59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why

If you want to feel like the sky is falling, read an article written about Millenials, by a Millenial.  Seldom will you find an article that says “you know what? We’re not doing very well when it comes to the faith.”  Most of the time it’s “look how bad the church is treating us.”

Sam Eaton wrote an article on Faithit.com expressing many of these feelings.  He backs up much of what he says based off of the Barna survey.

People REALLY need to stop doing that.  Many religious surveys are horribly written.  Do some quick reading by William Briggs on how statistics are misused in many, many contexts, and watch this video of Byron R. Johnson talking about religion surveys in general, and how Barna, because it’s taken as gospel truth, ends up giving us a completely distorted picture of religious life in the US.

But I would like to respond to the points made by Eaton because I think they do a great deal of harm to the Millenial generation.

With all of the complaining done about how the churches don’t address the needs of Millenials, Millenials first need to realize something very important.  Baby boomers (such as my parents), and Gen Xer’s (such as myself and my wife) ALL lived life through our 20’s and 30’s where we had to figure out how to live life.  And you know what?  We said almost the exact same things.  So when you read through these points, consider Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun.

So, here we go.

1. Nobody’s Listening to Us

First question.  Do you have something beneficial to say?  Second question.  Can you take “no” for an answer?

Note my first question.  It’s not “do you have something to say?”  We ALL have something to say.  The question is “do you have something beneficial to say?”  That’s a very different question.

Solution:

  • Create regular outlets (forums, surveys, meetings) to discover the needs of young adults both inside AND outside the church.

I know it sounds simplistic, but those in church leadership probably already know what your needs are.  Not liking our answer is not the same.  You would not believe how important humble submission to an authority is, for example.

Second, forums, surveys, and meetings will not get you anything.  That’s the experience that comes with age speaking.  I’ve done a lot of all three of those and they are less useful than one might think.

Third, the church is for those in the church, first.  People have this mistaken idea that the church, itself, is an evangelical organization.  It is not.  Churches should participate in evangelizing, but they are there, first, for the strengthening, maintaining, and maturing of its members.

  • Invite millennials to serve on leadership teams or advisory boards where they can make a difference.

Goodness, no.  Well, yes, but in a secondary capacity.  This is not because you are stupid, but because, in general (there are, of course, exceptions), many do not have sufficient experience nor have you suffered enough yet to lead effectively.

  • Hire a young adults pastor who has the desire and skill-set to connect with millennials.

No argument.

2. We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements

Ooo, good for you.

“Love God. Love Others.” Task completed.  I attend a church that is exactly the church being railed against in this article and we literally have this on a flag outside our church entry.  So, we’re good, then?

Solutions

  • Stop wasting time on the religious mambo jambo and get back to the heart of the gospel. If you have to explain your mission and values to the church, it’s overly-religious and much too complicated.

Soooo, we’re just supposed to “love” without having an intellectual foundation on which to build that love?  There are so many heretical churches to attend that these religious mambo jambo statements are necessary!  In fact, some of the earliest examples we have of the church are OF that mambo jambo.  The Apostle’s Creed, the Didache, etc.

  • We’re not impressed with the hours you brag about spending behind closed doors wrestling with Christianese words on a paper. We’re impressed with actions and service.

Ignoring the part where we should give a flying flip about what impresses anyone, here is where experience comes into play.  We have literally two thousand years of history of working through our faith with our mind.  How are you supposed to determine what your actions are and what your service is without understanding the heart of the gospel.  The gospel isn’t about “feels”.  It’s about a real person who was really God who has a real moral law who died on a real cross to establish a real kingdom.  THAT is the gospel.  The actions and service are effects of that reality, not a cause.  If they are the cause, then they will not count for anything.

3. Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority

Bull.  My church, along with others in the area, has committed to provide for clothing for 3,000 children for Clothe a Child this year.  We have help for people seeking work.  We have on-staff counselors.  Over the summer we packed 900 lunches per week for children from low-income families.  I counted 15 individual ministries on my church’s website to help those in need.  My church is fairly large so we can have individual ministries like that, but many small churches do the exact same thing, but on a smaller scale.

So to say that helping the poor isn’t a priority is complete bull….

Solutions:

  • Stop creating more Bible studies and Christian activity. Community happens best in service with a shared purpose.

This is a false dilemma.  And, no, Community doesn’t always happen best in service.  It happens best when we share each other’s burdens.  Though, I would agree about the Bible studies thing.  I think the most Christian thing you can do is sit around with a beer and a cigar and marvel about God.

