Church on Our Terms

Church on Our Terms

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I don’t know if you've noticed, but Millennials are a hot topic right now. Everyone seems to be buzzing about the generation of young adults who are waiting to marry, finishing school with loads of debt, living in their parents' basements, playing loads of video games, and abandoning their childhood faith. The media loves a good sky-is-falling story, and they've been happy to help spread this bad news. But it’s not all accurate, especially what you've heard about Millennials leaving the church.

When you look at the large, nationally-representative studies  the ones the academics trust  you find a different story. Research monoliths like Pew and the GSS (General Social Survey) report that about 18 percent of young adults are leaving church altogether and another 20 percent are switching  moving to a church across town. When you break down the data even further, you find most are leaving Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. Conservative evangelicals are seeing much less movement from their young people, but seem to be the most hot and bothered by the leaving.

Last week, The Washington Post ran a piece by Brett McCracken that may be one of the best I've read on this topic. In it, McCracken responds to a post by Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s Belief Blog. In her article, she ignores the best research mentioned above. Her recommendation:

“I would encourage church leaders eager to win Millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”   

McCracken aptly fires back that instead it’s Millennials who should stop and take a listen to what older, wiser believers think they might need. He warns against a version of church leadership that goes chasing after a younger audience by asking only what they want out of church.

“As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.”

I couldn't agree more. It’s easy to drift into a consumerist mentality where we look for what makes us most happy, but not necessarily most holy. The Christian life is often a difficult road, and choosing a church that softens the edges and bends to our tastes and preferences may not be what’s best for us. Christ often calls His followers to do hard things, to go into hard places and count the cost of being His disciple. And so a church that coddles and coos and makes everything as inviting as possible might very well get people in the door, but may not prepare them to maintain faith through the challenges and difficulties which lie ahead.

Christ prepared His disciples to face opposition and maintain a rugged faith that wouldn't waiver when things got hard. The Holy Spirit told the Apostle Paul imprisonment and afflictions awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). Can you imagine Paul requesting a different style of worship service, shorter sermons, or more contemporary songs?

What we've forgotten is that it is the Lord who saves souls. Churches and pastors must faithfully proclaim God’s Word and pray fervently that God would open the eyes of the blind and raise the dead to life. Everything else is secondary. Once saved, we labor in discipleship until Christ is fully formed in us and returns for us.  

The risen Christ continues to proclaim, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Let’s come to Him on His terms and seek deep, rugged faith that doesn’t need a certain type of music or service, but rather longs for more of Christ. We must let the Gospel proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit be our greatest draw, because when we give Millennials a deeply-rooted faith in Christ, they will only leave if and when Christ leads them away.

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  • --In my job, I work with content from essentially all the top churches and ministries in the country. If you name them, I've probably gone through most of what their sermons in the last couple years, as well as a good bit of what they've blogged.

    What I'm seeing is that churches are breaking down into two categories. The first are churches that want to preach the Gospel to as many people as possible, so they try to dress their services in a way that is more modern, but they don't shy away from preaching the Gospel. The pastor opens the Bible on stage (or a Bible app), reads from Scripture, and preaches through what it says.

    The other camp seems to look at the Gospel as a barrier to their mission. They want to make church as appealing to as many people as absolutely possible, and if that means that the Gospel has to go, so be it. Their talking points sound great at first, saying that they want Sunday services to be more of an introduction to Christianity for the unchurched and the seekers so that they can get them involved in small groups/community groups/discipleship groups/funtivity groups/whatever where their group leader can really go deep with them.

    Unfortunately, participation in funtivity groups is usually extremely low. 10% of membership and even less from regular attenders. Additionally, I've attended several of these groups at a local megachurch in an attempt to keep an open mind, and the discussions are painfully shallow. They're also usually focused on behavior and not the Gospel, which isn't surprising when you consider that the sermons they hear every week are focused on behavior.

