There 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.
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.
For 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!