A lot has been written about why young people are not going to church. Whether it’s the nagging feelings of irrelevancy, the judgmental tone heard from church pulpits and Sunday School rooms, or the distrust in institutions as a whole, everyone seems to have a theory as to why young adults are the biggest demographic of “nones” (a new term labeling those who do not identify with any religious tradition). At some point, I think we can all agree that the constant barrage of “young people don’t go to church because it’s ____” posts run the risk of becoming counter-productive to the mission of helping people of all ages grow in their faith. Surely there’s more than just the story of young people quitting church?
You can imagine my delight to find a recent article by The Barna Group called, “5 Reasons Why Millennials Stay Connected to Church.” You see, I’m a young adult clergyperson and I know young people who are active in local churches. I know young people who never stopped being active in their local church. And I know young people who became active in the local church for the first time as an adult. Young people may not be darkening the doors of our churches in the numbers we might want, but they are coming and that combined with the reasons why some aren’t coming offers the Church some great insight on how to better connect with these people who are coming of age and trying to figure out how to connect faith to such a turbulent time of life.
So here are some insights I gleaned from the article and I hope you appreciate as well:
1. Life is Complicated and the Church Better Be Honest About It
“Millennials are rethinking most of the institutions that arbitrate life, from marriage and media, to government and church,” says Kinnaman, the author of You Lost Me and unChristian who has spent the last 20 months speaking nationally about the challenges facing today’s Millennials. “They have grown up in a culture and among peers who are often neutral or resistant to the gospel. And life feels accelerated compared with 15 years ago—the ubiquity of information makes it harder for many to find meaning in institutions that feel out of step with the times. Millennials often describe church, for instance, as ‘not relevant’ or say that attending worship services ‘feels like a boring duty.’
“Furthermore, many young Americans say life seems complicated—that it’s hard to know how to live with the onslaught of information, worldviews and options they are faced with every day. One of the specific criticisms young adults frequently make about Christianity is that it does not offer deep, thoughtful or challenging answers to life in a complex culture.”
While I appreciate what “seeker-sensitive” church is, I hope this serves as a warning to churches who put all of their eggs in the basket of easily-accessible, “non-threatening” approaches to doing church — be very, very careful you’re not sacrificing depth and complexities in favor of whatever flavor of music you think people crave. A warmed-over version of Saturday night on Sunday morning does little to connect people to God and it does even less to address the complicated life situations and questions of young adults.
Ask the hard questions. Bring up the taboo topics and don’t be afraid to offer more questions than answers. Be honest. A faith marked by depth is one where we become comfortable in now knowing all of the answers. And for God’s sake, don’t package these topics as though people don’t live 6 days a week “in the world.” I know too many Christians who want to claim we’re apart of a subculture when, in fact, we’re as guilty of “sins of the world” as much or even more than others. And you don’t live your faith in the safety of church buildings or warm and fuzzy bible study groups. Church is always a coming in and going out. So we should approach complicated topics in the same way — questions come in and we send people out to live into what it means to be a Christian in light of those complicated questions. We will not connect with young people if all we teach about the culture is how to fear it — holistic faith means learning how to connect our faith to our life on a daily basis.
2. Live Your Faith — Vocational Discipleship
“A fourth way churches can deepen their connection with Millennials is to teach a more potent theology of vocation, or calling. Millennials who have remained active are three times more likely than dropouts to say they learned to view their gifts and passions as part of God’s calling (45% versus 17%). They are four times more likely to have learned at church “how the Bible applies to my field or career interests” (29% versus 7%). A similar gap exists when it came to receiving helpful input from a pastor about education (21% versus 5%), though going so far as offering a scholarship (5% versus 2%) was not particularly widespread.”
In my experience we have a bad habit in the Church. Whenever someone says they feel called to something, too often we want to send them down a track toward ordained ministry. We’ve created this great divide that clergy are super Christians because we’ve heard God call us. The people in the pews are the unfortunate ones who don’t know what the voice of God sounds like because if they did, they would be clergy. Obviously this is hyperbole, but you get my drift.
By virtue of our baptism, we are all called into ministry. As clergy, part of my calling is to help others live out their calling in unique ways. But we’re called by God in one way or another. If you want to connect with young people, find ways to talk about calling in real and practical ways. Challenge people to discern where God might be calling them. Lord knows we need more conversations about how life is more than just the paycheck you earn or the bills you pay. Young people are especially searching for meaning as they embark on what will become the rest of their adulthood. What better time to teach about God’s unique calling in our lives!
3. Connect People With God
“Finally, more than a mere community club helping youth cross the threshold of adulthood, church communities can help Millennials generate a lasting faith by facilitating a deeper sense of intimacy with God. For example, Millennials who remain active are more likely than those who dropped out to say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant (68% versus 25%). Additionally, actives are much more likely to believe the Bible contains wisdom for living a meaningful life (65% versus 17%).”
Before we worry about paying our bills, filling our buildings, and surviving for another generation, we need to remember the basic task of the Church — connecting people with God. And yes, this comes even before “making disciples.” I always tell people, if young people show up at your church the odds are they’re looking for something, a connection of some sorts. They’re a minority and most of their friends are probably at home on Sunday mornings. It’s not the norm for young people to come to church. So when they do, what are we doing to connect them with the great and wonderful mystery of God? And second, how are we helping them take that connection into their daily lives so that Sunday morning is more than just a spiritual Xanax?
Kinnaman explains, “In part, it is a failure of not connecting Jesus and the Bible to the other outcomes identified in this research—relational, missional, vocational and cultural discernment. In other words, the version of ‘Jesus in a vacuum’ that is often packaged for young people doesn’t last long compared to faith in Christ that is not compartmentalized but wholly integrated into all areas of life.”
The article is really good. All church leaders should read it. Heck, Christians of all ages should read it. Young people are coming to church while many are not. And we have a lot to learn from both groups. More than we might even care to admit.