Millennials still in the church: What do they have in common?

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I had an interesting conversation with a millennial today. This young man was part of a vibrant youth ministry in a large, fast growing church. He described the youth program as “fantastic!” It was led by a gifted and godly leader, a person I know and hold in high esteem. “Hundreds came through and at least 60 of us had genuinely transformative faith experiences in that group,” the young man told me. Then he dropped the bomb, “But five years later I only know of four of us that are still in church.”

Think about those numbers. Even if you only count those who had a conversion experience, that is still a staggering 94% drop out rate!

Survey after survey has told us this is going on in the White evangelical world, but these millennials went to a Spanish language church – churches that we are told are immune to this phenomenon.

My young friend was visibly discouraged so I changed the subject and we spent a few minutes thinking about what the four of them who “made it” have in common. Here is what we noticed:

The young adults who stayed…

1. Read: Regularly, even (gasp) daily.

2. Listen: They spend regular time alone listening to God (you know, prayer).

3. Learn: They have learned the historic answers to the basics of the faith and the church. This is not being able to argue Calvinism vs Arminianism or defend inerrancy, but what used to be called “catechesis.”

4. Reflect: They apply the Scriptures and the catechesis they have received to the issues in their lives.

5. Gather: They regularly worship with other Christians to grow in their faith through song, Scripture, sermon and Sacrament, in a format (and this is important) designed for the training of Christians.

6. Follow: They are in active relationship with a mentor who spends time with them…who loves and challenges them.

7. Lead:  They are in active relationships with people they are mentoring. People they know and spend time with…whom they love and challenge.

8. Lean: They are surrounded by a community of others who are doing the same – people they “do life” with and lean on.

These things are both internal and external: Internally the ones who remained have built up reserves of Scripture, prayer, study, and worship. They know the “whats” and “whys” of the faith, and have a method for dealing with questions and struggles in their lives.

And at least as important, Externally, they have a leader above, a community around, and a group below that depend on them.

An obvious question formed: Is there anything on our list that is different from what “built” a young Christian in 1914? 1514? 514? 114?  

As we spoke, it dawned on us that the four had received essentially what disciples in every generation have received from the church: Internal scaffolding to support them in their faith, and webs of external relationships that weave them together. Together these tend to produce people who go through life singing in the key of Jesus.

It became obvious that the ones who are “making it” are exactly the ones we would expect…the ones who learned to love doing the things Christians have loved doing for 2000 years. Wasn’t this what was going on in Acts 2:42-47? Maybe ministry to millennials really isn’t rocket science…unless, of course, we stop doing those things the church has historically done.

My guess is that if you look at the young adults who are in your church, the chances are good that they are specifically the ones who have not just had preaching and programs, but whose lives are intertwined with others, giving them these webs of relationships to go with their faith scaffolding. What would happen to millennials if the church stopped giving students “relevant” curriculums and programs, segregating them away into youth rooms, spending piles of money on lights, fog machines, and xboxes, and simply went back to incarnating the Gospel? The Great Commission is strikingly simple: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Let’s try that and see if, “lo” and behold, it isn’t just Jesus who is “with us till the end of the age“, but a generation of millennials as well.


By the way, the millennial was Julio Torres, our music leader. The other three are a youth director, a children’s minister, and a youth volunteer. …Which, come to think of it, validates my contention that if you want a millennial to stay in your church, give them a task

25 thoughts on “Millennials still in the church: What do they have in common?

  1. Jesus is the answer and the only answer that can change the people. A Jesus centered church will cure the problems. Too many churches have abandoned the scriptures and put forth their views. I leave you to search out the views that are contrary to God’ love and grace.

  2. Completely agree. My generation (millennials) is thirsting for so much more than mere frippery. In a culture where trends wax and wane so quickly, perhaps the most radical thing the Church can be is a solid foundation. Too often, I fear the Church dilutes it’s message by trying to be “all things to all people” in an attempt to stay relatable; in truth, the Gospel is all that’s needed to be relevant.

    In Economics\Marketing there is always much discussion around “purpose”; i.e. the “Why” that propels the “How” and the “What”. Similar to the Church, companies often fail when they focus primarily on the latter two; consumers are fickle, like sheep, they often stray. Purpose (the “Why”) is the only thing that inspires devotion, and for the Church, that is the Gospel. When we begin to take that seriously again, the externalities wont much matter, to millennials or anyone.

    • Great thoughts, Colby!

      Have you seen Skye Jethani’s deal this week “The Church as Cruise Ship”? His second part (available by signing up for his email newsletter) 😦 describes that better than anyone I have ever heard.

