Christianity is in decline. The “Nones” are ascendant. And Millennials are the driving force for the entire demographic disruption. So says the prevailing coverage of the latest Pew Research Center survey released in May. Millennials are leaving Christianity at a higher rate than in previous generations, and by all indications, becoming less likely than ever before to return later in life, according to one of the largest studies ever conducted on changes in America’s religious habits. The study, led by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, further showed that the divide between the less-religious Millennials and their predecessors is a true generational one; it’s not merely a result of Millennials’ being young and restless. Americans are shifting dramatically to the left on key social issues, as mainline denominations hurtle over the edge and cafeteria Catholics leave the table. As two millennial Christians, we have some ideas about why that is and how to reverse the trend.
First and foremost, don’t treat Millennials as a market segment; treat us as communing members of the body of Christ.
In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape advises his understudy Wormwood to undermine Christianity by creating schisms between generations:
And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages, there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.
Churches should not separate Millennials into enclaves sorted by age. Churches should be intentionally inclusive and foster an environment in which Millennials view themselves as members of the church, not a separate audience. Harping on the differences between generations and creating special programs and services on this basis widens the divide rather than bridging it. Rather, church leaders should encourage Millennials to seek mentors from among their elders, who have the wisdom that can come only from years of life experience and spiritual growth. Elders must pass on their heritage and knowledge.
Second, churches should not be afraid to tackle controversial issues such as homosexuality, sexual impurity, and divorce. Where else but in church will young Christians hear Biblical truth and be prepared to handle the most pressing social and cultural issues of our age? Public school? Television? College? To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the church must push back as hard as the age that pushes against it. This means that the church should address controversial issues head-on and paint them in clear, bold lines, not grayscale. The Gospel is most effective when it is bold and undiluted.
Millennials are naturally inclined to become agents of social change. They adopt a message, a vision, or a product — whether it’s a new brand or a new band — and easily use the technology they grew up with and their extensive social networks to become natural “disciples.” Churches should present a clear message of what the Bible teaches — because spreading the message is what believers are called to do, and also because Millennials in particular need to understand what they are “buying into.” Where churches harness Millennials’ innate tendency to become cultural advocates, they will see natural enthusiasm and growth.The 2014 Millennial Impact Report, for example showed that 87 percent of Millennials — those ages 20 to 35 — gave financially to a nonprofit in 2013. Despite their reputation of being the most entitled generation to date, Millennials do want to contribute to a cause larger than themselves and are actually quite philanthropic. If the church made clear that it is one of the most effective catalysts of positive social change around the globe, it would attract many Millennials hoping to change the world.
Third, Millennials need to be enriched, not entertained. It’s not uncommon to walk into a modern evangelical church and be immersed in a cloud of smoke. No, that’s not the Holy Spirit. It’s a fog machine. And along with it are flashing, multicolored LED lights and a full rock band with worship leaders in skinny jeans and V-neck T-shirts. Slick, Hollywood-style mini-movies lead into the sermon and hashtags and social-media accounts flash on the multiple high-definition screens erected around the sanctuary. Perhaps this modernization of the church experience gets Millennials in the door. But is that what keeps them coming back? We don’t think so.
Perhaps rock bands with worship leaders in skinny jeans and T-shirts get Millennials in the door. But is that what keeps them coming back?
Millennials are inundated with entertainment all day long. By the time they get to church, they’ve already seen dozens of YouTube videos, Internet memes, and Instagram photos. Church should be a place to find meaningful truths, not cheap amusement. Think of church as the original and proper social network. Rather than commenting on someone’s break-up status via Facebook, a church body would engage the person directly about it, face to face. Church should be a place where we can talk freely about the difficulties in our own lives in the context of real relationships — as opposed to papering over them on social media.
Finally, church should be a reverential, meaningful experience that stands in stark contrast to our modern fast-paced world of instant gratification and overstimulation. On any given Sunday, how much time do church services devote to prayer and studying the Bible? Are the sermons shorter than an episode of Mad Men, and are congregants staring anxiously at their watches if the pastor gets dangerously close to running over? If so, church leaders should not wonder why their flock isn’t growing spiritually. For so many Millennials, resisting the temptation to check our phones and tweet out our latest thought is in itself an act of sacrifice. Church leaders should embrace technology but remember that for many, Sunday morning is one of the only times their congregants of all ages sit still, unplug from technology, and absorb. Don’t miss out on the golden opportunity to change lives and communities with that undivided attention.
As far as the content of the sermons, serious devotion to Scripture, prayer, charity, and evangelism should replace therapeutic and prosperity-centered messages. In many cases, church has become a place we visit to feel “happy,” rather than to receive the life-giving Word in fellowship with our church families. Millennials may come to church for the coffee and music, but they won’t stay and they won’t engage if their church is more concerned with the “subtle arts of shifting,” as John Locke says, and not the Gospel for all it promises and for all it demands.
— Chris Beach is producer of Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America.” Alison Howard is director of alliance relations for Alliance Defending Freedom.