  • Survey your members asking them what injustice or cause God has placed on their hearts. Then connect people who share similar passions. Create space for them to meet and brainstorm and then sit back and watch what God brings to life.

OK, this is useful but, again, secondary.

  • Create group serve dates once a month where anyone can show up and make a difference (and, oh yeah, they’ll also meet new people).

Lots of churches do stuff like this.  Maybe not all, but it might be done in conjunction with (shudder) a youth group activity!  Or (double shudder) a Bible study!

4. We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture

Does the culture not have some blame?  Literally, every part of popular culture is governed by people who are antagonistic towards the historical Christian faith and are actively working to destroy it.  Many in the Millenial generation actively and willingly engage in a participatory manner with these people.  Complaining about people complaining about Elvis’ hips is missing how utterly holy God is and how deeply the moral law condemns us.

Solution:

  • Put the end times rhetoric to rest and focus on real solutions and real impact in our immediate community.

OK.  Keep sex within marriage (this would solve sooooo many problems).  Don’t listen to music with cuss words.  Respect your elders.  Respect traditional marriage.  Live holy lives.  I’m not sure why we should put the “end times rhetoric” to a rest if the Scriptures don’t.

  • Explicitly teach us how our lives should differ from the culture.

See above.

5.  The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Affect

I honestly do not understand this one.  I am about as much of an outsider as you can be.

Solutions:

  • Create authentic communities with a shared purpose centered around service.

ummm… OK

  • Create and train a team of CONNECT people whose purpose is to seek out the outliers on Sunday mornings or during other events. Explicitly teach people these skills as they do not come naturally to most of the population.

Yeah, because EVERYONE likes getting singled out like this.  “Oh hey, I see that you are an outlier this Sunday morning.  Will you be my friend?”  As someone who is often an outsider, that’s about how genuine that sounds.

  • Stop placing blame on individuals who struggle to get connected. For some people, especially those that are shy or struggle with anxiety, putting yourself out there even just once might be an overwhelming task. We have to find ways to bridge that gap.

I have never ONCE heard anyone get blamed for this.  Well, I guess that’s not true.  People often complain about not feeling connected in church.  “Did you join a community group?”  “No”  “Did you join a service project?”  “No”  “Did you go to a Sunday School class?”  “No”.  “Did you join a Bible Study?”  “No”  “Did you volunteer in the children’s ministry?”  “No”

6. Distrust & Misallocation of Resources

Solutions

  • Go out of your way to make all financial records readily accessible. Earn our trust so we can give with confidence.

The author has this exactly backward.  It is the individual that must earn the church’s trust.  The church has authority over the individual, not the individual over the church.  Now, that’s not to say that churches get off scot-free.  But to say that it is the church’s duty to earn your trust is a massive act of hubris.  You are NOT “giving to the church” you are giving back to God via the church.

See, also, Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

  • Create an environment of frugality.

I am fairly certain that the finance chair of practically any church would laugh hysterically at this statement.

  • Move to zero-based budgeting where departments aren’t allocated certain dollar amounts but are asked to justify each purchase.

Does the author really have any understanding of how this would slow activity to a crawl?  No organization can function like this.

  • Challenge church staff to think about the opportunity cost. Could these dollars be used to better serve the kingdom?

This isn’t a bad suggestion, but I’m pretty sure that many churches already do this.  Especially given the limited amount of money they have to work with.

7. We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At

Oh, goodness, we would love to mentor you.  Are you mentorable?

Goodness, each sentence here needs a response.

Preaching just doesn’t reach our generation like our parents and grandparents. Is that their problem or yours?  See: millennial church attendance. We have millions of podcasts and Youtube videos of pastors the world over at our fingertips.  Which means what, exactly?  I watch YouTube videos of preachers and people with Phd’s quite often.  I don’t see how this is related.  You can get great preaching on YouTube.

For that reason, the currency of good preaching is at its lowest value in history.  Really?  Does the author not realize that this article is, itself, preaching?  In actuality, good preaching is at its highest value right now because there’s so much low-value preaching.

Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes.

I’m not sure how this translates.  Perhaps the author, again, presents a false dilemma between mentoring and preaching.  Both have their place.

We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future. If we don’t have real people who actually care about us, why not just listen to a sermon from the couch (with the ecstasy of donuts and sweatpants)?

I think the author is missing an important part here.  Why should we mentor people who think so lowly of us?  We tell you gay marriage is wrong, that homosexual practice is wrong.  We tell you that abortion is wrong.  We tell you that the hook-up culture is wrong.  We tell you that the music you listen to is bad for you.  We tell you that preaching is good.  We tell you that bible study is good.  We tell you that the church has authority over you and not you over the church.

