Millennials and the Church: the Good, the Challenging and the Ugly

Good, Bad, Ugly


I read a fascinating article about Millennials and the church from the Washington Post a few weeks ago. The author commented how they’re leaving the church at a faster rate than previous generations and made suggestions on what could be done. In fact, Pew Research found that Millennials are more willing to identify themselves as “not-religiously affiliated” more than any previous generation. There is definitely a real spiritual shift with this younger generation, so the author raises an important question. I love her observations about their needs, and think every pastor and church planter should pay attention to how Millennials differ from those who came before. But, something about her application really bothered me, and I couldn’t pinpoint why- until recently. Consider reading the article HERE, then I’d like to share the good, the challenging, and the ugly.

The Good

One note rang loud and clear throughout Evan’s observations- Millennials crave authenticity. She shares, “When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.” Evan’s also quotes Millennial blogger Ben Irwin: “When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”

Would you consider your church Authentic? As a leader, do you create a culture of authenticity and openness? The youngest generation may be looking for this more than a perfected production.

The Challenging

The evangelical church must continue meaningful discussions with the LGBT community. These concerns will not go away and will only continue to grow over the next decade. Evans explains that this issue was one reason she originally left the church. She wrote, “I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community.” But, it’s not just her. The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey showing that, of the Millennials who left the church, 1/3 left due to the church’s LBGT policy.

There aren’t easy answers to complex questions, but the church must continue this discussion.  

The Ugly

I feel challenged and intrigued by Evan’s observations, but I do not agree with final her application. I have two specific issues. First, I do not believe the notion, “If you build the church right, Millennials will come.” Second, the church is not looking for better attenders, it’s looking for world-changers and movement-makers.

Issue #1: If you build it, they will come

For hundreds of years the church has relied upon the Field of Dreams principle, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s based on the assumption that people want to come to church, they just need a place to attend. Evans points to a recent article by Barna Research showing Millennial’s preference in church attendance. Her underlining theory is, if the church will build a better, more authentic culture, then Millennials will come back.

Although I believe the church should continue to adapt its Sunday morning strategies to grow with culture, any church planter will tell you the Field of Dreams principle is false. If Millennials really are looking for an ancient-future culture, then why aren’t every older, more traditional church in America teeming with youth?

Yes, the church should grow in authenticity and better understand how the younger generation connects spiritually, but a better church won’t bring them back. The one strategy that continues to work is this: If you invite them, they will come. The church I was a part of for the past 8 years is situated near 3 colleges. Our rock-oriented, relevant church culture alone did not bring these students to our church in droves. But, when leaders went to them, spent time with them, and then invited them to church- they came! I have plenty of neighbors who knew about the church I worked for and even respected it, but it was only when I personally invited them that they eventually attended for the first time. If you want Millennials (or anyone really) to attend your church then remember the principle: If you invite them, they will come.

Issue #2: The church doesn’t need more attenders

Evans shares about her return to church: “What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years.” I love that she returned to church. I love how she found meaning in worshipping God after being away for so long. But, she’s missing the true purpose of church. The church should help connect people looking for authentic community to Jesus, but a follower of Jesus will naturally join His mission in the world. Jesus doesn’t need better church attenders, He needs more world changers.

In their book Becoming Five, authors Wilson, Ferguson, and Hirsch write, “The more we become like the ONE who came to ‘seek and save the lost,’ the more we too embrace his kingdom mission and we GO.” Their book clearly explains the problem with the church going after believers like Evans, who are solely looking to church as the provider of religious goods. They write, “The more we accumulate spiritual infants who never mature, the more energy we spend running a spiritual nursery to make our infants comfortable and tend to their needs.” The purpose of the church is to change the world, not be the warmest place in town to sing kumbaya.

The Takeaway

I love how clearly this article explains the religious needs and perspective of the Millennial generation. The church must respond to them, as we should every generation hereafter. We need to find creative ways to engage them spiritually. But, the multiplying church of Jesus that is making a difference city by city does not need spiritual seat warmers looking to receive something from religious professionals. We need men and women looking for a revolution.

Good, Bad, Ugly