    • In the food industry, the question asked about the use of a particular product in the formula was ” What is the functionality of that ingredient” ? You have answered it very well.

      Harold Cool

  3. This is so true. I can testify of this in my personal life and in the lives of my “running” companions. I truly agree that practical service not only provides protection to keep us running the Christian race, but is also a way for this generation to pick up a burden (for those younger than them, for the gospel, etc.) where they may not expect it.
    It reminds me of that well-known quote by Benjamin Franklin:
    “Tell me and I forget.
    Teach me and I remember.
    Involve me and I learn.”

  4. I’m really encouraged by the well-stated and insightful comments made here by those who may be identified as Millennials ( as well as your responses, Matt). I am hearing the same sentiments as those expressed by Colby regarding the desires of Millennials for the solid foundation of the Gospel along with an interest in personal involvement. May God continue to raise up devoted disciples to His Glory.

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      We have indeed lost a bunch of young folks. Many blame the culture and the family. I think we (youth ministers and pastoral staffs) need to own well-intentioned failure by the church to give the next generation the basics (the scaffolding) and relationships (webbing).

      As you point out, among young adults there are still fabulous people who love God and dream for more for their lives and for their generation. That is a very, very hopeful thing!

      Hope you are well.

  5. Excellent post, Matt! I fully agree. Get people actively involved (not only millennials ), give them support and fellowship, pair them with a supportive, nurturing mentor, and make sure they continue to learn (I love the word “catechesis!” Haven’t heard it in a while. Wholeheartedly approve!). That’s the way to have people of any age thrive as believers in Christ.

    It reminds me–point for point–exactly how people thrive in the recovery program. (I also have a certificate in Alcohol and Drug Counseling, so I know whereof I speak.) People surround the newcomer to the program, shower them with support and encouragement. The newcomer is strongly encouraged to find a sponsor (mentor) who will help them navigate through the first months, the 12 steps, and answer questions that may come up. Regular attendance at meetings is also encouraged (90 and 90–90 meetings in 90 days). And, the newcomer is urged to hang out with Program members all the time–before meetings, after meetings, go out for meals and coffee, and generally soak in sobriety. And–it often works! I have heard, time and again, about people who have had success with sobriety. They go on to live awesome lives. I know.

    I wish the Church (the institution) could just be more like the program of recovery . . . perhaps . . .

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      “The church as recovery program” is a great construct! Imagine making a “fearlessly searching moral inventory” in church instead of painting on our shiny, happy Jesus faces.

      It makes me wish I was a friend of Bill W. 🙂

      • Ah, Matt, you’re talking my language now! 🙂 I’ve talked with my long-time therapist about more church people doing a Step 4, and he agrees. Being rigorously honest is refreshing. And really strikes to the heart of many issues church leaders face, too.

        Alas, too many Christians just come to church with their shiny, happy Jesus face painted on . . . If you have time, check out a recent blog post. More Program talk, too. (Suit up, show up–I try to be faithful in prayer!

  6. Matt, Love it. Couldn’t agree more. However, (snark alert) prayer isn’t listening to God- it is God listening to us! When the disciples said to Jesus “Teach us to pray” he taught them about making prayers and petitions to God. Couldn’t we simply move your “listen to God’ comment to #1 Reading the word?

    • Okay I will nibble on this one, Ken Moser. 🙂 I would still say that prayer involves listening. After we listen to God’s revealed word – Scripture, we listen to the Holy Spirit tell us how to apply truth to our lives. It is only then that we can offer sensible spoken prayers.

      • Hmm, that opens a very wide door (that may let some unwanted guests in). I guess I’d like to see some Scriptural support for this. To see prayer as request and petition- lots of Scriptural support. Not to be a stickler, but it is by adding “listening” to the definition of prayer that causes me some worry. Doesn’t it go somewhere else? Just not prayer- at least according to the Word.

        • Ken, Matt, I apologize for butting in, but I just had to put in my two cents worth. I know something about prayer. Through experience (for more than three decades) as well as through personal reading and study. On top of that, I studied prayer and spiritual formation in seminary about ten/twelve years ago. To add to that, I just started a summer sermon series on–wait for it–prayer!

          The simple definition of prayer is communication with God. God wants to interact with God’s children (us!!), and prayer is one big way in which we do that. Being intrigued by your statements, I just checked Calvin’s Institutes. III, xx, 1-20. (He does mention more, but that’ll do for now.) He refers to prayer as communication! He has excellent precedence. Heavy hitters like Augustine, Benedict and Thomas Aquinas do that, as well. That’s _two-way communication_ they’re talking about, too.

          And then, of course, we can always look at a modern-day heavy hitter of spiritual formation, Richard Foster. I highly recommend his book, simply entitled “Prayer.”

