If you’re currently in the church, you’re unlikely to have escaped at least some sense in recent years that our implementation and concept of Church is in the process of radical change. I think this change is going to happen whether we want it to or not, and it’s critical to understand the mechanics of what is happening so that we can be engaged in the change process ourselves.
A lot of the change in church is happening around the millennial generation, perhaps with some overlap to the generations either side (Gen Z being the latest generation, strictly, though many call it Gen Y) . It’s a stark reality in most churches that something like 90% of millennials disappear before their 30s. In essence, this leaves us as a western church without a whole generation of leadership. Preston Sprinkle writes, describing the situation in the US:
“According to Rainer Research, 70% of youth, who were active in youth group, leave the church by the time they’re 22 years old. Based on the current rate of departure, Barna estimates that 80% of those raised in the church will be disengaged by the time they’re 29 years old. Several other studies and surveys confirm the trend: Millennials (18-29 year olds), who were raised in the church, are leaving the church in droves (see Kinnaman, You Lost Me). According to one “dechurched” person, “I guess the church just sort of churched the church out of me” (Packard and Hope, Church Refugees, 14).” (link)
I think the cited 80% is now an underestimate of those leaving. The McCrindle report, released in March 2017 as a study of church engagement with society in Australia, discusses blockers to Christian belief and their proportional influence on non-Christians. In an increasingly secular society, it’s critical to understand and to appropriately engage with these belief blockers in order to retain and inspire both millennials and other generations to a deep faith and to life-changing action.
I want to keep this article brief, so it’s going to be a pot pourri of concepts and bullet points here so we can introduce a series of thoughts. Like any of us, I’m not blessed with enough prophetic vision to enable me to see and to summarize exactly what’s happening and where it is leading, so I’m afraid I’m limited to sharing some of what I see happening. Over time, I’m hoping to be writing in more detail about many of these topics and welcome your insights. And to expand this article and write others covering the areas I am missing here!
My aim with this article is to provoke thought and engagement with this issue.
The problem as it stands
Based on many discussions I’ve had over the last few years with both pastors and church members, here’s my current braindump of things that concern me and the others I’ve talked to. Apologies that some of these overlap and/or go a little far into results. I have references for only a few of these at this stage as many of these points are based on observation of a number of churches. My list currently:
- Millennials are leaving church at the rate of 90%+ and many of these seem to be losing their faith as time goes on
- Millennials are increasingly frustrated by the church’s current theoretical attitude to faith – that is, there is often no “action”
- Many mainline denominations are dwindling [Morgan 2014]
- Some denominations are growing, but as a whole we don’t really understand precisely why
- Discipleship process doesn’t seem to be entered into as willingly in the current model
- Worship styles are changing and becoming more focussed around audience engagement
- There is a growing hunger and willingness to engage with the Holy Spirit
- Growing frustration at the lack of freedom to connect with deep questions about Scripture, doctrine and interpretation
- Intense frustration at rampant hypocrisy as experienced by millennials
- Frustration at superficial engagement with LGBTIQ issues and growing support for LGBTIQ people in the church
- A community experience that varies between dry to only superficial connection, with many not feeling loved
- Widespread moral hypocrisy – for example, severe and immediate action on homosexuality, while variously defined immorality at other levels, including that of institutional abuse, is tolerated
- Selective intense literalism on certain passages (whether on women, or on homosexuality) whilst other less comfortable passages are blatantly ignored
- Tolerance of extreme immorality at a leadership level, as well as an emphasis on morality that has led too many leaders towards moral failure rather than to Christ
- Emphasis on telling people they’re in sin (generally similar to judgmentalism) rather than on love (and the resulting Spirit-based inspiration for change that tends to last)
- Evangelicalism has morphed into rigidity with less of an emphasis on Scripture and cultural involvement and more emphasis on morality
- Evangelicalism dying of spiritual poverty in an environment where it has roundly endorsed a man for US presidency who, at least, is surrounded by serious moral, business and ethical questions that would never have been previously tolerated
- A frustration at perceived lack of community involvement
- A lack of understanding of how outreach and evangelism can be effective in modern society
Where we’re headed
While it’s impossible to know exactly what will emerge from all of this, some of the things that seem to be emerging are:
- Growing engagement with the gifts of the Spirit
- Less focus on top-driven models of church
- More focus on widespread involvement at every level
- More focus on gift-based ministry at a peer level
- A return to interest in house churches and the small group model
- Retention of some larger meetings, but probably with a different focus behind the scenes
- The criticality of strong biblical focus to ensure the church doesn’t drift off in random directions
- Action-based discipleship (missionality) being at core of everything that is done
- Greater degree of questioning and a deeper exegetical approach to Scripture
- A desire for faith to integrate with Science in a sensible way, rather than to run in competition or to insist that Christianity doesn’t need to make sense
- A focus on love as experienced in community, working itself out in action
- Emphasis on “getting real” including an authentic environment that naturally diminishes hypocrisy
- Involvement with Jesus in the sense of faith being a relationship rather than a rules-based system
- Connection with secular community, fostering a sense of joining the church being a very natural progression
Firstly, millennials define themselves as being real, which means they look for both authenticity and an actual demonstrated experience of seeing words put into action. That is, it’s one thing to say we love people, and another to demonstrate a lack of love and to turn people away from the doors if they don’t fit into pre-defined categories (white, heterosexual, not pregnant, wealthy, etc). The time for Christianity to be only about the white privileged males is now dying fast. It has always been hard to walk away from a deep connection with God, and we need to foster and build that connection as deeply as we can in a variety of ways involving action.
A critical part of this millennial desire for being real is a desire for a faith that is personal; that is, engaging with Jesus in a way that is real, loving, and that compels us to walk away from our fishing nets and follow him wherever he takes us. It’s important that older Christians understand this and see it for what it is; a desire to connect with God, and not a desire to just be lawless.
Secondly, like it or not, a key definer of faith (a litmus test, if you like) in recent years has been the attitude towards homosexuality. For many churches and individuals, if you accept and love homosexuals you are not a Christian, especially if you allow them to be in leadership. In essence, the gospel has been turned into “don’t be gay” at a base level, draining it of power and compassion and authenticity. Frighteningly, the perceived attitude here has been largely influential in driving many millennial Christians away from the church and, as research has shown, has turned away 50%-70% of non-Christians. Interestingly, McCrindle also found attitude to heaven/hell was also a key blocker and that the key blockers varied between generational groups; there’s a lot to unpack in their report and studies.
If you’re like me, there’s a lot there that needs considerable further thought and reading. For me, two key things emerge at this stage. The first is that love and community are key (they’ll know each other by their love for one another – John 13:35) and become a primary experience of church. The second is the importance of seeing church as living out faith in a 1st Century Christian fashion – that is, the poor being fed and the disadvantaged being helped. In my experience this sort of action and dynamism has led both to transformation, to church growth that persists, and to organic witness and outreach that occurs naturally. Perhaps in some ways, a return to Biblical values and certainly to unpacking the scripture into our daily lives.
Despite the potential negativity of some of these stats, it’s important to understand that the church changes continually. Our job is to watch over and shape that change and to ensure that the church remains able to continue to impact society; staying both relevant and true to message. My prayer is that as a church and as leaders we’ll be willing to learn to be part of the solution.
Whatever, it’s critical we are prepared to engage in inquiry into what God is doing or we’ll find the future Church deeply impoverished. And ourselves left behind.