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Why Are Millennials Leaving the Church?

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Photo by Flickr User Megan.Barton

On Saturday, post-evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans explored “Why millennials are leaving the church” on the CNN Religion Blog. The majority of Held Evans’ writings address issues within the American Evangelical church.

In a follow-up post, she also acknowledges that “it’s not just evangelical churches losing young adults, but also Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, and Mainline Protestant churches…sometimes at even higher rates.”

Throughout my ministry, I’ve had opportunities to speak in a variety of churches, to run workshops, and host forums that focus on the role of young people in the church. At the end of these presentations, I’ve been confronted with all manner of disappointing responses:

  • “So what you’re saying is that we should start a contemporary service…”
  • “I expect young people to leave the church after confirmation, and not to return again until they’re married and have kids.”
  • “Okay I hear you, but what program should we run to get them back?”

I’m sure these folks are well-meaning, but I wish they would hear what I’m saying. Here are the blunt answers to all three questions:

  • No. That’s the last thing I’d tell you to do.
  • Sounds like a losing proposition to me.
  • There isn’t one.

Like Rachel Held Evans, my chosen response is to slowly bang my head on the podium. Here’s why: 

  • We don’t need another mediocre rock band playing “Shine Jesus Shine.” That song wore out its welcome in the mid-90’s evangelical church. What makes 21st Century Canadian Anglicans think that a song about moths swarming the light will draw people to church?
  • We need to do better for our young people than graduating them from church at confirmation, ignoring them for 20 years, and then hoping they’ll return. Oh sure, we’ll develop a “young families” ministry for them if they show up again at that point. And that’s a good start. But imagine what Christian discipleship might look like if we hadn’t ignored them for the past 20-years of their lives.
  • There is no program that will save your church. None. No Alpha, no Messy Church, no Fresh Expression will suddenly fill your pews, fill the plate, and pay for that roof you’ve needed to repair for the past six years. It’s just not going to happen. And, to be blunt, it’s the wrong approach. The job of the church is to go out and make disciples, not increase the number of Individual Giving Units.

What would happen if we treated young people as if they mattered? What if we unleashed young people to passionately live their faith in daily life? What if we listened to their deepest passions, and found ways to encourage them in Christ’s name?

When I posted Rachel’s article on my Facebook wall, I immediately heard this comment from a Millennial I know:

I love this. The assumption that we 20-somethings don’t like church because it’s not “cool” enough is actually kinda ageist and offensive. We are grownups and we see the meaning of things beyond the surface.

And later during the discussion, they shared:

My experience of church is people not even bothering to ask the question, because we just assume that millennials aren’t interested. I was thinking about it this morning as I sat in a back pew, among 70-80 people where I was one of two millennials from what I could tell. My church wants to reach out to young families, to young children. There is an assumption that we should be doing what we can to make them feel welcome. But I’ve never heard anyone ask, what should we do to make the 20-somethings feel welcome?

So. What should we do to make Millennials feel welcome? And what should we do to get out of the way so that they can take ownership of what is their church, too?

I’d love to hear from Millennials, as well as from those who are actively engaging the Millennial generation.

About Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Andrew is an Anglican lay leader who loves pioneering responsive, contextual solutions to the challenge of being church in the 21st Century. He serves as an assistant to the rector for Evangelism and Christian Formation at Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver and is a founding member of the emerging St. Brigids community (www.stbrigid.ca).
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13 Responses to Why Are Millennials Leaving the Church?

