Millennials in search of a better church

by Ryan Mayo

Abstract: Millennials have been vocal about the reasons for their disappointment and detachment from the local church. Yet their critiques of worship style, gospel presentation, and other public practices are not often accompanied by wise suggestions for reform. The local church should embrace this emerging generation with winsome warnings and offer a long and historic perspective about the deep liturgies of church involvement.

For the last 15 years there has been a mildly successful formula for publishers seeking to capture young evangelical readers. It looks like this: prompt reflective Christians in their late 20s or early 30s to chronicle the ways in which the institutional church failed them and their peers.1 There are some variables between the writings, such as the degree of disappointment or the depth of research, but the general plotline remains the same. The authors, about a decade removed from their involvement with the offending institutions, will predictably generalize their church’s particular offenses to include the near-abandonment of an entire generation. The final chapters, however, nearly always offer a ray of hope for the institutional church, as the authors outline a few steps to reconcile Christ’s church to the generation it has soured.

If churches want to retain Millennial participation, these authors have suggested that they adapt to their changing demands, which mostly fall into three categories: worship styles, gospel presentation, and public involvement in social justice activism.

First – and most obvious, early Millennials have voiced their frustration with the worship style of local congregations. The late 90s served as a case study for generational dynamics, as modern praise choruses in the vein of Hillsong and Passion began to replace the praise choruses of the 80s and 90s. While Generation X planted these seeds by shaping an entirely new songbook for church worship, the Millennials carried this idea further by producing songbooks for a specific generation. Songs that were crafted for festivals full of young people were quickly becoming congregational staples on Sunday morning.

The (perhaps unintended) consequence was an inevitable split of worship ethos in local churches. Those who embraced the change saw a decline in older congregants, while those who resisted saw a similar decline in Millennials. Both perspectives launched books and articles that made a pillory of the other, as traditional churches often levied charges of “conforming” and “performance-based” while the adapting churches often accused the traditional churches of being stodgy, outdated, and stuck in lifeless tradition. Some congregations have attempted to marry the two perspectives, either by holding one “blended” service that feature both styles or by presenting a traditional service early in the morning and a contemporary service before lunchtime.

From our 2014 vantage point, these efforts have resulted in a wide variety of options for Millennials, as evidenced by the explosion in Millennial-oriented churches. Most cities currently present evangelicals with a variety of options for church that are built around their preferences. Thus, the question must be asked: have the efforts to retain young adult Christians by adapting to their preferred worship styles been successful?2

Second, Millennials have been vocal about their desire for local churches to present the gospel in new ways. A renewed emphasis on stories, story-telling, visual media, and popular culture connections have accompanied the shifts in worship style. The cheerleaders of this movement have often compared these decisions to Luther’s reforming efforts: just as Luther removed barriers to gospel presentation by demanding that its story be accessible to the common people, so too would the Millennial leaders present the gospel in the language of current culture. For example, lecture-style sermons built on exegeting a Biblical text do not hold the attentions of worshippers anymore, but people connect deeply to films and illustrations that highlighted gospel realities. And so, armed with film clips and illustrations taken from other media and pop culture, pastors set out to recapture the church participation of the segment they felt have been left behind by traditional preaching.

Third, Millennials have proven that they care deeply about social justice issues and they have no patience for churches who don’t visibly share these sentiments. The major social issues for Millennials – LGBT equality, minority oppression, environmental care, abortion, and the inequality of wealth and power – paint a line in the sand that demands institutional awareness. And consider the influences of their unchurched peers:

While it should be alarming that Christians of any age are leaving the church, it is not shocking that Millennials are leaving an institution that is a historically slow adaptor to social issues, especially moral issues.

The words most often used by Millennials to describe churches is either “irrelevant” or “I don’t find God at church.” So, while church attendance is on a gradual decline for most Americans, it is sharply dropping for Millennials, who are easily the least likely generation to attend worship services in American history. It is disappointing to see that the attempted shifts in church ethos have not reduced the exodus of Millennials from churches over the last 15 years.

So, what would bring Millennials back to church? If the self-reported statistics about why they left are to be trusted, it stands to reason that Millennials would reenter churches en masse if these institutions reversed their moral teachings on social issues, communicated their message in a more paletteable way, and offered connections to God in worship that were less liturgically rigid.