    I'm seeing a dangerous trend where pastors run so far from legalism that they go full circle and turn Christianity back into a different form of legalism. "Jesus loves you, and you're good, so let's talk about three tips for how to make your life better in regards to the topic I'm preaching on," is not a sermon. It's just advice. If you can remove the Gospel and the Bible from your sermon, and it can still stand on its own, you failed at preaching a sermon.

    Additionally, such churches often leave their long time attenders stunted in their faith and overly-focused on one aspect of church. For example, I invited a friend to attend my old church with me, and while she thought the sermon was absolutely amazing, she said that the worship music wasn't all that good. As a musician, songwriter, and lyricist, I can confirm that the music at that church is excellent technically, lyrically, theologically, and even emotionally. It lacks a light show, however, and the volume isn't crushing.

    While you can grow a "church" to huge proportions without any substance (Joel Osteen is absolutely proof of this), the answer to retaining this young generation is not going to be hipper worship leaders, louder songs, more flash, shallower sermons, shorter sermons, more hip sermons, or funnier jokes. That may grow numbers, but what it produces are a different breed of nominal Christians and developmentally challenged Christians.

    Maybe, instead of packaging church like a timeshare presentation where they try to slip the Gospel in without people noticing, churches should just be up front and honest about the Gospel, the struggles of the Christian faith, and how God has made life more satisfying.

  • --I've read Brett McCracken's Article and Rachel Held Evans's article. This article by Jonathan Fitzgerald is better than both:

    The church should listen to Millenials in the Church becasue we ARE the church and Millenials should listen to Christ because he is God. They are both right, they are both wrong, and the only way to fix the problem is to get involved. Unfortunately, getting involved costs you something, is often difficult and sometimes gets you (and your rediculous ideas) shunned. The biggest problem is that much of the church is, itself, no longer worshipping Christ, but rather they are worshipping at the Altar of "the way things have always been" There has always been a youth group, there has always been Awanas, singles have always been relegated to their own special "relationship workshop" bible study instead of grouped with the rest of the adults. We have always sent the kids to children's church instead of inviting parents to bring their well-behaved kids into the sanctuary with everyone else. We have always. We have always.

    So how do we change what we've always done when what we've always done isn't working? By getting involved. By hosting the small group that's open to ALL teens and adults, regardless of age or marital status. By turning we have always on its ear and by being honest about what the bible really says and what is simply cultual churchy hearsay.

    In other, related news this article by Tyler Tully is also important:

    Because our view of "the church" and "evangelicalism" is very myopic. "Millenials" aren't all white ex-church kids.

  • --Andrew! I was getting ready to comment on this post to talk about how great it was, and how TRUE, and how much we need to hear it, and then I saw that it was you who wrote it! Hopefully you remember me - we were in FFI together in 07. I was Maria FIsher back then. Great to see you writing for Boundless!

  • --"By hosting the small group that's open to ALL teens and adults, regardless of age or marital status."

    I doubt that small group would remain small for long.

    Commonality and shared interests have always been driving forces.  It's just human nature.

  • --Re: MikeTime

    "I doubt that small group would remain small for long. Commonality and shared interests have always been driving forces.  It's just human nature."

    One possible solution might be organizing small groups based on the neighborhoods that people live in. If one group gets too large, you could always split it.

  • --Church services are always changing.  A church service today does not look like it did 100 years ago or even 20 years ago.  The important thing is that the message and goal of the Church remains the same,  I like Rachel Held Evans (ducking for cover) and she brings up some good points.  

    While my church is far from perfect, it does a lot of things right.  The pastor preaches from the Bible every Sunday usually for up to an hour).  We support missions and do local outreach.  Our church strongly supports a college fellowship and so about half our church is college students.  It is extremely causal service and we never sing hymns.     I fail to see what the problem is with changing up a church service to make it enjoyable and relevant.  And the best way to do that might be to ask the congregation.

  • --I'm confused. This article and some of the comments mentioned differences in worship styles causing a large conflict. The point of Rachel Evans' article is that she believes the conflict is primarily about substance, not style. I agree.  

