Attention Christian bloggers and columnists. I have a favor to ask. Could you please stop speaking of young people as if they’re a homogeneous group with a single opinion on every issue?
I’ve been guilty of it too. Christian writers are notorious for using Barna surveys and Pew polls as licenses to paint various groups of people with broad brushes. Readers of Rachel Held Evans’ blog, for example, probably have a good chance of coming away from her site thinking that nearly all millennials are progressive on creationism/evolution, homosexuality, and other issues. (To be fair, Rachel usually includes some kind of disclaimer about exceptions and about some of the trends applying to other generations. But those points often seem to get lost in the discussion.)
The fact is, millennials disagree among themselves on theology, religious practice, and controversial issues as much as any other age group. That’s been my observation anyway. The big difference I see is that younger people tend to feel less of a need to persuade those who disagree with them, and they’re less likely to break fellowship over a disagreement. I’m not sure if it’s because of their age (meaning they’ll change as they get older) or if it’s distinctive of Gen-Y and will remain a defining characteristic throughout their lives, but there certainly seems to be more of a “live and let live, think and let think” attitude among this generation. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they're of one mind on much of anything.
Besides, if churches with more conservative, traditional views on sexuality, creation/evolution, and Biblical inerrancy are really such a turnoff to the millennial masses, then why aren’t liberal mainline congregations teeming with young adults?
Perhaps millennials leave the church for the same reasons many others leave:
- They don’t feel like they’re encountering God. Seriously, who wants to leave a place where they’re genuinely experiencing God’s manifest presence?
- They want to be equipped to improve their lives, not wallow around in brokenness with perpetually broken people. A Christianity that isn’t changing individuals won’t change the world either. “Misery loves company” works for bars, but it’s not a good long term growth strategy for churches. Maybe people figure that if Christians are as messed up as everyone else anyway, they can just stay messed up while sleeping in on Sunday mornings.
- They’ve found other ways to connect with people outside of church, including social media. So if the church isn’t offering relationships with substance, why would they want to stick around? There are a million places on TV and the Internet to hear good preaching and teaching, without feeling the awkwardness or pressure that can come with attending church. Now more than ever, the “people factor” and genuine community are important for churches to get right, because people don’t need church to connect anymore.
- Sometimes people leave because they’re backsliding. Churches can be doing everything right and still lose some people because of this. And although I don’t have a poll to prove it (Has Barna surveyed any backsliders lately?), I’d guess that young adults are more likely to go through seasons of rebellion than older Christians. The question is, how much do some of the other factors listed above encourage a culture of backsliding in a congregation?
- They don’t feel challenged. Some of us have tried so hard to meet people where they are that we’ve made church too accessible. Most people want to grow spiritually, and it’s hard to do that in churches that spend an inordinate amount of time catering to the spiritual lowest common denominator. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to offer plenty of on-ramps for new believers, the lost, and the unchurched, but salvation doesn’t stop after justification. People who don’t feel they have opportunities to move forward spiritually may leave church simply because they’re bored.
The more I observe the alleged church generation gap, the more I think most of the handwringers are exaggerating it. Our problem isn’t generational as much as it is cultural. Rather than engaging the culture and challenging the culture, maybe we’ve become a little too obsessed with following the culture. If anything, the church probably needs to become more countercultural, not less.
But that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the culture either. Cultural withdrawal is an equal opposite error to hyper-relevance.
What about you? Have you ever been tempted to leave the church? If so, what were your reasons? Do you think the “millennials leaving church” problem has been overhyped or do you think it’s a real crisis?
Shane Raynor is an editor at Ministry Matters and editor of the Converge Bible Studies series from Abingdon Press.