Of course, these would be difficult changes. And what would you call a church that successfully changed its nature to match broad Millennial demands? Could we imagine what kind of letter Paul would have written to an imaginary “8th church” in Revelation: the letter to the church in Millennia?

With these observations in place, we can begin the task of responding to Millennial complaints about church. I won’t pretend to solve the issues, but I hope to offer a winsome warning to those Millennials who are vocal in their dissatisfaction with the church.

First, much of what passes for church critique from Millennials is pure angst, plain and simple.  Millennials are increasingly anti-institutional and harbor a deep distrust of most organizations, especially organizations that have outlived their founders. Logically, any commitment to an institution will limit individual freedom. Further troubling to Millennials, though, is the perception that institutions are also filled with powerful leaders of the previous generations that contributed to the current social conflicts; Millennials are seeking independence from any ties that would bind them to social blame, including religious institutions. It strikes me that Millennial critiques of the church could be easily applied to other institutions, such as government, education, or the military, without changing the major complaints.

Second, evangelical churches may be the easiest target in human history. If a writer goes looking for a collective scapegoat for societal ills, Christian churches are the smartest choice.3 The current feedback loop of Millennials against the church is rife with attacks are often vague, poorly-researched, and unhelpful to either the institution or the individuals that read them. Take, for instance, this piece featured in “Relevant” magazine entitled “4 Lies the Church Taught me about Sex.” Typical of this editorial genre, the author outlines several pieces of misinformation about her sexuality and then assigns the blame to the broader evangelical church, though she never gets more specific than “the church” or a “big youth conference.” If the church is to blame for misleading this young woman, then surely she should cite the offending church, youth pastor, mentor, or at least the denomination, lest others receive the same “lies” and become equally “disappointed and disillusioned.”

But she is unlikely to do this, either because she knows that no person or pastor speaking for the institutional church ever said “girls don’t care about sex,” or because she is afraid of conflict. By not pinpointing exactly who caused them harm or detailing the exact issues at play, these authors are able to gain recognition points for critiquing the church without engaging in any meaningful dialogue or debate. The blogger’s chair is ever-safe, it seems.

Third, Millennials are missing an opportunity to have a historic and monumental impact on American churches. If the prominent under-thirty perspective of church is that it is stodgy, out-of-touch, and uninterested in caring for people, then Millennials, as a generation of doers and carers, should be a perfect match for these churches – if only their posture could be corrected. One of the common sentiments in nearly every Millennial critique is that local churches are not meeting people’s needs.  If churches don’t shape up, Millennials will simply ship out and carry on whatever spiritual work is necessary outside of this institution, as suggested by Rob Bell.4

Yet this posture is toxic to local congregations. When segments of the church collectively decide that their presence in the pews will be contingent on institutional change, both the group and the institution suffer. The arguments are worn and tired, whether they come in the form of artists complaining that the church doesn’t understand them, singles who feel marginalized by predominantly married congregations, or other signifiers such as men or women or introverts or smokers. Rather than committing to the life, work, worship, and relational matrix of a local congregation and attempting to influence from the inside, it is en vogue to simply write the church off as uncaring, irrelevant, or even hostile. Loyal dissent seems to elude Millennials in institutional situations.

On a broad scale, this standoff leaves the under-30 crowd of evangelicals with two lackluster options. The first option is to reinvent the notion of church, liturgy, and Sunday worship around the perceived desires of Millennials. The second option is to withdraw from the institution and pursue the Christian life away from the hindrance of church structure, which seems to be a popular choice currently.

Fourth, American Christianity is just beginning to identify the theological consequences of shifting major pieces of the ethos and practice of church for the last 25 years. The results have been underwhelming in terms of retaining young Christians5 and troubling in terms of Christian formation for the decades to come. Many trends have converged to form a practice of Christianity that is current and eager to connect people and culture, but resistant to historic doctrine and committed rhythms of worship. By remaining uncommitted to the stream of the Christian past, they forfeit the rich mineral deposits that would have flowed their way.