And how do you respond?  With articles telling us about how little we know about Millenials.

Solutions:

  • Create a database of adult mentors and young adults looking for someone to walk with them.

You could do that.  Or you could say to the pastor “I would like to be mentored.  Is there anyone you can recommend?”

  • Ask the older generation to be intentional with the millennials in your church.

Noted, and, yes, there are many who are bad about this or don’t care.  But, also, ask the Millenials to be intentional with the older generation.

8. We Want to Feel Valued

You are valued.  You just don’t see it.

We desperately need the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are. No conditions or expectations.

That’s exactly the problem.  You aren’t enough.  You need to change.  You need to become more holy.  And we need to do the same.  But a church that has no conditions or expectations is not a Scriptural church.  And, indeed, I don’t think the author really wants no conditions or expectations.  That article is all about conditions or expectations.

Solutions:

  • Return to point #1: listening.  Right back at you.
  • Go out of your way to thank the people who are giving so much of their life to the church.  Right back at you.

9. We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)

… as long as we come to conclusions that you find agreeable, yes?  Do you really want something controversial that challenges you, or do you want something controversial that challenges us?

I remember seeing a story on Twitter about a gay individual who went to Catholic school.  He ended up living the gay lifestyle and contracting a disease of some kind.  So he decided to go on Twitter.  Here is what he said (I’m paraphrasing):

“I’m so thankful for [x organization] for helping me.  They gave me all the help I needed.  They taught me about safe sex and how to protect myself during sex.  At Catholic school, all they taught me was that I shouldn’t have sex.  I’m so angry at the church.”

Let me ask a simple question.  If this person had listened to the church, would they have contracted the STD?  Maybe all of these “don’t’s” are actually ancient wisdom that you should be heeding because this generation is not as unique as it would like to think.

See, that’s what I hear when I read articles like the one Eaton wrote.  Millenials seem desperate for Christianity but on their terms.  There is only one set of terms that matter and they are God’s terms.  How do we (the older generations) know this?  Because God has spent decades pounding that into our lives through study and suffering.  We (referring to the mature among my generation) know that what Millenials call “relevant” is actually quite minor.  We’ve already gone through and, in some cases, are still there.  We get it, but we have matured.  What the Millenial generation is complaining about is no different from what my generation complained about and eventually grew out of (the mature among us).

No, I don’t think a sermon-series on sex is appropriate for a sanctuary full of families, but we have to create a place where someone older is showing us a better way because these topics are the teaching millennials are starving for. 

A sermon on sex may not be appropriate, but a sermon on how we violate God’s moral law on a daily basis is eminently important.  When you realize that and then realize the lengths to which God went to save you (from himself) these “controversial” issues end up seeming quite small in retrospect.

Solutions:

  • Create real and relevant space for young adults to learn, grow and be vulnerable.

It often goes by the name “Youth Group” or “College and Career” or something like that.

  • Create an opportunity for young adults to find and connect with mentors.

Talk to your pastor about finding a mentor

  • Create a young adults program that transitions high school youth through late adulthood rather than abandoning them in their time of greatest need.

Try listening for a change.  Also, false dilemma.  Also, many churches already have groups that do exactly this.

  • Intentionally train young adults in how to live a godly life instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.

OK.  Make sure you intentionally listen.   I don’t know if any pastor who intends to leave someone to fend for themselves.  But, you can lead a horse to water…

10. The Public Perception

We should be serving the crap out of them.  Maybe, but we should first be serving the crap out of each other.  That means Millenials serving the church first.

When the public opinion shows 1/3 millennials are ANTI-CHURCH, we are outright failing at being the aroma of Christ.

This does not follow.  One cannot smell the flowers if one hold’s their nose.  The great fallacy here is that the author presumes that if we just would do enough good stuff for the community things would suddenly turn around.  Surely, it would help a little.

However, John Lennox was asked to respond to Stephen Hawking’s statement that “God is a fairy tale for those afraid of the dark.”  He responded saying “Atheism is a fairy tale for those afraid of the light.”  How is that applicable?  Often we fall into the fantasy that if only we did enough, things would be OK.  That is not true.  There is an inherent human resistance to God.  Good works might help some, but at the end of the day, we are marred by our pride and selfishness.  We actually relish the dark and hate the exposure of the light.  Rather than complaining about the aroma of the church, it would be wise for the Millenial (and indeed everyone) to do a quick smell test first.  When you do your own smell test first you may notice that it is not the church who needs more deodorant.

