The Millennial exodus garners progressive attention each year. I have been studying Millennials all my life, primarily because I am one. I was born in ’82, and as a class of 2000 graduate, I am on the Millennial frontline.
I frequently quiz my peers about how they think, why they think it, what they do, and why they do it. As a rarity, who stayed in the church into adulthood, my favored questions include: “Why did you leave the Church?” or “What kept you in the Church?”
My Millennial peers’ responses have led me to three fundamental reasons why Millennials depart from the church. So if you wanna drive us out, here is the best way to do so.
1. Don’t Center on the Gospel or Value Sound Doctrine
Since the gospel is at the center of the Christian faith, not defending and preaching the gospel will be at the center of the Church’s decline. The distinguishing mark of the church is the gospel. Take this distinction away and the Church is no different than any other philanthropic non-for-profit organization.
Studies on Millennials indicate that they often leave the church after high school. I submit that many who left the Church, never truly entered the Church. This is a common testimony of those who return. They return because they are not returning to the gospel, but they are embracing the gospel for the first time. Along their way, God revealed himself to them through the means of a messenger delivering the good news of Jesus, risen from the dead, reconciling sinners to God, through justification by grace through faith (Gal. 2:16).
God cannot call Millennials, if we don’t call out to them about God (Rom. 10:14). Preaching the gospel is the vehicle God uses to set apart his elect. Millennials won’t be kept for and by God, unless the church is centered on the gospel.
Furthermore, sound biblical doctrine has been under assault since Eden (Gen. 3:4), and just as Adam and Eve, humanity’s conviction caves to this onslaught. Both Jesus and Paul devoted much time to exposing false doctrine and the dangerous practices resulting from it (Matt. 7:15; 16:6; 24:11, 24; 2 Cor. 11:26; Gal. 2:4; 2 Pet. 2:2). Read Paul’s Epistles and you will be astonished by the Church’s inclination to be out of line biblically and Paul’s conviction to fiercely champion sound doctrine.
Yet, sound doctrine is rarely battled over today. The heresies so prevalent in the early church are still prevalent. We are not just more civil; we are negligently passive to respond. We lack conviction.
Millennials, who characteristically follow causes embodying conviction, see this and walk from the Church. Why? Millennials are shy to commit to anything unless they are seriously passionate about it. Their convictions must first be stirred before their passions emblazoned. When the Church lacks conviction, Millennials walk.
2. Don’t Listen to and respect Millennials
A movement cannot be understood and respected until people listen to it. If the Church is going to fail Millennials, it will be accomplished by turning a deaf ear to Millennials. Millennials assume the same posture as the Breakfast Club assumed towards Principal Vernon. Their letter response to Principal Vernon’s assignment, a paper on “Who They Are” is this:
[W]e think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?
Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.
The angst in this letter is inexcusable, but much can still be learned here. As the Breakfast Club listened to one another, they discovered that they were so much more than those simple terms. They were lost children, longing for attentive parents, love, and acceptance. They hid all this behind superficial façades, sexual frustration, and immaturity. So do Millennials; so do we all!
The Church wants an easy answer to the Millennial mystery, a white paper with a simple, definitive response. This mess has just as much emotionally charged tension wrapped around it as the Breakfast Club. To get to that tension, the Church will have to listen. And to listen, the Church must respect Millennial culture. Rather than be the pompous Principal Vernon, the Church will have to be the lowly, serving, ever-watching, and listening Janitor Carl.
3. Don’t Make Room for Millennials to Serve and Lead
Larry Osborne in Sticky Teams remarks that older generations “hog the leadership table, shutting out the next generation” (114). Osborne makes it a priority “to make sure that young eagles have a place at [the] leadership table” (114-15).
Marginalize a group by not offering them opportunities to serve and lead and you will certainly drive that group from your midst. They will flock to where they are found desirable. Millennials have done this. Some left the Church altogether; others started new churches. Unfortunately, some further diluted the gospel and sound doctrine in starting wayward churches.
Millennials who are welcomed to serve and lead are invaluable to the Church. Charles Spurgeon rightly says in An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students, “Our young and immature brethren are invaluable as light troops, leading the way and advancing into the enemy’s territory.” He’s right! Millennials need to recognize their immaturity but be commended and offered an opportunity to courageously battle the Enemy. Give Millennials a place of honor, lending them your ear, and like Nehemiah, they will return to the land, and rebuild the fortifications of the gospel and sound doctrine.
Driving Millennials out of the Church is an easy task to accomplish. Keeping them is quite difficult. Remember, the Church can do as much as she may to retain Millennials, but it is ultimately God who keeps whom He wishes (Rom. 9:18). We lean upon the mercy of God in prayer for a remnant of Millennials that do not bow their heads to false gods and gospels.
Joey Cochran is a graduate of Dallas Seminary and a church planting intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of pastor Joe Thorn. You can follow him at jtcochran.comor @joeycochran.