What’s Up With Millennials?

millennialsThere has been a lot of talk in the church world lately about Millennials and why they are leaving the church. The Millennial Generation refers to those in the United States born between 1980 and 2000. They are the least religious generation in American history and they are leaving the church in droves. According to Barna Research, 43% of millennials drop out of church before age 30; 59% have dropped out temporarily; 50% report not being has committed to church at age 30 then they were at age 15. Some estimate that 6 in 10 millennials who grew up in church will abandon church by the age of  30.

Reasons given for their departure range from differing political ideologies, attitudes about sexual preferences, social justice concerns, intellectual integrity, and a simple lack of commitment.

I think the reason is simple: Millennials are dropping out of church because they never really went to church in the first place.

The American evangelicals’ infatuation with church growth has led to program centered ministry instead of Christ centered discipleship. The irony is our programs have deprogrammed an entire generation away from corporate worship.

I grew up in the church world. I am a fourth generation ordained minister. The church world of my youth was fundamental and legalistic. While I still belong to that group, through a deeper understanding of grace, God has delivered me from the over-emphasis of the rules and rituals of my childhood. As a result of that journey, early in my ministry myself and others would proclaim, “It’s not about rules but a relationship.” I now realize all I did was replace rules and rituals with programs.

Consider children’s programming as an example:

“If you want your church to grow,” I was taught and believed, “You have to have a top-notch children’s program.”

“If you want to reach the parents, reach the children first and the parents will follow.”

“The life blood of your church is your children’s program.”

So, following that advice, our church’s are full of programs for kids from birth through high-school. It starts with an infant nursery complete with a breastfeeding room. Next is regular nursery then children’s church then student worship services designed just for them. After all, nothing ruins a good worship experience quicker than a crying baby, an unruly toddler, and a sleeping teenager. Add to these programs Vacation Bible Schools, summer camps, mission trips, and mid-week activities and what you have is a child who grows up in church without ever really attending church. Sometime. during the high-school years at the earliest or college years at the latest, the young adult becomes bored with the programs and uninterested in the Church. Then we, as parents, blame all those left-leaning, liberal college professors for brainwashing our precious children away from Jesus.

Millennials-Turned-Backs560x390Well, we have met the enemy and it is us!

Entertaining our children may have been an effective marketing strategy but it has proven to be a horrible discipleship model.

And now that our children are leaving the church what’s the solution?

Well, according to the experts, believe it or not, the solution is adding another program!

“Let’s start a multi-generational worship service

“Let’s begin a family worship service.”

We need to start another program, this program, that program, program, program, program…


Stop the madness!

When will we learn that church is not about programs but about a Person?

When will we learn that the best children’s ministry is a mother and father committed to Jesus and each other?

When will we learn that our programs cannot compete with Hollywood or Motown or the Bluebird Cafe for that matter?

When will we learn that we cannot compete with Disney World, or Six Flags, or even Chuck E. Cheese?

When will we learn we do not have to compete?

The One thing, the Only thing, we have that the world does not have is Jesus, and He is not a program nor can He be programmed.

Nothing the world has to offer competes with Jesus.

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up…I will draw all men (including millennials) unto me” (John 12:32).

If the main reason people attend your church is because of the children’s program or the youth group or the praise team or the eloquence of the pastor, then your church is being built on sand and as soon as another church, with better programs, opens up down the road, people will leave your church for the other and eventually their children will leave The Church all together.

And the only people we have to blame is ourselves…and our programs.

Zach & Me DivingFor his graduation I took my son on a scuba diving trip. We spent a week living on a 65′ sailboat, cruising through the Caribbean, diving, eating, sleeping, and talking. Next week, my son is moving 5 hours away to attend a secular university. I am excited for him, and scared. He grew up in church and he is a millennial.

During one of our conversations between dives I brought up the subject of his faith being attacked while in college. I mentioned how some professors will challenge his faith and will be antagonistic towards Christianity. He said he knew that and he assured me he was strong in his faith and knew what he believed. Then he said, “Dad, you know some Christians can really be jerks as well.” I laughed. I agreed. I then thought to myself, He is going to be fine. He knows it is about loving Jesus and loving others. He understands discipleship is not a program, but a way of life. He gets it.

My prayer is that he keeps it, even though I know at times he will struggle and maybe even have his doubts. After all, the odds are against him.

Why are so many millennials leaving the church? Because they were never really part of the church anyway.

And that was our fault!


16 thoughts on “What’s Up With Millennials?

  1. I totally agree. You are saying what I have been believed through all these years of elaborate “children’s programs.” Hallelujah!

  2. Good post Kevin! I think you are right on point. I remember as a boy hearing my dad say many times in his preaching – “if you get folks to church with a hot dog or a piece of bubble gum, you will have to keep them with a hot dog or bubble gum or it might take more. On the other hand, if you win folks with the Truth and a Person, you will have them forever.” I will be praying for your son as he heads off to college. Does this make an empty nest for you and Misty? Thanks for your writing. Joe Haas, Ed.D.Goldsboro, NC

    Date: Tue, 13 Aug 2013 12:28:41 +0000 To: imaschoolman@hotmail.com

  3. Kevin,
    Great post! However, is this the answer across the board? Remove good children’s programming and let the kids go into the adult service? I don’t think that is the answer. From my ongoing experience (our current church culture at Vertical), it seems to me that children under the age of say 7th grade learn best about Jesus in their own environment with a lesson tailored to them. What I have seen is that if the children’s ministry is closely related to the Adult service in style (music, dress, etc…) then the transition from Junior high to Adult services is not that big of a shock! When I was in youth ministry, we had a separate Wednesday service that was not at all related in style to the Adult service. I had a hard time getting the kids to come back on Sunday because of the “shock” in the difference and many of them left after their youth ministry days were up. If the focus of the children’s ministry and youth ministry is on Jesus as well as the Adult service, I believe the transition can be done well. Also, I see many millennials in my church culture coming back to church or coming to church for the first time. I think because we try to be real, relevant to the times, and focus everything on Jesus. It has nothing to do with competing with the entertainment industry but all to do with being filled with grace and focusing on being the hands and feet of Jesus. The Millennials want to make a difference. They want to be involved in changing this world from helping the poor to even sharing the gospel. It is the 20 somethings that want to be the hands and feet of Jesus and not a BIG GIANT MOUTH. They want to serve. So another option would be to integrate earlier opportunities or service in the church. I think starting at middle school or maybe even a little younger is best. Allowing them to step up and serve in REAL roles in the church gives them buy-in and they feel they are making a difference. This is all my two cents and really from my own personal church planting experience. Keep writing mind bending posts Kevin! Jason

    • Thanks Jason,

      I think like all things, balance is the key. The problem, the way I see it is when programs become an end in themselves instead of a means to an end.

  4. I would posit that the reasons are much simpler. With the internet, we are able to uncover information about the universe that was not explicitly made available to young people beforehand. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation provides the best evidence for the big Bang as any we’ve ever found. Experiments with vacuum energy demonstrate how matter and energy can come from a void of nothingness. Put those two together and you have ample reason to doubt the necessity of a creator deity. The fact that both of these phenomena were discovered decades ago, it baffles me practically no one within my sphere of similarly-aged peers has ever heard of it.

    The few times a year I might find myself in attendance at a church, I would say no amount of focus on any particular aspect could charge me to believe again simply because of all the evidence that suggests we need not even go looking for a supernatural answer to the very foundational questions of human existence.

  5. Pingback: Programmed for Programs | revkev43

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