How do I know that?  I’ve done it myself.  I find it very hard to criticize the church because I’ve seen into my own soul and I know I have very little standing to make any kind of condemnation.

11. Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)

Dittos.

12. You’re Failing to Adapt

This last point was obviously written in anger, without any salient sense of thoughtful reflection.

This reminds me of the movie Outbreak.  This exchange happens towards the end of the movie:

Col. Sam Daniels: You could have stopped this outbreak before it mutated, but you didn’t.
Gen. Billy Ford: We couldn’t.
Col. Sam Daniels: We?
Gen. Billy Ford: We.
Col. Sam Daniels: We?
Gen. Billy Ford: We! That’s all you need to know.
. . .
Col. Sam Daniels: Robby’s infected.
Gen. Billy Ford: Sorry.
Col. Sam Daniels: Is “we” sorry, too?
. . .
Gen. Billy Ford: Who is “we”? “We” includes you, Sam.  Unless you gave up faith in Christ in the last week.

OK, I made the last part up.  Who is the church, Eaton?  It includes you.  It includes people from 2,000 years ago.  It includes saints.  It includes sinners.  It includes lovers, haters, hypocrites, pornographers, addicts, puritans, churchmen, churchwomen, children, fighters, cursers.  It includes people who held to the faith even as wooden poles were jammed up their rectums so an Emporer could keep his gardens lit.  It includes people who were lit on fire not because of their good deeds, but because of the object of their faith.  It includes women raped with instruments of torture because of their love for the Savior.  It includes people who are reviled because they hold to the beliefs of Scripture, contrary to the beliefs of this age.  It includes an older generation who have lived through and experienced more than any Millenial can imagine.  It includes that generation’s children who have watched government destroy families for the sake of Progressivism.  And it includes Millenials who have not yet seen their idealism tempered by the fires of life, which often come from God himself.

You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction.

You hubristic, self-important sycophant!  You say that you’re “in love with all things Jesus” but vomit upon his church!  The church which you spent thousands of words denouncing is Jesus’ kingdom on earth!  No doubt that those of us in Western churches are not the best examples of Christian fortitude and some of the charges here have some level of truth.  But by what authority do you claim to have to pass judgment on the church!?

Solution:

  • Look at the data and take a risk for goodness sake. We can’t keep trying the same things and just wish that millennials magically wander through the door.

What data, and what risk?  We absolutely want Millennials walking through the door if only their head would fit.

  • Admit that you’re out of your element with this generation and talk to the millennials you already have before they ask themselves, what I am still doing here.

Oh, you are so wrong here.  We’re not out of our element, we’ve grown out of it.  I know that sounds sanctimonious, but I hate to break it to you; the last generation said many of the same things you are saying now.  We were just as wrong then as you are now.

Does the church need a lot of work?  Indeed it does.  Only an idiot would deny that.  But Eaton seems to think that if only we had churches that worked according to how Millennials see the world things would be so much better.  There is some truth to that, but there are real life burdens that churches must face and one generation does not dictate all.

However, to put things into perspective, consider this.  I love reading Theology, Philosophy, Science, and a host of other materials.  I’m probably better versed in all of those things than most of my peers.  I have been studying these things, as an earnest analytical amateur, my entire adult life.  With all that in mind, I only came to a good understanding of how different we are from God and how deep the problem of sin goes maybe in my late 30’s.  I was probably 38 or 39 before I suddenly “got” the seriousness of the problem.  And even now I still have difficulty comprehending the depth of it.

So being lectured by a 28-year-old who complains that “nobody is listening to us” falls on disinterested ears.  Eaton says “We are scrutinizing every action that follows what you say (because we’re sick of being ignored and listening to broken promises).”  Oh!  You get to judge us?  You get to scrutinize us?  I will let Millennials in on a secret.  You get to judge us once you have experienced 20-30 years of bonafide adulthood.  Why are we disinterested?  Because people like Eaton think they have earned the right to criticize us because they’ve had a half-decade of personal responsibility.

In his interview with Dr. Bock on the DTS podcast The Table Podcast Eaton said that this was a love-letter to church.  I had made it through a good portion of that podcast, considering what the participants said.  I disagreed with a lot of what was said, but I had wanted to at least give all of the participants a fair shake.  But once he said that I shut it off.  Now, I’m not the most romantic individual, but I know what a love letter looks like.  A love letter does not say “Feel free to write to me off as just another angry, selfy-addicted millennial. Believe me, at this point I’m beyond used to being abandoned and ignored.

That isn’t something you put in a love letter.  That’s something you write as an angry, self-addicted millennial.

 

 

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