The Thing About Millennials And The Church That Nobody Wants To Talk About

emptychurch(Credit: KristKaze, DeviantArt)

Lately it seems like a day doesn’t go by when at least half a dozen articles about millennials and the Church don’t fill up my Facebook newsfeed.

At this point I think I’ve read about a million articles about why millennials are really leaving the Church or why their departure is actually a myth. It seems like everybody has an opinion on the matter and, more importantly, a solution. One day it’s 7 Reasons Why Millennials Aren’t Coming to Your Church. The next day it’s 12 Steps To Bringing Them Back. Then after a few weeks, somebody jumps the shark with 5 Reasons Why Millennials Are Coming To Church But Not Volunteering for the Nursery or 9 Ways To Dress Up Your Senior Adults So They Look Like Millennials.

Ok, so maybe I made up those last two, but if you’re a Christian on Facebook, you know the madness I speak of.

But here’s the thing about millennials and the Church that nobody seems to want to talk about: millennials are not a monolithic group. Just about anything you want to say about us is true. 

It’s simply absurd to lump millions of people from different backgrounds with different beliefs and tastes and interests and personal challenges and cultures and socio-economic standing as if they’re even remotely unified enough to come up with a single strategy to magically get them all to join your church. 

Sure, there are some overarching similarities among millennials, like the fact that almost all of us use the internet, lots of us own smart phones, a whole bunch of us have social media accounts, and only the oldest millennials can even remember a world without the internet. But you know who else uses the internet, smart phones, and has a Facebook account? My grandmother. The simple fact is that being part of the same generation doesn’t make us all basically the same anymore than Ted Cruz and Bill Maher are basically the same because they’re in the same generation and they use technology to talk about politics.

Yes, there are polls that show that millennials are less likely to claim to be affiliated with a particular faith than previous generations (though, curiously, church attendance may not have actually decreased that dramatically in the past 50 years or so). But the reasons some millennials may not be going to church as much their forbearers are all over the map.

Some are certainly turned off by things like a church’s stance on LGBT issues or a lack of emphasis on social justice issues and they not might return after one visit because of that or even show up in the first place. But other millennials don’t care at all about a particular church’s theological disposition. They’re simply not interested in going to church no matter how great it might be and no gimmick or well-thought-out marketing strategy is going to get them change their minds.

On the other hand, there are countless millennials who are every bit as passionate about their faith as anyone else in the Church. For every gloom and doom account you hear about millennials abandoning the Church, you can find just as many accounts of millennials finding incredible and creative ways to incarnate and proclaim the gospel.

Like every generation that has come before us and every generation that will come after, millennials are an incredibly diverse group of people with interests, beliefs, and passions as distinct as the places they come from. Which is why even though more of us may be declining the opportunity to claim affiliation with a particular faith tradition, there is no silver bullet, so secret strategy or formula or set of steps that is going to magically fill every pew in America with millennials eager to volunteer for nursery duty.

But we don’t like to talk much about complexity in the Church. We’ve become so addicted to oversimplifying the complicated with quick fixes and 10 step solutions that it has become all but impossible to admit that like most other problems we face in life, the relationship between millennials and the Church is incredibly complicated and doesn’t have a easy fix.

However, complexity isn’t the only thing we don’t want to talk about when it comes to millennials and the Church.

We’d also prefer not to talk about how much of a business the Church has become.

Although I believe that there is certainly a genuine concern for souls at play for some, our collective panic over millennials and the way we should respond to their growing indifference, at least in part, demonstrates the stranglehold the business mentality has over the Church today. Some of that is the product of our own making. Our increasingly elaborate infrastructure demands we fill seats because we’ve saddled ourselves with unbearable financial obligations. So, in effect, we need millennials more than they need us because we need them to pay our bills so we can keep the doors open. Which is ironic consider millennials are less likely to tithe than the older members of our congregations who don’t grab as many headlines.

But even more problematically, we’ve fallen for the lie that large numbers equal success in the Church and, as a result, we too often care more about the numbers on our membership roles than the lives those numbers represent.

Measurable success is intoxicating and it’s easy to dismiss those with smaller numbers as failures, but quantity rarely means quality. Absolutely, there are large churches out there filled with sold-out disciples, but there are far more small churches filled with passionate followers of Jesus who must not be led to feel like they’re a failure because their pews aren’t packed with millennials.

The call of Jesus is not, “How many 18-30 year olds are in your church?” or even, “How many people were in your church, period?” The call of Jesus is to go into the world, care for the least of these and make disciples. Of course, we should try to bring the gospel to as many people as possible, but not only is the number of positive responses not on us, Jesus made it clear that we shouldn’t expect a huge response in the first place because truly following him isn’t the most attractive proposition in the world.

Which is why we need to stop being so insecure about whether or not the cool new kids like our style of music or how many people were in the pews this quarter compared to last. We are simply called to proclaim the gospel and God is not holding us accountable for how many respond. Let me say that again, God is not going to damn us to hell for failing to convert the entire world. Likewise, there is no prize in heaven for who made the most converts.

So, regardless of what polls report, whether they say we’re growing or shrinking in affluence, the Church should always go about doing the work of the Church – loving our enemies, serving the least of these, and proclaiming the good news. There is too much brokenness and need in the world to sit around worrying about how many people are on our membership rolls or how old they are.

Our focus should always be on incarnating the gospel in whatever situation God has placed us and with whatever gifts God has given us regardless of how many people show up on Sunday morning or how old they are.

If we can find the courage to do that, you know how many millennials will start showing up at our doors?

I have no idea.

But that’s not the point and that we think it is may be the biggest problem of all.