    Quote from Evans:

    "Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands.”

    And I proceed to bang my head against the podium. Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving...

    ...What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

    We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities. We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers. You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

    Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus."

    End Quote

  • --I think it has nothing to do with style or content.  Everything happens via relationship and I feel the main reason young people leave churches is that they have no meaningful relationships with the older folk.  That's because the older folk are too "busy" to mentor the young.  Churches of every denomination struggle to find Sunday school teachers and leaders to mentor teens or young adults.   They think they can just hire a youth pastor and everything will be okay.  But the Bible makes it very clear that it is a parent's responsiblity to mentor their own children in the ways of Christ.  Ideally sunday school and youth programs should be run by the parents themselves.  They need to step up and take responsibility for the next generation.  

  • --"youth programs should be run by the parents themselves. "

    Exactly how many youth do you think want to attend a program run by their parents or their friends' parents?  

  • Kellie,

    Outside of the Western world you will find that communal parenting is common.   Children have thier biologial parents but also have many other sets of parents as well.  Children raised in such environments are often more well adjusted and mature quicker, and are less likely to have sexual activity outside of marriage.  It's good to get out of American and the Western world to learn about different ways of doing things.

    I've lost track of the number of times children or teenagers have told me they wished their parents spent more time with them.   Children today are thirsty for more parental involvement and not less.  If you don't realize this I wonder how much time you have actually spent volunteering with children recently.

  • --Keith- I volunteered with a youth group for several years about 10 years ago.  Very little now, as I work and have my own family, and don't have time in this current season for  volunteer work.  But I know I would have not have wanted to attend a youth group that my parents were a part of when I was a teenager (and I love my parents and we are close).

  • --I think there is a serious problem going on in the church today, but I do not think that answer is to give millennial a millennial friendly version of the seeker friendly church.  Our methods can change, but our message is always the same. We have in this changing world they only unchanging constant: the Word of God. It may seem to you that is foolishness, but remember that Paul gave Timothy the command to preach the word to a culture not so different than our own today. Rome was a culture of religious pluralism and hedonistic pleasure, but Paul told him to preach the word. Rome did not care if you worshiped gods as long as you honored the emperors first, but Paul commanded Timothy to preach that Jesus is the Lord God to the exclusion of all other so called deities. The Gospel still has power if we are willing to proclaim it boldly to our Generation.

  • --Kellie,

    You are  perfect example of what I am saying.  You used to be involved but now you are too "busy" to help out anymore.  The kids and youth get left to singles to some young youth pastor who probably has his own immaturity issues.

    It's not easy to have a family and to continue to serve the church but we must - the next generation depends on us.  Recently I've met quite a few men who have families and yet still teach Sunday school - these are the most respectable and honorable men who I look up to.

    Everyone who says they are too busy needs to take a hard look at their weekly schedule.  Is it really that difficult to have a young person over for dinner once a week?  Could we maybe go to church an hour early to have a Bible study class for youth or young adults? Is there some activity that could cut out so we can make more time for young people we know?

  • --"Exactly how many youth do you think want to attend a program run by their parents or their friends' parents?"

    That's how young folks in my church do it^^ Both of my parents have taught Sunday School and our "youth group" was lead by an older couple of empty-nesters. I say "youth group" because lots of people came: teens brought their younger siblings, unattached older singles came to help out, etc. But everyone is used to it, I guess, since most of the families are home-schoolers, we grew up unaware that those kinds of things (among other certain fashion choices, haha!) are "uncool". :P

    The church is my family's primary social center and where a lot of our "busy-ness" as a family comes from. Nothing wrong with that, I don't think. That's what a community is.

  • --Mike Time: you're right  I once hosted such a small group and we had a wonderful  vibrant group that grew to 30 and split in less than six months. Then they tried to put a tighter category on us and started a new "young married" group, we lost all our married couples and stagnated for a year. Funny how that happens.

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