How do millennials experience your church?

I asked Christopher to guest post after his comments on my “Kinnaman” post were so eerily similar to statements made by millennials in a recent Q & A hosted by one of the nations most effective ministries to millennials led by millennials, PhoenixOne.

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church: A suggestion.

By Christopher Jones

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I graduated college two and a half years ago. Unlike many in my generation, I haven’t stopped attending church. I have, however, stopped being part of the church.

According to most metrics, I haven’t “left.” I still show up on Sundays. But wherever I go, I find myself almost completely ignored.

Our problem: Most American churches are structured around families. If you don’t have a family, you are put into a box. Youth ministry. College ministry. And after that? No one knows what to do with you.

In the modern American church, if you’re not married, you’re not an adult. And we millennials are part of a generation that’s getting married later and later for economic reasons.

It takes a lot longer to build a stable career today than it took our parents’ generation. My parents had me when they were 25. I’ll be 25 in four months. By that time, I will have been enrolled in higher education for nearly twice as long as my parents. I’m unmarried, have never been in a serious relationship, have hardly any money, and have moved regularly to pursue my education. Its next to impossible to work towards marriage in such a situation. My situation is hardly unique.

Inter-generational economic differences are another huge rift in the church that no one is talking about. At one church I mentioned to a middle-aged woman that I was likely spending the next year unemployed. She burst out laughing. For some reason the pressure and debt our generation faces to develop future competitiveness in the emerging job market was humorous.

From the minute we step inside the doors on Sunday, post-college millennials face a wall of negative judgments and assumptions. Those with successful careers wonder why we can’t just “work at a factory or a newspaper like I did when I was your age.” The assumption is that we are lazy and think that we are entitled. A better explanation is that those jobs simply don’t exist anymore. Married people, in both overt and covert ways send us the message that the purpose of Christian singleness is marriage (never mind that Paul said the exact opposite in 1 Corinthians 7, but I digress).

Our generation graduated into a world of part-time jobs, unpaid internships, and student loan debt. A world in which shrinking paychecks meet inflated living costs. Yet from the pulpit we still hear sermons attuned to yesterday’s economic concerns. Sermons about not working too hard and not making your career into an idol ring hollow when you’re working late hours struggling to make next month’s rent.

Whatever the cause is, it is certainly not that the church is too conservative. If liberal politics were why we left the church, then we’d be flocking to churches with liberal politics. Yet mainline Protestant churches have declined much more sharply over the past ten years than conservative ones.

No, we millennials often embrace liberal politics as a substitute to fill some of the void that the absence of religion leaves in a person’s soul. Liberal politics provides a supportive community working towards a common goal and offers a promise of an ultimate end state of justice and equality. It’s a substitute for religion, not a cause for rejecting it.

A person can personally believe in salvation through Jesus Christ without going to church. A person can feed the poor and care for the sick without belonging to a congregation. What they cannot do alone is become part of a fellowship of believers. And if our generation doesn’t find that fellowship at church, we’ll stop going.

In short, we millennials just want to be treated like adults. We don’t want to be catered to. We don’t want to be entertained. We certainly don’t want to be eyed suspiciously as some sort of dangerous element by people more interested in passing judgment than trying to understand what life is really like in your twenties in modern America. We want to be included. It’s not that hard. We’re human beings like the rest of you, and we’d like to be treated as such.

*Christopher Jones is an aspiring historian of the ancient Near East currently working towards completing his Master’s Degree in Biblical Archaeology at Wheaton College. He blogs about the ancient Near East at http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/.

15 thoughts on “How do millennials experience your church?

  1. I started a young adults ministry in out church several months back after a career of college and youth ministry. When planning, the overwhelming sentiment, even from marrieds, was, “we don’t want to learn about marriage and family…we’ve heard all that before. We want to know about faith, why we do what we do in church, what we’re supposed I believe and what we’re supposed to do about it. And please don’t make us do studies on Christian movies (eg. Courageous).” Good words for us all to hear. Thanks for sharing..

    • Chris, you basically hit exactly where my heart has been the past few years. I grew up in a setting that was 50/50 fundamental/evangelical and one of the most painful things in my life is the realization in the past few years that I don’t belong anywhere anymore. I attend an evangelical megachurch who has multiple singles groups for people my age (28), but even within those groups I tend to drift. Essentially, it’s this: I get deeply invested in friends around my age, community with those people in our church…then in 3-4 years, I must start over because they’ve all married and had kids and moved on, yet I’m still here. It’s happened at least twice now and I love my friends, love the community I had with them, love that they’ve been blessed to move to that next stage of life…but it doesn’t help when you have to rebuild your community because you’re the one that keeps getting left behind.

      Couple this with the fact that most of us don’t have the experience of living in community with others outside of the church anymore…we simply cannot afford to. We graduate college, move home because we’re too broke to live on our own, live with our parents until we get married, then move in with our spouses and usually start a family. Living with your parents is isolating as a 20-something, yet we’re belittled about it, because of course we chose to do so because we were too lazy to get a job to move out.

      “Our problem: Most American churches are structured around families. If you don’t have a family, you are put into a box. Youth ministry. College ministry. And after that? No one knows what to do with you. In the modern American church, if you’re not married, you’re not an adult. And we millennials are part of a generation that’s getting married later and later for economic reasons…our generation graduated into a world of part-time jobs, unpaid internships, and student loan debt. A world in which shrinking paychecks meet inflated living costs. Yet from the pulpit we still hear sermons attuned to yesterday’s economic concerns. Sermons about not working too hard and not making your career into an idol ring hollow when you’re working late hours struggling to make next month’s rent.” That’s exactly where I am. My social life would be better if I didn’t live with my mother, but I have nowhere else to go. Sorry if this is crass, but I work 40+ hours a week, making $14/hour, yet it’s just not enough and unless someone wants to bless me financially by paying off my remaining $10,000 in student loans, it won’t be enough for the next several years. I desperately want to marry and start a family of my own one day for all the good, right reasons…yet I have days where I want it for all the wrong ones too: I might actually be able to engage with my hometown because I’d be where all the people are (youth soccer on Saturdays, kids’ day camps, etc). I would be viewed as part of that cute young married couple instead of that girl who’s on the fast track to being an old spinster because she’s nearly 30 & still lives with her mother. I could spend more time with the 95% of my friends that have all now married and had kids. I’d have a secure place to belong and a community that I wouldn’t have to rebuild every 3 years.

