Everyone seems to be consumed with the question of why Millennials are leaving churches. Just google “why are millennials leaving the church,” and you’ll have a month’s worth of reading material. Millennials are writing “open letters” to the Church like doctors write prescriptions. America has shifted its focus from the Baby Boomer generation to the Millennial generation. The reasons are many, Millennials by most estimations, have surpassed the Baby Boomers in number. They are taking over the workforce and shaping culture in countless ways, both good and bad.
Full disclosure, at thirty-three, I am technically a millennial. For those who have remained blissfully unaware, the consensus seems to be that Millennials are comprised of those born from 1982 – 2012 (although there is some debate). So, I squeaked into what is often called “the worst generation.” Good for me! Having said that, I should note that Millennials are not monolithic. We simply cannot be lumped into one big pile. I think that’s one of the most interesting and underreported aspects of my generation. We are radically different from person to person. This can be attributed to the massive amounts of data and information accessible to us from our youth via the rise of the internet, social media, education, and other media sources. In fact, we have so much data we’re drowning in it. This is not a new issue regarding the hysteria surrounding the so-called mass exodus of Millennials from churches. Every generation has had a falling away (check out this article written in 1993 regarding the Baby Boomer generation). I’m a fifth-generation Oneness Pentecostal Christian, and every generation in my family has mourned the departure of large portions of their generation from the Church.
So why all the frenzy? One, there are more people polling, studying, analyzing, and collecting data about Christianity than in days gone by. Second, the rise of blogs (like this one), social media, and the internet in general spreads the word beyond the stuffy conversations of church board meetings. Third, my generation doesn’t leave quietly. We make a big deal over it. We whine and write and vlog and yada-yada-yada about it. The result is that this feels like a brand-new problem when it’s really just an old problem with a new label. As this study points out, young adults commonly leave churches for a season only to return later in life. Jesus parabolically described this very thing in the story of the Prodigal Son. Marriage, the birth of a child, a life crisis, or the realization that secularism is full of emptiness often draws people back to their childhood faith. My grandparents used to call this phenomenon “sowing wild oats.” I still have no idea what that means.
Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying this isn’t a problem. It is. It’s just not a new problem. Beyond that, I think overreactions and knee-jerk responses to the perceived death of Christianity are ridiculous, unnecessary, and unhelpful. I would even argue that overreacting has contributed to the problem. Recently, an article caught my attention on Facebook called 12 Reasons Millennials Are Over Church. I’ve read countless articles like it, but this one gives a clear window into the heart of the issue. I want to address several things the author mentions head-on (from one millennial to another, so to speak). It’s probably the narcissistic millennial part of me, but I think being at the upper end of the age spectrum gives me a unique insight into the issue at hand. In other words, I see both sides of the coin; sometimes, I think like a typical millennial, and other times millennial thinking makes me want to hang my head in shame. Regardless, bridges must be built between the generations, but they must be adequately built on foundations of truth and honesty, not hypocrisy and cheap compromise.
Back to the 12 Reasons Millennials Are Over Church, the first complaint on the list is Nobody’s Listening to Us (don’t worry, I won’t take the time to address all 12). At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this also is not a new problem. Every generation has felt undervalued, unappreciated, and unheard. We are in the throes of a generational clash. Every younger generation has thought they could do it better, run it better, make it better, etc. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong. Growing pains are tough, and feeling marginalized is tougher. Generational clashes are as old as time. We’ve all heard the platitudes about kids who thought dad didn’t know anything about anything until they had kids of their own. This is the natural order of life, but it must be addressed and discussed.
While it is true that Millennials don’t know everything, many of us are sincere (although we are often sincerely wrong). Approaching sincere Millennials with flawed assumptions about our character and name-calling will alienate us further. Opening communication channels is imperative if you want us to feel connected to the future and health of the Church. On the flip side, we Millennials must learn that listening is just as essential as being heard. The generations ahead of us endured tons of obstacles to get where they are. When we insult their dignity, they automatically (and understandably) question our motives, which brings me to my biggest problem with my generation—lack of respect. I know, I know. Respect must be earned, but a vast majority of Millennials struggle to respect any traditional authority structures. Mountains of research have been compiled on this very subject. Like most Millennials, I’ve seen many “heroes” fall both secular and religious. This has produced a general mistrust towards leaders of all kinds, which is reason number 7 (Distrust & Misallocation of Resources) in the article we’re discussing.
Since we Millennials love to point out hypocrisy, I’ll shine a little light on one of my generation’s hypocritical conundrums. Many of my peers may be shedding the “chains” of Christianity and parental dominance, but they are trading them for a secular dogma that they pursue with religious fervor. Their preachers call themselves professors, their bishops are politicians, and science is their Bible. They even have an apocalyptic End Times theology called global warming. Taxes are nothing more than tithes in the megachurch of government, and morality is not sexual, but it is social. Here’s the problem, politics and science and social justice warriors have far more scandals, greed, misappropriation of funds, antipathy, complacency, inconsistencies, and widespread fraud than all the churches in all the world could ever dream of having. For example, here’s a list of solutions that the author has given to help churches overcome the distrust Millennials have towards financial stewardship within churches:
I think all those things are great ideas, and many churches do that stuff and much more. But as Millennials become increasingly politically active, why are we not voicing the same concerns towards the almighty federal government? Where is the outrage over the waste and fraud within beloved government social programs? Millennials supposedly value consistency above all, and when the Church fails the test, we’re out, right? Why then aren’t we imposing these same concerns in the realm of politics?