For example, the overemphasis on the gospel as story and the fixation on connecting spiritual truths to spiritual attempts in popular culture have somewhat backfired, as the ordinary means of grace (Scripture, prayer, confession, etc.) can be viewed as unnecessary or uninteresting. Understanding Jesus as the Master Storyteller and observing spiritual truths in the IronMan films haven’t replicated the tried-and-true effects of liturgical adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication alongside a committed congregation. On the contrary, one of the dangers in using other stories to “bring the gospel to life” is that they are more likely to detract from the grand story than to vivify it.6  The proper hermeneutical flow between the gospel and popular culture, though, originates from revelation and affects a fallen culture – not the other way around.

Finally, identifying and supplying what young people want are fine goals for marketers, but poor ambitions for any church.  I worry that significant ground has been lost in the shaping of church practice around Millennial preferences.7 Often this has shifted the presentation of the gospel to display Jesus as a felt need, the gospel as a commodity, and relationships as tools that help individual self-actualization. Building a bridge to youth culture has not only failed to capture youth culture in any meaningful way, it may also have inoculated many young people against deep historic Christianity, fearing that the Christian rock, retreats, and youth group subcultures were the real thing.  And with the kaleidoscope of varied criticisms against the church for being too much of something or too little of it, the institution itself would soon feel whiplash if it attempted to adapt accordingly.

In spite of all this, Millennials should take heart. The God who captured our hearts and our imaginations in our late teens will carry us through the difficulties of our 20s, including all the loneliness, drudgery, and disappointments. Our motivation for church involvement should not be the reclaiming of our teenaged feelings about God.

Remember that if you are a Christian, you are the church, whether you recognize this or not. You have been called out of the world and set apart, and the gathered worship of God is both for God’s glory and your good. Be careful not to complain unless you’ve prayed and worked tirelessly in service of the local church.

Lastly, be cautious of anti-institutionalism in your lives. Millennials are displaying a widespread detachment from institutional commitments such as denominations, political parties, and family and marriage structures. In truth, this untethering is often based on real fears and experiences, such as soaring divorce rates and high-profile public failures in the institutions that are supposed to undergird human life. But, for all their failures, institutions like church will ground you, secure you, sustain you, and allow you to flourish in your 20s and beyond. I’ll conclude with the words of James K. A. Smith in Comment magazine:

“If you’re really passionate about fostering the common good, then you should resist anti-institutionalism [because] institutions are ways to love our neighbors.  Institutions are durable, concrete structures that—when functioning well—cultivate all of creation’s potential toward what God desires: shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight. Institutions are the way we get a handle on concrete realities and address different aspects of creaturely existence.”

1. I’ll use one of the more popular titles as a fair summary: Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation. Other titles simply lay out the current data concerning Millennials and their dissatisfaction, such as You Lost Me, The Next Christians, Generation Ex-Christian, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, and UnChristian.
2. The emerging research by the Pew Forum suggests that these efforts have not yielded much lasting fruit.
3. Further, the Christian churches are specifically picked on precisely because nothing bad will happen if you target them. It’s the same reason that, for all their vigor, 3rd wave feminists and pro-choice protesters aim their attacks on Christianity but rarely on Muslim houses of worship. Liberating women from the patriarchy is historically more dangerous when it’s aimed at other cultural forms of religion, but safe and popular when aimed at religions that turn the other cheek.
4. We have responded to these suggestions here.
5. 18% of Americans under 30 who grew up in a practicing religious family are now unaffiliated with any faith at all.
6. Millennials “no longer feared popular culture as a contaminating influence…For them, popular culture laid bare the spiritual heart of their culture, the place where life’s deepest concerns were explored in a far more engaging way than in dry philosophy or theology. It was even a place where one could encounter God.”  Ted Turnau, Popologetics, page 171.
7. One of the difficulties with local churches who have adapted their practices to Millennials is that they mature and outgrow the preferences they once held. It is one thing to begin a church that reaches out to Millennials. It is quite another thing to grow and retain them for a lifetime or at least a decade.  Success, measured in attendance and involvement, is limited because 20-somethings soon become 30-somethings with marriages, children, and mortgages. Further stages of life are accompanied by deeper desires to connect, plant, and blossom inside institutions (i.e. the opposite of most Millennial desires).

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