Millennials leaving the church

11 Surprising Ways To Address Millennials’ Exodus From The Church (That Might Actually Work)

In Faith by Frank Powell0 Comments

Another week, another poll highlighting Millennials’ exodus from the church. Yes, the stats are alarming. And, yes, I am one of those Millennials. A prototypical Millennial. Prototypical meaning I fit most of the labels.

I love coffee. Ok, it’s really an addiction. I am connected to social media, resistant towards 9-5 office jobs, and obsessed with Apple products. These labels don’t apply to all Millennials. We are difficult to categorize, which is, ironically, another label.

I grew up in church. I know the Christian jargon. And although I never officially left the church, I “checked out” for several years. So, I empathize with Millennials who grew up in church and decided to leave.

I only mention my journey because, in some ways, I am the Millennial who left the church. I understand the mindset. I feel the pain of wanting more. More Jesus. More intimacy. I struggle to understand why the church is content with mediocrity. Why the church often uses the Bible as a battering ram and a rulebook. And why the church isn’t more concerned with justice. I get it.

So, when I read the latest poll detailing Millennials’ leaving the church, I am puzzled. Too many church leaders believe the answer to Millennials leaving the church is an equation with the following variables:

church program + Millennial value = church full of Millennials

For example, the answer might be a coffee shop in the foyer, trading in hymnals for worship music (or vice-versa), or trading in regular-fit jeans for paint-on jeans (or vice-versa).

But for me, and for the Millennials I know, coffee shops, worship styles, and attire won’t bring Millennials back. The responses I hear from Millennials are much less mathematical and much more spiritual.

The following 11 points flow from the desires God placed within my heart and the desires of those Millennials I talk with often. Maybe you will relate. Here we go.

1.) Stop targeting us. Target Jesus.

Deer and buffalo are targets. Humans aren’t targets. Being a target gets old. I am not a deer.

The church has spent hours in conferences and staff meetings laboring over how to reach Millennials. What makes them tick? How can the church market to them? Why are some churches attracting the next generation and others aren’t?

Well, here’s the answer. Stop targeting us. Target JESUS.

Make everything about Jesus. Every decision. Every song. Every sermon. Place the gospel at the center of everything that happens at your church. A superb marketing strategy won’t attract me or any other Millennial I know. You can have great logos, impeccable branding, and awesome programs. But if I don’t sense Jesus is present, I am out.

The strategy is simple. No analytics needed. Make Jesus famous. Unapologetically. Unashamedly.

2.) Stop entertaining us.

My Christian roots are in traditional churches. And, for years, I was taught to believe contemporary worship was a circus show full of self-seeking entertainers.

But here’s what I have discovered. Entertainment isn’t about a particular style. It’s about a particular focus. Many conservative, traditional churches entertain. They just entertain poorly.

When you pay money to see Eric Church or Drake in concert, you pay for entertainment. Sometimes the entertainment is exceptional. Other times it’s flat.

Some articles are adamant Millennials prefer contemporary worship. Other articles are equally as convicted Millennials prefer traditional worship.

And sometimes I believe Satan enjoys the hours we spend debating contemporary or traditional worship. Are we really so naive to think answers to the Millennial exodus can be found in a worship style?

Millennials aren’t focused on a particular style. They’re focused on a particular person. And his name is Jesus.

Jesus is the only difference between entertainment and worship. When I attend a concert, I focus on the entertainer. When I worship, I focus on Jesus.

Some churches focus too much on gifts and excellence and forget about Jesus. Other churches focus too little on gifts and excellence and forget about Jesus.

So, go ahead with the lights, smoke, and crazy gifted singers. But don’t allow worship so flashy we are distracted from Jesus. At the same time, go ahead with the hymnals, suits, and liturgy. But don’t allow worship so bland and lifeless we are distracted from Jesus.

Let’s stop debating whether Millennials prefer a particular worship style. They don’t. They prefer Jesus.

3.) Address the questions that matter.

Americans are defensive, by default. I don’t know why. Maybe our American ideals deceive us to think we are right about everything. Regardless, we are very defensive.

