I’m not convinced the Millennial generation is leaving the church in any great numbers. Thom Rainer and others have done studies, but their techniques fall short of scientific standards for statistical analysis. Rather, I believe church leaders are expressing their gut reaction as to whether Millennials are leaving. They often base this from knowing a 20-something relative that is turned off by church and has said “I am never going back.”
Or they may have read one of the 5,000 articles on the subject and become convinced that with this much smoke, there must be a raging inferno nearby.
Personally, I’m not convinced that Millennials are leaving church as dramatically as some fear. But for the sake of argument, let’s say they are. Why should I care?
When I pose that question, some of you immediately rise up with indignation based upon your Theology of Church, and claim “The role of the church is to reach all people with the Gospel. To leave out an entire generation is unconscionable”. If the role of the church is to reach all people with the Gospel–and I agree it is, according to the Great Commission–then it is wrong to ignore a generation.
Many people have observed that “Christianity is always one generation away from extinction.” Though the Bible assures us that will never happen, it is certainly a possibility. At least, it makes for a good fear-based mission statement. I do understand that my generation is responsible to pass on the Good News of Jesus to the next generation. But that is not enough reason to make me care if Millennials are leaving church.
Others of you–parents, teachers, youth pastors–desperately want to see the Millennials you know go back to church as soon as possible. I can empathize with that; I have three children who are all Millennials, and who all wrestle with what they want out of church. But even that is still not enough to make me care if Millennials are leaving church.
Pastors may look at declining attendance in that age demographic and do the logical projections in their mind. They may ask “If they stop coming to church, will my church even exist in 20 years?” And that has merit, if two conditions remain the same. First, if the Millennials who are leaving now never come back. And, second, if no other generations coming after them go to church. I’m trained as a pastor, and I completely understand those projections and the terror they invoke. But it is still not enough to cause me to care that Millennials are leaving church.
Let me explain why.
Twenty-somethings have always been leaving church. Always. You cannot find a generation of twenty-somethings that wanted to readily adopt the traditions and patterns of their elders. Emerging generations always want to re-invent the wheel. And bless them for wanting that. We would have almost no new inventions, no new theories, no radical changes in life practice, if an emerging generation did not challenge the status quo.
For instance, we are told that in the field of Mathematics and Physics all the most revolutionary and ground-breaking theories have been proposed by people in their teens and twenties.
Some young Christians see glaring deficiencies in church and think they can change things from the inside. Others see those same deficiencies and conclude that hierarchical organizations cannot change. So they leave church, hoping to join with other malcontents to form something truly different.
Here is a recent example. Around the year 2000, we began to see people who called themselves the Emerging Church. Then, as it gained steam, it began to be called the Emergent Church. Then, it morphed into the Emerged Church. At that point, most of the changes they proposed began to show up in existing churches. Many of the “Emerging” group decided to give church a try again. These days, it is old news to talk about any of that. This movement was an attempt to force Christianity in North America to be more missional, socially conscious, and diverse. And a lot of churches incorporated at least some of these features into their personas.
And then I think back to my conversion in the late 60s, and I realize that many of the Sixties Generation were leaving church in droves. We pondered new types of worship music, new expressions of affection, new approaches at evangelism–remember the Coffee Shops we opened and preached the Gospel at–new ways of doing community. For a decade, we traveled on the fringes of church. None of us took out membership, none of us bought their books and tapes. We tuned out and felt superior.
Then something funky happened. We came back. And we brought our drums, our Serendipity Bible Studies, our Coffee ministry, our short-term missions trips, our Youth Ministry, our cell group ministry, our respect for the gifts and callings of women, minorities and young people. All in all, we brought both improvements and some questionable ideas back to those churches we said we would never enter.
Now, thirty years later, all our ideas are mainstream. Many churches have readily adopted our musical expressions. We have space set aside for counseling. Every church has small groups.
Now it is the turn for our children to take a critical eye at what we changed and say “Yeah, but the Church has to change a lot more before I’m satisfied.” Good for them. Some of them will stay in the church and work patiently to tweak what is here. Others will leave for a decade or more and then come back with some “blow-your-mind” ideas that none of us saw coming.
What does the church of today need to be concerned about? I don’t think we need to give one thought about Millennials leaving. Bless them. The question is not whether we need to change anything to please them, but rather, do we need to change anything to please God. If a church is doing what Holy Spirit is leading them to do, they shouldn’t be concerned if Millennials don’t like it. Who cares if they aren’t satisfied? That’s their job to question everything. When and if they return to church in the years to come, we hope they bring the Word of the Lord to help us continue to follow God’s plan for His Body.
I just hope you remember these things 40 years from now, when the blog articles all ask “Why are the kids of the Thirties leaving church?”