  1. Hello,
    Well being a millennial myself; I might as well throw my voice into the mix-perhaps some good will come out of it.
    First off if I may add to the commentary that this article is, on the approaches to attract youth back into the Church: I find the typical impressions of the evangelical Churches to attract youth quite external. Trying to attract youth with ‘messy Churches’ or ‘hipper services’- as if we were trying to complete with other youth organizations, as if the Church and other organizations were yelling “you’ll have the most ‘fun’ with us”. Jesus did not pour out his blood on the community centre down the street, making it blameless, he poured it out on his Bride. The Church, if it is the Church, will not be shouting, “you’ll have the most fun with us”. No, in the Church fun (to employ C.S. Lewis) is like a mud pie; in the Church we have access to joy…we have that tropical cruise. The Church is in the world but does not belong to it, if anyone is going to be attracted to the Church it is going to be because they love God, not because, “I hear I get to go rock climbing free, in youth group”. For such a person has set there mind on worldly things, and to that Christ Jesus has said, “Get behind me satan”.
    With that said what I think it boils down to is which denomination has the most true theology, for that is the study of God. If I was outside the Church and wanted in, I would join the one with the most inspired theologians. For I’m joining the Church for God, which denomination in theology is not off the mark.
    Now, I once read a book called “The heart of Christianity” which while it fails to explain the traditional view of Christianity as Christianity, has explained to my knowledge the liberal view quite articulately. One of the comments Borg (the author; for those unfamiliar with the book) brings up is that, “Being Christian therefore can’t be about getting out beliefs, ‘right’, even though we have often acted this way.”. I find this comment as ridiculous as the phrase, “it is better to rule in hell then serve in heaven”…because, “Go in through the narrow gate. The gate to destruction is wide, and the road that leads there is easy to follow. A lot of people go through that gate. But the gate to life is very narrow. The road that leads there is so hard to follow that only a few people find it.” (Matthew 7:13, 14 CEVUK00)
    To have ones beliefs right is to know God.
    So as I’ve touched on what would make me join/ stay in the Church (If I were an outsider)…well it would be good theology, it would be to know a Church that has good theology- for it is union with God that I am after…..and if it is false theology, if it is false doctrine it will keep me separated from God.
    A metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in one of his writings says something to the point: that good theology is mystical, otherwise it is scholarly. To know God mystically is to know God personally, it is to know him intimately. To know God scholarly, is to study him and know him impersonally.
    In all my readings and listening to sermons online and throughout Churches, I find mostly scholarly theology in the Evangelical Churches in the west. Such, I can confirm with the opinions of the Eastern Church. The Orthodox Church as far as I am concerned has the mystic theology.
    So, If you want youth to join the Evangelical Churches it is my un-humble opinion as a millennial (but not because I am a millennial) ; that we must change not what we do but who we are fundmentaly , If the book the Heart of Christianity painted the ‘new’ Church as an institution that doesn’t care of getting its beliefs right….then I must conclude the Church that will attract youth by the masses must not only be mystical but also be traditional.
    Change that and I will feel welcomed yet another day in my little homely parish.
    -said the millennial
    (Now I always find communicating in writing expressionless! So I hope, that this didn’t come across rushed or angry, for I wrote it in my mind as gently as I could….not that I claim to be so virtues that I’m gentle like Jesus, but I hope you all see my point.)
    My best to all of you,

    • Hey Liam – Thanks for your response. I wonder how someone outside the church (presumably with little theological training) would gauge which denomination, or congregation had the most true theology.

      I agree with you that theology is important (and I am a strong advocate for a deep engagement with theology in youth ministry) but I do wrestle with how we might engage folks who have little-to-no theological background with theology. It’s something I think about a lot, but don’t have answers to. Can you help me out?

      • Hello,
        It hit me that I probably thinking to hard on the matter.
        Theology after all is the study of God; who He is. To know God is to be in paradise, for that is Eternal life (as Jesus mentions in one of His last prayers before his resurrection). Therefore anyone that is to be engaged in theology, is to be engaged in paradise. The very merit of the subject its self is is more precious then any gold or silver.
        I may be over simplifying things, which I like to do for myself, but if we work on trying to get a performance (having youth, like myself, activity engaged) then we miss the point of grace. By grace we are already engaged, we are just (like I mentioned before) waiting to be fed the mystical theology. And if I may ‘coin’ what I mean by mystical in this post-let me bring up a quote from a Saint (well in essence I don’t know if I’m getting the words completely right), “Concepts create idols, only wonder truly grasps”.
        Now I may have missed the mark completely in this reply, but hopefully it means something interesting to you-and hasn’t be a waste of your time.