“You better not talk about my mom like that again. Go ahead and degrade my wife like that one more time. Step on my property and you will meet Jesus sooner than you expected.”

We are so defensive about everything…including God. For some reason, Christians feel the need to defend anything and everything attached to God. The Bible. The deity of Jesus. The Trinity.

And, for the life of me, I can’t understand why. If God created the world, why does he need me to defend him? It’s ludicrous, really.

As I write this, a young man is awaiting a court appearance for killing 9 Christians at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. His motivation? “Blacks were taking over the world and someone needed to do something about it for the white race.” What the crap? This young man is created in God’s image. But his actions are pure evil. Racially-motivated evil.

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What does God have to say about this young man’s actions? The church can’t play dodgeball with the difficult questions any longer. And it shouldn’t. The church should be the one place where hard questions are welcomed and addressed.

I long for the church to be that place. And until we drop this idea that God needs us standing in front of him, battling the evil bullies with their doubts about God, Millennials will continue to see the church as irrelevant.

And they won’t come back.

4.) Make decisions as though God were the creator of the universe…because he is.

The church is a business. The church is an organization. I get the metaphors. And although the church has organizational layers, the church is not primarily an organization. It can’t be. The church is the bride of Christ. And those I talk with long for the church to make decisions as though God were the creator of the universe. Because he is.

Words like “risk” and “uncertainty” should characterize the church. Why not cast vision that requires God showing up? Put God to the test. I know. Putting God to the test doesn’t show God the respect he deserves. Neither does a vision that doesn’t reach beyond the church walls.

I don’t think Millennials ask too much. The church is the bride of Christ, not a Fortune 500 company. Let’s make decisions as though we actually believe this.

5.) Don’t just claim to accept homosexuals and addicts. Actually accept them.

I have heard empty phrases for too long. Phrases like “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” or (my personal favorite) “Christians should be in the world but not of the world.” I have spent too much of my life hating the sinner as much as the sin, telling people what I know before showing them Christ’s love, and being more of the world than in the world.

Here’s the deal. I want to actually love the sinner. Many times I am not sure how. But I want to try.

I live next to a gay man. He is one of the most spiritual people I know. When I moved into my house, I decided to do something I always preached but never practiced…listen to someone with a different perspective. I wasn’t going to “fix” him (whatever that means). And listening to this man opened my eyes to the difficulties he faces as a gay man who loves God.

This sounds weird, but in many ways, he fixed me. I learned love isn’t a commodity to use conditionally. Jesus loves me even on my worst day. He doesn’t withhold love from me when I suck at reflecting his character to the world. I learned perseverance. My neighbor faces persecution. Often the persecutors are Christians.

I don’t face persecution. To be honest, it’s pretty easy to live as a heterosexual, white Christian in America. But if my Christian journey ever involves persecution, I will draw from this man’s actions.

Millennials desire inclusion. Godly acceptance. Not moral relativism, but a community of people who cares for their homosexual neighbor or their addicted co-worker. A community of listeners, not fixers. A community where historically empty phrases have substance.

6.) Create a culture where confession is normal and accepted.

This past week, several college students were in my home. For over an hour, we passionately discussed confession. College students are starving for a culture of confession in the church.

I am starving for it too.

Confession isn’t a “woe is me” declaration. Confession acknowledges the wicked, sinful condition of my heart before a perfect God. Millennials understand there is power in confession. As Paul says,”That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

It is in our weakness, we are strong. This is counter-intuitive, I know. But vulnerability and authenticity are pathways to God’s power. Until we become weak, God will not work through us. Millennials can’t understand why the church isn’t a place where confession is a regular practice. The church must become that place.

7.) Don’t overlap American values and Christian theology.

Jesus isn’t American. And America isn’t God’s country. Or maybe it is. But not any more than Mexico, Germany, or Japan. America doesn’t have a stranglehold on God. God is bigger than that. If he’s not, I don’t want to serve him.

I am thankful for America. But my allegiance is not to this country. I pledge allegiance to Christ. I don’t think Millennials are against patriotism. And they certainly aren’t against the government. But when they step into a church, they don’t expect American ideals to shape Jesus.

