Why Millennials Leave, and What to Do About It

There are two temptations a Christian encounters whenever he reads about why young people are leaving the church. The first is to seek to transform the church into whatever young people want it to be in order to retain them. This, of course, always becomes an abandonment of both the Gospel and the Great Commission. The second temptation, however, is to dismiss the analysis entirely in order to avoid the first temptation. We can learn from these studies. But in order to do so, we must read them through the lens of Scripture.

Consider, for example, this analysis by Rachel Held Evans who, like myself, was born with one foot in generation-x and one foot in generation-y. To get the obvious out of the way, an orthodox Christian cannot pursue her vision of transforming the church into an advocacy group for liberal political goals like the affirmation of sodomy and the promotion of environmentalism under the Christianized moniker of “creation care.” Regardless of what one thinks liberal politics as such, the church’s function, according to Scripture, is instead to baptize and teach what Jesus taught. Nevertheless, assuming her analysis is accurate, there are several ways in which her conclusions can still be useful to a congregation that follows Christ rather than fashionable politics.

Perhaps the most obvious is as an aid to resisting temptations that we should be resisting anyway. For example, many congregations, scared of the increasing number of gray heads they see on Sundays, feel compelled to throw out beautiful liturgy, hymns, and ceremonies, in favor of music and atmosphere that those same gray-haired baby-boomers believe millennials will think is just “groovy.” Like many others, Ms. Evans has found that, if anything, the church-marketing strategies of the past few decades hurt rather than help millennial attendance. We have been marketed to more than any previous generation, and we simply do not like it. It’s true enough that contemporary worship would be ill-advised even if it really drew a crowd, but knowing that it doesn’t still makes it easier to reject.

The second low-hanging fruit is when the analysis reveals that youth are looking for something that we’re supposed to be providing anyway, but are not. The fact is, sometimes the church neglects its God-given responsibilities, and sometimes that neglect happens to drive people away. Consider Ms. Evans’ finding that “millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.” We absolutely should be doing this already. As I wrote in As Though It Were Actually True:

Too often, Christians deal with doubt in an improper way. …We often tell ourselves or even others “you just need to have faith” as though faith were something that we work towards rather than something God gives us. Too often, we… try to suppress feelings of doubt without ever dealing with the fact of doubt. It is true enough that a Christian should not doubt God, but simply advising her to “stop it” does not cure doubt anymore than it does sin. Humans have a God-given need for truth and understanding. Ignoring those needs by suppressing doubt makes about as much sense as ignoring hunger or thirst in hopes that it will simply go away.

Rigorous teaching is usually accompanied by students who ask and wrestle with difficult questions. We should find the same thing in the Church. Hard questions are not something we should be afraid of; rather, as Peter tells us, “Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” When someone comes back from college having heard that the New Testament is an unreliable copy of a copy of a copy, we shouldn’t just command them to have faith; we should show them how the manuscript evidence proves otherwise. Our intellect should not be divorced from our religion.

Finally, there are the more difficult subjects. “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.” “We want a truce between science and faith.” “young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between … compassion and holiness.” These may very well be accurate statements about young evangelicals. However, the Church’s raison d’etre is to teach what Christ taught—even those unpopular teachings about creation, sodomy, and sin. For example, while we should certainly welcome LGBT people to the forgiveness we share in Christ, we can hardly expect them to feel welcome when we teach that same-sex liaisons are an abomination. And yet we must teach exactly that because that is what Christ taught. Theistic evolution may be the quick and easy way out of the faith/science conflict, but it’s contrary to what Christ taught, and so we must avoid it.

What then shall we do with such findings? Even if the easy prescriptions must be cast aside, we can still use the findings to indicate where we need to teach apologetics. Is there a conflict between Christianity and science? Let’s teach them where that conflict comes from, the flaws in the scientific method, and the evidence for a young Earth. Are the youth perplexed as to why fornication is forbidden? Let’s teach them about God’s holistic design for men, women, and sex. Do they think they have to choose between compassion and holiness? Let’s teach them to discern the difference between true compassion and mere sentimentalism, for only the latter is at odds with holiness. In short, let us prepare our youth to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.” Then we can send them out into battle without fearing for their souls. We may not be able to abandon the field when it comes to undesirable conflict, but we can at least teach them how to prevail on it.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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