  2. I have been hosting a program entitled “You Lost Me” based on the book by the same name written by David Kinnaman. The format is a short video followed by a period of dialogue amongst intergenerational individuals – in this case, the ages range between 15 and 80-somethings, for a total of ten persons. The program is based on why the age group between 18 and 29 do not go to church.
    We believe this is one vehicle to open up conversation for the current and next generation to express what they want as the foundation their journal for a deeper relationship with Christ and God.
    Your article is on all fours with what our parish is trying to introduce. Thank you!
    St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Sidney, BC

    • Wayne – I’d love to hear more about your intergenerational “You Lost Me” gatherings. It sounds like an incredible way to engage in real dialogue across the generations, and to explore the ways in which the church has been both a home / refuge for your participants, and the ways in which it has been frustrating / alienating. I’m sure each of us will find something from column A, something from column B – whether Millennial or not.

      What are some of the more interesting or surprising conversations or comments you’ve had? I’m curious what this is bringing up in your community. Thanks for sharing!

      andrew

  3. When I was a university chaplain I was in despair about the lack of connection of the Diocese – who could only conceive of “adults” and “youth” Youth to them meant teens. Everyone else was “adult”. There was no recognition that the lives and culture of those in their 20’s is substantively different from the majority of church folk (in their 60’s).
    And yes – what the church really wants is nice IGUs who will turn up, pay up and shut up.

    • That’s just it, isn’t it? Yes, Millennials are adults. And yet, “emerging adulthood” as the sociologists are calling it these days is much different from the emergence into adulthood of 10, 20, 30 years ago. Life is different. Culture is different. If we are to be contextual in our ministry (whaaa?), then we need to wrap our heads around the various cultures in which we minister, and to raise up leaders from those cultures to embody the gospel in them – rather than expecting them to just come our way.

  4. I read Ms. Evans article and agree that many people want more than repetitive songs that get way over done by ” worship teams” . Most people want to be challenged by what the content of the sermon is . That is 1 of the main reasons I returned to the Anglican church after 25 years in evangelical churches. I found the music a la “Shine Jesus Shine” rather meaningless after the 20th time of singing . And sermons need to make one sit up and think and ultimately makes us act. PJW51

  5. I am old so will try to listen more than talk while here. But the story told in the Aug 4 “Forward Day By Day” meditation made me remember this article. I’d like to share the link here if I may. I like it because it shows a congregation both ‘getting it wrong’ and a glimmer of ‘getting it right’. http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?llr=d6o4gobab&v=001LUMlplLnauYzIl_aRYQ5y0LDDjw4bOC7PTSH67pWItwqMaZbBheqc-MYXEliqSugpALySRwQ1EMgGUx-MrTi-f4XSd58e5o6h74g9wHbVyWl2BByfGdG3X6jMhViemyY7bHStKyn0vJBKTbbzNnVYg%3D%3D

  6. Kyle Norman

    I cut my chops in ministry as a parish youth worker. I was involved in the diocese, and in general synods. I have a very big passion for youth ministry in the church.

    I have to wonder: what would happen if we stopped thinking about attracting ‘them’. What if we stopped assuming anything gimmicky like drum sets and Dr. Seuss Eucharists. What if we simply focused on being a loving, Christ filled, exhuberant and passionate church filled with people who love Jesus and each other.

    I kind of think that a whole lot of things for which we bang our head against our desks wouldn’t seem so daunting.

  7. Kyle – Would it surprise you to know that I agree completely? What mystifies me is why it takes a conversation grounded in the fear of losing a generation to return us to what matters most, what is most central to our life together.

    Heidegger once said: “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”

    Perhaps if we allow ourselves to truly confront the reality of death, our church will once again become free to be herself.

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