials will be proud to have stand, a pillar they can lean on in the midst of their culture.
The millennial problem is often spoken in the context of doom with the implication that church is dead. But for me, the millennials’ absence in Christian churches is a message of hope. Most of rehabilitation is accepting there is a problem.
There is a problem. We have accepted it. And now we can move forward.
The responsibility lies on the congregants, just as much it lies on the leadership. Read the gospels. Know Jesus. Be willing to see where you’ve been wrong. Invite others into your journey. Talk about it as you go. Don’t try to be perfect. Aim to share your weakness.
Then the millennials will return. And they will bring their kids.
Read Part 2 – Millennials and Defining Church Success – here
Read Part 3 – Millennials Culture and Church Relevance – here
Read Part 4 – Millennials Relationships and Church Programs – here