October 11, 2012
Searching for the Lost Generation
When I first left home for college seven years ago, I was finally able to search for a church on my own. I’d attended a single church up till then, and I was anxious to find a new body of believers. I quickly found a college group at an established church, but I was shocked by how detached the group felt from the rest of the body. In the years since, most of the churches I’ve attended don’t know what to do with my generation, the Millennials. As Millennials leave the church in droves, church leadership scrambles to find ways to retain the few that stay and hope that the rest will eventually return on their own.
David Kinnaman and a number of guest speakers address this very issue in the conference series,
The world is becoming more complicated. We’ve given people a cultural vision of Christ, but not the tools to live in this increasingly complex culture. Millennials are coming of age in this new culture, so it defines them in a unique way. While Baby Boomers are constantly astounded by new ways to communicate and access information, Millennials were born connected.
Boomers may have learned about Paul’s tent-making side-job in seminary, but many Millennials fully expect to hold multiple jobs at once and change careers throughout their lives in pursuit of a single calling.
They may not automatically return. Many people assume Millennials who have left the church will come back as they get married and have children. But research shows that people are taking longer to settle down, get married, and have kids than in previous generations. Are we really willing to wait until a young adult is 35 to reconnect? It’s also a bit presumptuous to think that marriage and babies will automatically bring young adults back.
It is different ministering in Jerusalem than in Babylon. As the West continues moving in a post-Christian direction, churches must recognize that our culture is starting to resemble Babylon more than Jerusalem. But Christianity has flourished in many cultural contexts. As we acknowledge the changing world, we shouldn’t fear it.
This generation is creative and entrepreneurial. 52 percent of Millennials are interested in science-related careers. However, when youth pastors were surveyed, less than 1 percent claimed to have taught on science-related issues in the last year. Perhaps this is the type of disconnect that leads many young thinkers to conclude that the church is anti-science.
Millennials seem ready to take great risks for their values. But many may be unprepared for the failure that comes with risk. They want to be heard, and they want to see the impact of their work immediately—just look at their immersion in responsive technologies such as smart phones and tablets. Millennials are far more concerned with the objective worth of their ideas than the value of experience or time-served.
If churches are going to attract young adults, they must connect them with older members. Churches want to involve young adults in meaningful ways. But often churches misfire by either (1) presenting Jesus as a means to an end (to health, to wealth, to better relationships, to the “good life”) or (2) presenting the church as merely about service or mission. If the church can only offer a “benefits package” or service opportunities, then it really doesn’t have anything unique to offer in the cultural marketplace. But thankfully the church has something that no other organization does: Jesus. We should promote relationship with Christ first; fruit and acts of service will flow from this relationship.
A few personal thoughts on this topic:
First, the type of Millennial on which
Kinnaman also referred to Katy Perry as an example of an “exiled” young Christian lost in the gap between her culture and the church. Now I don’t know Perry personally, but she has claimed to support a variety of spiritual paths to truth, and I think she clearly fits in a category of “ex-Christian,” not “misunderstood Christian.” This may seem trivial, but when Barna Research bases its case on tight definitions of the in and out groups, such fuzziness hurts their case.
These quibbles aside, Kinnaman and the Barna Group bring up many valid concerns. Churches are indeed failing to reach this age group. Whether this stems from a lackadaisical hope that “they’ll come back on their own,” a blindness to the changing culture, or an ignorance of the issue entirely, churches must actively pursue lost sheep, just like the Good Shepherd.
Church leaders need to learn about the changing culture: the good, the bad, and the trendy. We shouldn’t dismiss culture entirely, but we also shouldn’t automatically appropriate cultural norms. Thankfully, Jesus is incarnational: his truth transcends, dwells within, and transforms culture. All of the service projects and tech-savvy pastors in the world will prove worthless if they aren’t for the sake of true relationship with Christ.
If you are interested in attending any of the future
*CORRECTION-An earlier version of this post inaccurately reported that Barna listed Mormonism among a list of Christian denominations. The Barna Group corrected our mistake and said, "It is true that we showed the perceptions of various faith groups, including Mormonism. But we do not include Mormons as Christians. Our website and our publications consistently refer to Mormonism as not Christian." We appreciate Barna's clarification.
Kyle Rohane is editorial resident with