**Repost from late 2013 with edits.**
There’s no shortage of online fodder attempting to exegete the millennial generation. Churches are facing a ‘millennial exodus’ and are seeking any number of strategies to stop the bleeding.
If you want a piece of advice from a millinnial on strategies, here’s one for free, Christian leaders should largely ignore strategic ploys to recapture the so-called ‘lost’ generation, and dig deep into the pursuit of long standing relationships instead. But I digress
In my context, evidence suggests millennials ARE NOT leaving churches in droves. We know Gen Y (and Gen Z) by and large do not attend a weekly church service or program. The reason why is not because they consciously left, rather they were never there to begin with. It was their parents (Gen X and Baby Boomers) that started the trend of not going to church, they’re merely the result, and the cuhrch has only now figured out someone’s missing.
Building the Proverbial Straw-Millennial
These ideas come out of my Canadian context, although the trends will apply to major urban cities in the USA. First some history, in Canada the post-secularized world emerged largely due to the radically successful Quiet Revolution in Quebec that saw the province turn on its religious head. The changes slowly trickled West, and by the late-80s the grand exodus from all mainline denominations (Catholic, United, Anglican, Lutheran) was in full swing. Canada’s religious landscape was permanently changed–the post-Christendom world was/is here to stay.
[This is a blog, I’m not citing anything. I’m using my own research and some of the only stats (and good stuff at that) I know of that tracks church growth numbers in Canada. Pick up Reginald Bibby’s books from the library and have a look. Here’s the most recent in a free PDF. Cite Pew Research for quick trends over the entire religious affiliation numbers.]
Today, mainline denominations are on the brink. Surprisingly, as most denominations shrink, the largest evangelical churches tend to hold their own, and in some cases they even grow (very small growth). This growth by addition (usually transfers from those smaller churches closing) makes sense. In our individualistic consumer culture, in which churches readily participate, the biggest churches with the best services and resourced programs will meet the demands of Christian consumers and survive. (A post for another time would be an examination of mega church leaders who in the midst of the shrinking church believe what they have is ‘working’.)
In Canada the church exodus started over 50 years ago, the bulk of it in full swing 30 years ago, and if you’re counting decades that’s before millennials were even born.
Why aren’t millennials going to church? Simply put they never attended to begin with because their parents never took them. Nowadays, church culture is foreign to average millennials, whom require translation if they were to step foot in a service. Those few who do attend seem to be happily bought in hook, line, and sinker, and generally do not question the status quo of their programmatic church existence. These millennials are not going anywhere.
Church leaders have rightly noticed the obvious millennial gap and are trying to figure out solutions. Erroneously, they begin with tacticas to target the demographic. Some of the attempts include embracing the right nomenclature, integrating with technology, creating cool services with great music and leaders with fade haircuts and skinny jeans, and shying away from being contentious with cultural trends.
Ironically, these strategies succeed in appealing to existing Christians, not checked-out millennials. Some leaders take their analysis a step further, digging deeper into the millennial psyche to appeal to perceived valued needs like ‘authenticity’ and social justice.
In pursuit to discover ‘what millennials want’ we over-analyze and unintentionally dilute the crucial need.
There IS something of value in the pursuit of authenticity IF we do it right. There is a natural craving for authentic love in relationship. That’s not to say that millennials are particularly good at finding it. The ability for the millennial generation to cut through the bullshit of church culture does not make them experts on where to find healthy alternatives. Despite increased connection, screen culture is reducing authentic face to face relationship. Millennials are dealing with the innate desire for unbroken love by doing–well–nothing. Millennials aren’t creating their own rival ‘churches’ to make up the lack of community, rather, good intentions and Facebook ‘likes’ are the extent of average engagement.
Millennials don’t over-analyze their culture–they consume the easy parts and in great volume, all while ignoring substance. If anything, this low-level commitment generation is the most superficial and narcissistic ever (soon to be overtaken by the one preceding it).
What can we do about the lost millennials?
If there is an attraction–an appeal–then appeal to the heart. Authenticity for authenticity sake in the context of enduring relationships is a longing shared by everyone.
Imagine faith traditions routinely re-examining how they communicate the Gospel, not because Jesus changes, but because culture does and our storytelling should too. Rather than being guardians of Reformed traditions, churches should work harder to reflect how they are participating in God’s unfolding Kingdom and incarnating in the neighborhood. Being Jesus in the neighborhood is only possible through the total re-orientation of place and the people in those places.
Herein lies the crucial element: we have a church culture problem not a millennial exodus problem. Loving community is a demand, a fundamental human want, that applies to ANY generation. The reason why people of all generations continue to walk out, and few walk in, is because we’re simply not good at it. These pursuits include justice, beauty, love, hope, and are applicable to everyone churched or not. Living these values should be priority number one. If we can inspire our churches to live these pursuits we’ll stem the persistent rumors of generational exodus and turn the ship around.
This might take another generation to fully unroll, but recapturing the imagination of Jesus followers to say, ‘Yes’, to the Kingdom in their midst is the solution. That takes the characteristic of living out love in the simplest yet most profound ways, starting with your God, then moving to yourself and your neighbour.