      I teach high school girls on Sunday mornings. I built community with some of my fellow high school leaders that I met a few years ago when I started serving. Our small-group leader population was mainly either young adults just out of college or adults old enough to have their kids in high school ministry. Since we were mostly single, mostly mid-20s, served alongside each other & had similar sense of humor & fairly liberal worldview, it was a great fit. Guess what? One just got married last summer, the other two are dating guys that will probably propose in the next six months…and so it goes. My girls that I teach are sophomores now. I’ve made the commitment to them and to myself to stay until they graduate to see them through…then I’m leaving my evangelical megachurch behind. It’s built around a family that I’m realizing I may never have, I have recently moved almost an hour away, and most importantly, I haven’t agreed with their stance in the culture wars in quite a long time. I’ve been taking a hard look at the Episcopalians and other mainline denominations, but from a kid that grew up in SBC, then evangelical circles, that transition will be hard and lonely.

      Sorry for the absolute overshare; all that to say this…Chris, you aren’t alone in that feeling. Logically, I know neither am I, yet it’s hard to remember when you feel alone all the time. Please, please, please, I beg of you, talk about this in every church you visit, every blog posting about millenials, every time someone asks your opinion. More people need to know that there’s an entire portion of our church living just beyond the shadows of the children/family ministry’s reach, and if we continue to structure the entirety of church around that ministry, those people will be out of reach forever.

      • Hi Ashlee,
        Thank you for pouring out your heart.

        Are you in Phoenix by any chance? There is a cool thing called PhoenixOne which is a gathering of “young professionals.”

        It seems very painful to anyone not part of the “young family” group to find a home in many megachurches. There are other places that are more multi-generationally friendly.

        blessings upon you and thank you for being vulnerable with strangers,
        Matt

  2. Pingback: David Kinnaman is wrong: How the church really lost the millennials & what we can do to keep the next generation. | the gospel side

  3. You do not have to be a Millennial to feel this way. I have been a single man in the church for 30 years. (yep, I am 47) I have heard it all, twice. Thankfully, I sing tenor and play keyboards….otherwise, the church would have no use for me……

    • Thank you for sharing, Drew. I feel your frustration-and “would have no use for me” is a terrible way to feel. Are you in a multigenerational church or one that separates age groups on Sunday?

      • I have never been part of a church that had a membership of more than 200….so my experience is based entirely on small churches. However, neither of the two churches I am a part of now would be “multigenerational”….there is not enough people to really separate everyone out. It is just that there is no place in American culture for never-married men “of a certain age.”

          • To be blunt: stop trying to marry me off! There have been times when I wanted to take the little old lady and ram her head-first into the nearest wall. Stop looking at me with “sympathy” and realize that there is a valid story behind my place in life. Yes, I am single; however, like any other human trait, it does not completely define me. I am also smart, good with words, willing to work, have a sense of art and music, am able to cook traditional meals, and have red, floor-length curtains in the living room. I have also owned my own business, watched it fail, been bankrupt twice. had my car repossessed and have watched three of my friends die ugly deaths from cancer (and I am not even 50 years old) None of these things completely defines me-why must you constantly harp on the fact that I have a bare left hand! (sorry, that just hit a nerve.)

            • Move to Phoenix! We could use smart, verbally gifted, artistic people who can cook and are willing to work and who don’t have the time limitations a spouse and children bring. We’ll take the gift of you any day, Drew!

        • Drew, I feel your pain. I was in my early thirties, and a part of a mega-church when I started out in ministry, helping lead youth and college ministries. I was told repeatedly that I would never have credibility as a pastor unless I was married. I was drilled with the idea that it “isn’t good for man to be alone”, that it “wasn’t part of God’s plan”.

          So, I married a Christian girl, did things the Christian way, and four years later, had a messy Gentile divorce. Now serving in another setting, I was pressed with statements like, “We need to demonstrate to people that you didn’t disqualify yourself from ministry to our congregation…”, and hit with the ugliness of a couple of parents who loved the changes in their kids lives when I was married, then started sending them to another church for youth activities when my divorce was announced. One of the parents explained that they just didn’t think their child should attend a ministry led by a divorced person.

          My ex-wife had committed adultery, by the way. Even discussing the matter on a Christian blog makes me feel the need to justify myself as a person and a pastor. Sadly, that’s a statement about Christianity and myself, isn’t it?

          Church is often not a kind place to a single person. I’m currently leading a young adult ministry where most in the group are 25-35. It’s been interesting to see that many who attended the church as youth, then drifted away, are now attending our fellowship regularly. They’ve experienced divorce, single-parenthood, and lots of loss, yet they’re still human, and still desire the community that comes with being a part of the Church.

          I don’t mind offering that it was in the Anglican Church, where I could participate in corporate liturgies, that I re-discovered my connection to Christ and the Church. Just having someone next to me, speaking the same confessions as me, singing the same songs, was comforting. Even though she was like, 400 years old. Singleness, under any circumstance, is tough if you aren’t college-aged.

          Drew, I hope that you can find your peace.

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