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

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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/.

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

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(A letter to youth pastors, senior pastors, parents, and church boards)

David Kinnaman is really smart. He writes good books too. However, I question the title and premise of his book, You Lost Me. Did the church “lose” our young adults, as Dr. Kinnaman asserts, by being fearful, anti-science, controlling and hostile? I would like to suggest an alternate theory:  The church didn’t “lose” the millennials at all. They were simply never actually in church to begin with.

At this point it is axiomatic that millennials are in an unprecedented exodus from the church.* Books are being published, “You Lost Me” conferences held, and churches are going to great lengths to address the issue of young adults distancing themselves from evangelicalism.[1] These efforts usually result in passionate appeals for market-driven changes to the practice and theology of the church. There is a danger here: If we start where Dr. Kinnaman does, with what young adults say without first examining the context that led them there, we will only perpetuate our problem.

How Did We Get Here?

Young adults in Barna’s qualitative studies have compelling stories to tell about the church being fearful, controlling, anti-science, and mean to the LGBT community. Surely those stories need to be listened to. But when we stop and ask ourselves, “What was the last ministry those millennials were a part of?” For most, the answer is the youth ministry. And when we consider that the 15-year-old youth group member of a decade ago is the 25 year-old non-attender of today, a question starts to form:  Did something happen in the youth room that might have caused this?  Follow my line of thought through the dots of what we did in our youth rooms and see if the millennial abandonment doesn’t seem a natural, if unintended consequence…

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time

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In the 80’s and 90’s, while mainline churches disinvested in young people, evangelicals began imitating successful parachurch ministries to “attract” students with games and activities. But what the parachurch did in neighborhood living rooms with careful evangelistic purpose was a bit less purposeful (even if “Purpose Driven”) in most church youth rooms. Regardless, evangelism was in. Rigorous discipleship was out.

As we moved into the 2000’s, bands, fog machines and light shows became the youth room rage. Tim Elmore dubbed today’s young adults, “the overindulged generation.”[2] The church gladly played along, “wowing” them students with noise, technology and millions of pizzas. Students were segregated away from the grownups on Sunday morning in a new idea: the “youth service.” The model of removing youth from the sanctuary, was dubbed early on “The One-eared Mickey Mouse.[3] The youth service essentially turned the “student ministry” into a parachurch ministry on the church property – perhaps Christ-centered in its message and developmentally appropriate, but segregating youth from the larger faith community in order to do programs “attractive” to students.

Segregation: The Drug Of Choice

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The entire church embraced this paradigm shift. It was the drug everyone wanted: Parents wanted their kids to like church. Pastors wanted undistracted parents listening to their sermons. Worship leaders wanted to avoid the complexity of pleasing multiple generations. Youth Pastors liked the numbers and accolades. Kids liked the band and shorter message. On top of that, donors were excited to write large checks to build expensive facilities with the promise of reaching lost and hurting kids. And if our metrics are seats filled and satisfaction surveys, it looked like it was working. But what are the long-term effects of segregated, program-driven student ministry?

Many students graduate from high school…without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church.

In the new model, students develop the crucial affiliation bond not with the church or its leadership, but to the youth pastor and youth program. Because youth pastors have high turnover, new youth pastors have to continually “win” over the last youth pastor’s group. Students get used to being “won” and begin to expect adults to cater to their desires and preferences. The One-Eared Mickey Mouse, led by entrepreneurs with little theological training, becomes what the market demands: the great show kids desire and the teaching parents require: just enough “God” to motivate kids to avoid risky behaviors like drugs and sex.[4] Because youth pastors are generally people of spiritual passion and commitment, many students graduate from high school having had a real experience of spiritual transformation but without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church. In this model, older adults no longer have a role in the formation of the young, parents, who have outsourced their children’s spiritual formation, often oppose a rigorous transformational faith, and the young have no interest in taking their place in the concerns and councils of the church…so students graduate from the youth group into the next thing that will cater to their preferenceslike the local Starbucks.