The pulpit isn’t a platform for political announcements. Jesus isn’t a supporter of the Republican party. Millennials aren’t looking for a separation between God and the government. God doesn’t compete against the government. He reigns over it.

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8.) Stop trying to make Jesus cool. 

I know a lot of cool guys. You probably do too. In my culture, they wear tie-dyed tank tops, aviator glasses, tight jeans, and Converse shoes in the summer. When it’s cold they wear flannel shirts, a slightly overgrown beard, and leather boots.

Cool guys don’t enjoy being shamed. They don’t talk to people beneath them (which is weird because everyone seems beneath them. So, do they talk to anyone?). Cool guys always change. They wear the trendiest clothes. They speak the latest vernacular. And cool guys rarely stand for anything that matters.

Millennials aren’t looking for a cool Jesus. They want an authentic Jesus. The real Jesus.

Jesus isn’t a cool guy. For starters, Hebrews 13:8 tells us Jesus never changes. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t picture Jesus changing his style or vernacular to be more relatable. He would contextualize the message, of course. But he wouldn’t change his clothes to do so.

Cool guys don’t stand for anything that matters. It threatens their reputation. Jesus didn’t just take a stand for what matters. He gave his life for what matters. People. You and me. I want to know that Jesus.

9.) Empower Christians to use their gifts in the world and in the church.

The church’s expectation of members is often too narrow. There is work to be done in the church. I completely get that. I am employed by a church, after all. But there is work to do outside the church as well. And the church needs to equip members to use their gifts to accomplish God’s work in the world, as well as the church.

The God I see in Scripture is a redeemer. A restorer. And he wants to restore every inch of this world. He gifts and equips his people to do just that.

Millennials want the church to empower artists to create art in the world, actors to act in the world, and business people to do business in the world. This is how God uses the church as his body to restore a broken world.

10.) Love the people “out there” more than you love the people “in here.”

Millennials are desperate for a church whose heart breaks for the lost and broken. A church where reaching the lost is THE mission. Not a mission. Not part of a mission. THE mission.

Last weekend, I was in Chattanooga with some friends. My oldest son acted crazy during dinner, so I walked with him down the road. A few blocks from the restaurant was a festival. Music. People. Food trucks. And a lot of alcohol. With every step I took towards the alcohol-drinking, festival-loving party people, I felt my Christian bubble growing wider and thicker.

In many ways, this is where I needed to be. I believe Jesus would be there. But I didn’t want to be there.

And it made me sick to my stomach. Literally.

My Christian bubble often shields me from the very people God calls me to engage. This is a tragic by-product of comfortable, self-seeking Christianity. I long to be around Christians who care more about proclaiming Jesus to others than protecting their bubble.

I want desperately to love the people “out there” more than I love the people “in here.” I think others do as well.

11.) Actually make community a priority.

If I ranked the 10 most transformative moments in my Christian journey, at least 8 out of 10 would be moments in community. A group of people in a house studying the Bible. Coffee with a friend. Prayer with a handful of Christians. These moments altered the trajectory of my life.

Corporate worship is powerful. But I wonder if the church hasn’t made an idol out of worship. We spend an enormous amount of time debating it and arguing over it. Worship causes church splits and creates factions. And if we took a few moments to reflect, we would find that the most transformative moments of our Christian journey have little to do with corporate worship.

I want a church that values smaller, not larger. Smaller in the sense of community. Deeper intimacy. A place to be known. A place to be loved. Most churches talk about community. But few churches make it a priority.

Community exposes layers of selfishness and sin. At the same time, community peels back deeper layers of God. I want this type of community. The Millennials I know want it too.

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So, how does the church respond to the exodus of Millennials from the church? Proclaim Jesus. Make Jesus famous. Don’t sell Jesus. Don’t dress Jesus up. Don’t re-create Jesus. He doesn’t change. Just proclaim him. I am confident proclaiming Jesus will transform lives. Worship styles will come and go. Trends will come and go. But Jesus will remain forever.

WHY ARE MILLENNIALS LEAVING THE CHURCH? I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS. LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW. LET’S CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION!

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

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