Millennials Need a Bigger God, Not a Hipper Pastor
You’ve seen the statistics. If you’re in ministry, you’ve probably witnessed the problem firsthand. The Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) are leaving the church in droves...and staying away. Approximately 70 percent of those raised in the church disengage from it in their 20s. One-third of Americans under the age of 30 now claim “no religion.”
There are 80 million Millennials in the U.S. -- and approximately the same number of suggestions for how to bring them back to church. But most of the proposals I’ve heard fall into two camps.
The first goes something like this: The church needs to be more hip and relevant. Drop stodgy traditions. Play louder music. Hire pastors with tattoos and fauxhawks. Few come right out and advocate for this approach, but from pastoral search committees to denominational gatherings to popular conferences, a quest for relevance drives the agenda.
Others demand more fundamental change. They insist the church soften its positions on key doctrines and social issues. Our culture is secularizing. Let’s get with the times in order to attract the younger generation, they say. We must abandon supernatural beliefs and restrictive moral teachings. Christianity must “change or die.”
I think both approaches are flawed.
Download the Making Space for Millennials Executive Summary to learn about the trends that are affecting Millennials and the church today.
Chasing coolness won’t work. In my experience, churches that try to be cool end up with a pathetic photocopy of what was cool about 10 years ago. And if you’ve got a congregation of businessmen and soccer moms, donning a hip veneer will only make you laughable to the younger generation.
The second tack is worse. Not only will we end up compromising core beliefs, we will shrink our churches as well. The advocates of this approach seem to have missed what happened to mainline liberal churches over the last few decades. Adopting liberal theologies and culturally acceptable beliefs has drastically reduced their numbers while more theologically conservative churches grew.
There is no one silver bullet to bring Millennials back to church. But here are a few actions to help us reach the next generation more effectively.
Adopt a Different Tone
As the culture has grown more secular, many Christians have struggled to adjust. The church once had pride of place in North American society. Now it seems we’re increasingly getting pushed to the margins. Christian morality is no longer assumed, and our beliefs are suddenly considered strange.
This loss of cultural capital has caused many to shout louder in hopes of regaining influence. But adopting a shrill, combative tone only exacerbates the problem. It’s the surest way to alienate outsiders, especially Millennials. Author and historian John Dickson urges Christians to move from a posture of “admonition to mission.” Dickson lives in Australia, a decidedly post-Christian country. In our increasingly secular culture, it’s a lesson we need to take to heart. Let’s stop being shocked when our unbelieving neighbors fail to act like Christians and take a more winsome tone when we communicate the gospel.
Foster Intergenerational Relationships
I’ve read virtually all of the books on Millennials and the church, and I’ve added my own thoughts in Generation Ex-Christian. If there’s one lesson to take away from this corpus of literature, it’s this: intergenerational relationships are crucial. The number one predictive factor as to whether or not a young Christian will retain his or her faith is whether that person has a meaningful relationship with an older Christian.
We’re surprised when even our most ardent young people walk away, but we shouldn’t be. If they didn’t have relationships with older Christians in the congregation, in all likelihood, they’re gone. When they age out of youth group, they age out of the church. Churches must find ways to pair older Christians with teens and to engage Millennials outside the church (many of whom are starving for mentors).
The number one predictive factor as to whether or not a young Christian will retain his or her faith is whether that person has a meaningful relationship with an older Christian.
Present a Bigger God
Many evangelical churches present a one-sided vision of God. We love talking about God’s love, but not his holiness. We stress his immanence, but not his transcendence. How does this affect Millennials? I like the way Millennial blogger Stephen Altrogge puts it in Untamable God.
Why are so many young people leaving the church? I don’t think it’s all that complicated. God seems irrelevant to them. They see God as existing to meet their needs and make them happy. And sure, God can make them feel good, but so can a lot of other things. Making piles of money feels good. Climbing the corporate ladder feels good. Buying a motorcycle and spending days cruising around the country feels good … if God is simply one option on a buffet, why stick with God?
Millennials have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or foregoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches, and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well.
What kinds of ideas do you have to bring Millennials back to church? Comment below to let us know.