An Assembly Line To Build the Self-absorbed

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In fairness, this didn’t start in the youth room. The church shuttles our young down an assembly line from the nursery to the children’s rooms, then to the junior high room, then the high school “youth service.” Then we graduate them to college groups. No one seems to notice that nowhere in that system did we bother to connect our young people to the church at all. 

We have treated students as a market to be pandered to in order to fill youth rooms. And, now that it is time for young adults to take their place in extending the Kingdom of God through the life of the Church, they are, as one would expect, wondering what we are going to do next to woo them. Should we be surprised that they are failing to become mature Christians, participating and leading in the body of Christ? Rather than “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” we have infantilized them. [5]

How did we not see this coming? How did we fail to connect the dots? Instead of connecting them to God and his church, we, with Pavlovian discipline, conditioned our young to jump from church to church as consumers of glitzy religio-entertainment. We systematically taught those with the most to give how to take and take and take.

Are there other factors? Of course there are. For one, parents have largely stopped passing on the faith in the home. For another, the evangelical church has lowered its ecclesiology to something akin to “we exist to be entertain you.” However, right between those two polarities stands a ministry that could bridge the gap: the youth ministry. How? To start with we can drop the misshapen narrative – the narrative that we “lost them” by giving the young too rigorous a theology and by being hostile and negative. Although problematic, fear, negativity, and rigor simply do not tell the whole story at thousands of churches. And trying to un-lose a generation by again pandering to whatever the latest market research says millennials want to hear is not only to fail to be faithful stewards of both the Gospel and them, it is to repeat yesterday’s mistakes.

What now?

The exodus of young adults from the church is a reality caused, not primarily by cultural change or negative message, but by ill-advised leadership decisions by youth pastors, senior pastors, parents and church boards. We did this to ourselves by investing in segregationist youth ministries that proved ultimately unhelpful. What we can do in response? We can repent of where we failed them in their youth rather than by again pandering to where we have left them as young adults.

Then, Youth pastors, pastors, parents and board members, lets put students into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Reclaim rigorous discipleship, multi-generational relationships, and youth serving as full members of the church. Challenge and equip parents to spiritually lead in their homes. Re-invision youth ministry as youth who DO ministry, pursuing and extending the faith connected to the entirety of the community of faith, the church.

Together lets make sure the next generation of young people does not leave the church when they leave our youth rooms.

*A followup post by a Millennial: How do millennials experience your church?

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What’s so uncool about cool churches?

Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.

I recently spent six-months doing a rotation as a hospital chaplain. One day I received a page (Yes, hospitals actually still use pagers). Chaplains are generally called to the rooms of people who look ill: People gray with kidney disease, or yellow with liver failure, discouraged amputees, nervous cancer patients. In this room, however, was a strikingly attractive 23 year-old young lady sitting up cheerfully in the hospital bed, holding her infant daughter and chatting with family and friends.

Confused, I stepped outside and asked her nurse, “Why did I get paged to her room?”

“Oh, she looks fabulous. She also feels great and is asking to go home,” the nurse said.

“…And you are calling me because?” I asked in confusion.

The nurse looked me directly in the eye and said: “Because we will be disconnecting her from life support in three days and you will be doing her funeral in four.”

The young lady had taken too much Tylenol. She looked and acted fine. She even felt fine, but she was in full-blown liver failure. She was dying and couldn’t bring herself to accept the diagnosis.

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items:

1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents. Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.

2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs.

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is…

…empty churches.

We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:
    1. Concert hall (worship)
    2. Comedy club (sermon)
    3. Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.

In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying…

…“Bye-bye.”

What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

The beauty of where we are today is that, unlike the girl in the hospital bed, our fatal pill could still be rejected. It is not too late. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

So many have commented on this post in the last month that I did a follow-up: O Yeah! And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”