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What Millennials Need from the Church

Going straight to the source—Millennials themselves

Okay, we get it. Millennials are leaving the church in droves! Sound the alarms! Circle the wagons!

Not much makes me angrier than seeing those articles that make the rounds on Facebook every few months. You know the ones: a pastor claims to know why Millennials are really walking away from church. This particular article has proven especially resilient; it pops up in my news feed every few months to much acclaim. This one, the one that really pushed my buttons and prompted me to finally start the blog we’ve been talking about for a month now, calls these articles to task, purporting to know “how the church really lost the Millennials.” (CliffsNotes: it says the exact same thing as all the other articles.) This one innovatively shifts the focus to Sunday school rather than youth group, but the conclusion is the same.

With all this speculation flying around as to why our generation is abandoning church in larger numbers than our parents’ generation, few have bothered to ask us why we’re leaving the church.

These pieces, on the whole, have two things in common. First: they blame the current model of youth ministry (or children’s ministry, but we’ll focus on youth ministry for the sake of the argument). While we would certainly agree there are some terrible youth ministry ideas floating around out there, what this does is shift the blame to a more marginalized group of people—youth pastors, who are typically paid less and have less job security, and, of course, the teenagers themselves. Additionally, it takes attention away from a crucial fact: we’re not walking away from youth groups. We’re walking away from “grown-up church.” (This is what we will call the adult-oriented church body throughout this article. Is it a silly name? Yes. Does it effectively communicate the exclusiveness, and sometimes arbitrariness, with which young people are added—or not—to the realm of participating Christian adults? Yes. But more on that later.)

Second, and even worse: few of these pieces are written by Millennials themselves. With all this speculation flying around as to why our generation is abandoning church in larger numbers than our parents’ generation, few have bothered to ask us why we’re leaving the church.

So before you start blaming youth pastors or speculating that we were never really converted, please consider our thoughts. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it the product of official research; it is, however, based on our own experiences as two Millennial PKs who have struggled to continue our interest in and engagement with the church into adulthood, as well as on the countless conversations we have had with other Millennials in various stages of church involvement. (We should also note here that we are both white, and as such this article is written from that perspective. Millennials of color likely have other factors at play in their decisions to stay or leave the church. It is not our place to comment on those factors here; however, theirs are equally important voices, and we encourage our readers to seek those voices out.)

1. We’re more educated than previous generations, but the church doesn’t continue to feed our minds.

Statistically speaking, our generation is more educated than any of our predecessors. A far greater number of us have college degrees than any preceding generation. And as high schools step up their requirements and add more college- and AP-level classes, those of us who didn’t attend college are likely significantly better educated than the high-school grads of our parents’ generations as well.

In our youth groups we were taught—exhorted, in fact—to want to go deeper, and we’re not getting that from grown-up church.

This has several implications for ministry, but the key is this: for those of us who grew up in church, it’s very rare for us to learn anything new on a Sunday. In our rush to condemn segregated youth programs, we’ve neglected to point out one of the really positive things they provided: opportunities for teenagers to study the Bible in depth over a long period of time. This means the average church-raised young person probably has a good idea of what’s in the Bible. They probably even know some Greek and Hebrew words. This is particularly true for the many of us who attended Christian colleges and universities, as our pastors and church leaders encouraged us to do. We’ve spent entire semesters studying the Bible. We know how to use a commentary, and we can exegete fairly well.

So when you’re giving an altar call every week and not much else, we get bored. Really bored. In our youth groups we were taught—exhorted, in fact—to want to go deeper, and we’re not getting that from grown-up church. Likewise, a fear of questioning or ambiguity, often justified by the discourse of “simple faith” or “faith like a child,” is something we’ve experienced far too often. In many (not all) of the grown-up churches with which we’ve interacted, there seems to be a fear of questioning, as though it might lead to unbelief. But questioning is at the heart of education: it leads us into deeper knowledge, not unbelief. We need intellectual engagement.

2. We came of age in a recession, but the church hasn’t changed its teachings about money.

In case you haven’t heard, the 2008 recession hit our generation harder than any other. It has limited and continues to limit our prospects for current jobs and for future earnings. Add that to the crippling levels of student loan debt that are basically mandatory for earning a degree now, and you begin to get the idea. Sure, some of us are making it. But far more of us are falling through the cracks, stuck in dead-end minimum-wage jobs for which we are over-qualified, doubling our debt by returning to grad school in hopes of increasing our employability, or perpetually un- or underemployed. And no, unfortunately, it’s not a problem that will go away if we simply “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” or “put in our dues.” This is a financial dilemma on a global scale. The world is pretty grim for us right now.

We can’t keep talking about money, or work for that matter, in the same way we always have.