Moving on, reason number 3 on the list of why Millennials are over church: Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority. This one irks me a bit even though I think I know where he’s coming from. Honestly, it seems like every megachurch in America is more concerned with sending water to Africa than actually preaching the Gospel (no need for hate mail, I’m all for sending water to Africa). The social gospel movement dominates western Christianity. Helping the poor is essential, vital, necessary, and Christ-like. But nothing could be more compassionate, life-changing, and elevating than the Gospel. That’s why the Great Commission is Gospel-centric, not welfare-oriented. But therein lies the actual problem my fellow millennial is addressing. To some degree, I’m jumping to conclusions here, but it’s pretty safe to assume, based on his description, that the author attends a typical semi-mega church. Meaning that the Gospel is so watered down and shallow it’s just a shell of the authentic truth of the Bible. Performance has replaced praise, and relevance has replaced righteousness. And these are the kinds of churches that Millennials are fleeing, like a religious Titanic.
Churches like this rail against the culture (see point 4), but they are saturated with the culture. They preach sermons based on movies and incorporate secular music into their services. Millennials spot the hypocrisy a mile away. They see churches filled with a form of godliness yet denying the power of it (2 Timothy 3:5). It’s a point I’ve previously made here; many heterosexual Millennials supported gay marriage because they watched churches wink at adultery, divorce, and various other sexual sins while bellowing against the gay lifestyle. Let me be clear, all those things are biblically unacceptable, but many American churches lost the moral high ground a long time ago in the name of relevance. These churches thought they were making the Gospel more palatable, but they really just perverted it. So, churches that are like the culture have no room to rail against the culture. It’s like the proverbial pot who called the kettle black, or to use one of Jesus’ analogies; it’s like the guy with a beam in his eye pointing out a speck in the other guy’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5). And we’ve circled right back around to hypocrisy; we millennials hate hypocrisy even if we don’t always recognize it in ourselves.
Reason number 7 (We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At) is probably the best example of how I see both sides of the coin. I agree with the statement on the surface, but once he starts elaborating, he loses me. I do see an absence of one on one mentorship in the average church. Jesus said to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). His whole ministry was a combination of public preaching and private teaching. Millennials are desperate for godly mentors, especially with the overwhelming absence of mothers and fathers due to divorce, careers, and addiction. But I fear that the minimization of preaching and the weird comfort level that Millennials have with virtual pastors is a product of weak pulpits. Meaning, the average commercially relevant Christian church is preaching watered down sermons thinking that’s what it takes to connect. When in reality, they are disconnected from the anointing and the biblical authority they desperately need.
Here’s a point to ponder for holiness pastors such as myself; Millennials are not afraid of biblical righteousness if it is correct, sincere, consistent, and kind. That may rock your boat a little, but it’s true. Millennials are not afraid to be counter-cultural if presented to them truthfully, sincerely, convincingly, and directly. This leads nicely to reason number 9 on the list of why Millennials are over church; We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is). It’s the most important point in the entire article, and it is 100% accurate. For too long now, churches have remained alarmingly silent on the big issues. Hollywood, social engineers, politicians, and liberal professors don’t have any qualms about facing the big controversial issues head-on. So why should the Church? Churches need to talk about jobs, money, careers, sex, marriage, dating, addiction, social issues, and more. As he said, I understand all these topics can’t and shouldn’t be discussed in the main sanctuary. However, opportunities need to be provided to face the controversial issues head-on.
There is some good news regarding the scary millennial statistics and the general decline of American Christianity for my fellow Pentecostals. While mainline, denominational churches are dying, Pentecostals are experiencing growth (check out this fascinating article Why Do These Pentecostals Keep Growing? by Ed Stetzer). While Pentecostals may have declining ranks of Millennials, statistics strongly indicate that we have much better retention than mainline denominational churches. Why? Because we have what the apostles had, the power of the Holy Spirit. We have not allowed liberal theologians to create contempt and mistrust for the Bible. While imperfect, we are distinct and separated from the world. Is carnality creeping into many of our churches? Yes! And that will be the death of those churches because Millennials hate hypocrisy. So, if you want to impress Millennials, “…be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58)”.
Finally, Millennials are ultra-social conscious. We want to see poverty, disease, and anguish eradicated. We may be more sensitive than our predecessors in petulant ways, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t earnest. That’s great news for true Bible-believing Apostolics because we know that the Gospel can genuinely change lives. The Holy Ghost can lift a drug addict out of crippling addiction, restore marriages, heal sickness, and turn a liar honest. What could be better for broken communities than hundreds of thousands of Spirit-transformed people? Apostolic revival is the most outstanding social program of all time. The Acts 2:38 message can still turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).