          Sorry to wax eloquent. I get all excited when people mention prayer! *grin* I’ll step out of the pulpit now.

        • Hey brutha,

          Isn’t there plenty of biblical evidence that refers to humans listening to God speaking to us subjectively and directly?

          -Ps. 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
          -Jeremiah 33:3: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
          -Zech 7:13, Psalm 32:8-9, Isaiah 30:21, Luke 1:45; 2:19, Hebrews 4:7
          -And examples of subjective direction from the Holy Spirit such as: Acts 13:2; 15:28; 16:6-7

          I understand not wanting to open the door to people pulling “a new word” out of their pocket (“Jesus told me it was ok to smoke pot-you can’t tell me not to do what God told me to do!”) But the answer to the idolatry of self is not to throw out the hundreds of verses in which God speaks directly to humans, but to uphold the biblical principle that God is not a God of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33) and does not contradict previous revelation (Numbers 23:19).

  7. I posted this comment on the article titled “What’s so uncool about cool churches?” and was asked to post it here as well.

    ‘I agree with this with so much fierceness that it almost physically hurts. As a 22 year old that grew up in bible believing churches I have seen a huge swing towards consumerism.
    We give people what they want instead of what they need.

    As a church body we are sacrificing holiness in order to pacify people and make them feel good about themselves so we can fill more chairs come Sunday morning.

    In my own personal life, I don’t need someone to preach a feel good message to me, I don’t need someone to stick a binky in my mouth and wow me with their flashing lights and cool sound systems and coffe shops in the lobby.

    What I need is real people who really love God and really love people.
    What I need is someone to follow, mature Christians, who believe in holiness and obedience to God, that I can look up to and learn from, because if the church is too busy avoiding stepping on toes or hurting feelings by telling everyone that everything is okay, then as a church body, we are going to love people right into the gates of hell.’

    I will also explain a little bit more about myself. I went to one church in my elementary age/middle school years and then a second one during high school and college and after (the place I am attending now). I would have found another church home already except that I serve under my father in the children’s ministry and I will not leave him. He is the children’s pastor and I am the praise and worship leader in the children’s ministry. (I will say that when he decides to go, I will be more than ready, as he is the reason I have held on this long.)
    The youth group is dying. I had a great youth pastor but He followed God into planting a new church, the man that took his place loves God, but tries too hard to be popular and the youth group is suffering because they don’t need another friend, they need a mentor, they need someone to follow. The senior pastor is starting to take that same path of seeking bodies in chairs instead of fighting for personal growth and it wears on my spirit to never be fed and taught the things I need.

    • Hi Simmone,

      Thank you for reposting this. Your comments are powerful and I wanted others to read what you had to say, and this post is currently getting traffic.


  8. Pingback: Millennials still in the church: what do they have in common? | Vibrant Faith Ministries

  9. Great thoughts! Only one issue here: You post that churches should spend less money on “stuff” like lights and production equipment, and focus on the great commission. Then, below that, you said that we should give people in the church tasks. What if those tasks are lighting and production? These are valid service opportunities too, and can even serve as a means of discipleship depending on the job/team.

    So while I totally agree with you that churches can focus far too much on production (I was on a “worship” team for years, I get it), perhaps you are aiming your guns in the wrong direction. The church has always built expensive buildings and adorned them (and their services) with various forms of artistic expression – even those costing a lot of money. Call it a production if you want, call it useless, but they do serve as service opportunities (give them a task) and can build up the body, even leading to what you call an “intertwining of lives with others”.

    • Hi Ben,
      Thanks for joining the conversation on this!

      You are right- lights are probably the least of our problems. Surely we have a need for buildings and lights. And artistry is also, to my mind, a very good thing to encourage in worship.

      I actually was not “aiming guns” at all. I was helping a millennial express his thoughts…and then I wrote them out and put them in a post. 🙂

      Btw, the millennial who generated the content is our music leader. He experienced a lack of life-on-life at his previous church. People were very interested in “quality” and “professionalism.” It did not translate into young adults staying in a local expression of the body of Christ-more than a 90% drop out!

      I know that youth pastor well. He is a really, really solid guy. He loves Christ, his wife and kids, loved the youth, and has tons of ministry gifts. It wasn’t bad theology or lack of integrity. But there is something there! This same drop out phenomenon is happening all over America across the denominational spectrum.

      What do you think is causing it?

  10. Pingback: Mitä yhteistä on niillä nuorilla, jotka pysyvät seurakunnassa? | hillsongilmio

  11. Pingback: Millennials still in the church: what do they have in common? · Vibrant Faith

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