And yet, in spite of all that, churches continue to preach the same cheery messages they always have. If they’re not teaching outright prosperity gospel, it’s prosperity gospel’s more insidious derivative: the “if you tithe 10 percent, God will magically put your finances in order” rule. It’s a nice thought, but it just doesn’t always work out that way. Additionally, many of us have to work evenings and weekends—the primary times when church programming is scheduled—which makes it very difficult for us to participate in the full life of the grown-up church. We’re not skipping church because we’re lazy or uncommitted; we’re skipping it because we have no other choice.

We can’t keep talking about money, or work for that matter, in the same way we always have. We need the church to acknowledge the huge—and uneven—impact of the recession and work to find an appropriate, timely, Christian response rooted in love.

3. We’re still processing bad experiences with the church, and that’s going to take time.

We grew up in the middle of the conservative reaction against the progressivism/liberalism (depending on your point of view) of the ’60s and ’70s. This reaction has created fertile grounds for spiritual abuse—and, sadly, physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse as well—through their promotion of isolation, exclusivity, and oft-extreme authoritarian structures. Even those of us with more progressive parents, like ours, experienced this from others, both within and outside our churches. In addition to that, there’s a whole host of bad church experiences that fall outside the realm of spiritual abuse: sexism, drama, and in-fighting.

So we’re still processing these issues and attempting to heal. For some people, the pain is too much: I can’t tell you how many young people I’ve met who’ve walked away from severely spiritually abusive churches and never looked back. And I don’t blame them. For those of us who are still on the fence, please understand healing takes time, and often space as well. Please be kind and understanding, and to the best of your ability supply us with positive, healthy tools for processing past hurts. And please, above all, acknowledge abuse in all its forms and take steps to provide safe, healthy places for the victims—don’t sweep it under the rug or, worse yet, perpetuate the cycle. We need healing.

4. We have good ideas, and nobody cares.

Another positive thing about youth groups is that they give teenagers a voice. They speak their minds, they state their preferences, and they are heard. When we graduate and head out into the big bad world of grown-up church, this changes. We’re still “kids” in the congregation’s eyes—usually until we’re married or we’ve had children or whatever arbitrary rite of passage it may be—but we no longer have a pastor whose primary job is to listen to our needs and concerns as young people and respond. We have good ideas—we’ve been developing them since we were in youth group—but no one seems to care. The church leadership is still dominated by those of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations (a fact that likely contributes to the other issues discussed in this article), and the hierarchy is usually pretty entrenched. So we’re back to square one, having to work our way up through the ranks in hopes of maybe one day having our voices heard and being able to change the status quo. Or not—which stinks. That’s when leaving starts to look pretty attractive. We need to be taken seriously.

5. Everyone assumes we’re leaving the church because we want to sin, but that’s simply not the case.

For some reason, the underlying assumption seems to be that we’re leaving the church because we want to join “the world” so we can drink, smoke, swear, and have sex. Articles like this one, about Abraham Piper’s excommunication from and return to his father’s church, don’t do much to dispel that idea. (We’re not arguing that he is being inauthentic, or that those were not his real reasons for leaving the church. We’re not decrying the truth of his rejection of and return to Christianity. We’re simply pointing out his experience is likely the minority, but it’s being presented as the norm.) In our experience, that’s simply not the case for the vast majority of Millennials who’ve left the church.

We don’t think young people reject the church at the point of sin; we think they/we reject it at the point of empathy. We leave our Christian bubbles and begin to befriend people who don’t believe the same way we do.

We don’t think young people reject the church at the point of sin; we think they/we reject it at the point of empathy. We leave our Christian bubbles and begin to befriend people who don’t believe the same way we do. We realize they’re pretty cool people and not the Satan-worshiping, drug-pushing, sex-fiends we’ve been told inhabit the entire non-bubble world. We think about inviting them to church because, hey, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? And we totally want to have wicked-cool harp jam sessions with these pretty cool people in heaven. So we think about it. But then we start to empathize, to see church through their eyes. Would they feel welcome here? Would this confuse or frighten them? Would they understand what’s going on? Would fellow churchgoers accept them or look down their noses at them? Would this give them a positive impression of Jesus—the Jesus we know and love?

We don’t know about you, but we have a hard enough time feeling we fit in at church ourselves. We’re certain none of our non-churchgoing friends would find it to be a welcoming or safe environment. This goes double for friends who belong to groups that Christians have traditionally ostracized—marginalized persons, unwed parents, and intellectuals, to name a few. And when you start to realize church isn’t the safe place you thought it was or that you want it to be for your friends, well, it’s a pretty short walk out the door. We need to be understood.

Kayla Rush is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, and she holds a BMus from Wheaton College in Illinois. Her research interests include community arts, border studies, and the anthropology of emotion and the body. She co-founded Mapping Belfast Musically (MappingBelfastMusically.com) and serves as the project’s Coordinator for Community Engagement and Social Advocacy.

Kyle Smith is a working musician and a youth pastor. He recently graduated from Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois. He currently lives in northern Indiana with his wife, Erin.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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October 2014

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