Don’t Get the Answers Wrong on Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

Today at our Annual Session of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, I gave a seminar on how to keep our denomination thriving. One of the things I mentioned in my talk was how important it is for us not to get the answers wrong on why young people are leaving the church. If we get this wrong, we’ll jump to conclusions and fail to realize the reasons all the credible research says young people are actually leaving the church, and we’ll be spinning our wheels on mistaken solutions to the problem.

I mentioned the research by sociologists like Christian Smith, Melinda Lundquist Denton, and others, as well as other writers like Thom Rainer, Ken Ham, Kenda Creasy Dean, and the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman. These studies all show that young people are leaving all sorts of churches of all cultural and stylistic types, at the same rate—traditional to contemporary, rural to urban, liturgical to charismatic, small to mega.

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

This comment struck a chord in many of the people in the audience in conversations after my presentation. Many of them had always heard that stylistic issues were the reason young people are leaving the church. There was specifically concern about students who have left the Christian faith altogether, becoming “nones” (who list no religious affiliation on religious surveys), given the fact that young people who become nones tend to explain that they left Christianity because they had little intergenerational mentoring; little depth, substance, and transcendence in the worship, preaching, teaching, and other practices of the church; and did not get answers to the tough intellectual questions they were asking in high school and college.

In conversations after the session, I mentioned some things David Kinnaman, CEO of the Barna Group, has said recently about this issue. He has discovered that Millennials are harder to figure out than we sometimes think—that making Christianity “cool” is not the answer to attracting Millennials to church, or keeping them from leaving. One study he and the Barna Group did, for example shows that 2/3 of Millennials in a major church architecture study preferred a traditional worship space to a contemporary one and preferred the word “classic” over “trendy” to describe their preferred church experience.

I quoted a statement Kinnaman made that our youth and family ministry teacher at Welch College, Chris Talbot, tweeted recently:


“After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

—David Kinnaman, CEO, Barna Group

Kinnaman refers people to Rachel Held Evans’s recent article in the Washington Post, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” I thought some of the readers of this blog would find this article interesting, and I have reprinted some quotes from it below.

Of course, we conservative evangelical Baptists will disagree with Evans on some important points she makes in the article. But what she says represents a growing number of Millennials, and studies show that the generation following them (currently school-age students) known as Generation Z are even harder to peg in terms of the assumption that getting a corner on “cool” will help us attract Millennials.

These excerpts from Held’s article will give us more insight into this complex generation and how that our simple assumptions about what will be the silver bullet to get them in church (or keep them from leaving) are often dead wrong.

“Many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. . . . These are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

“For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of ‘inauthentic’ is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials ‘are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,’ argues David Kinnaman.”

“My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way:

‘I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.’”

“Millennial blogger Ben Irwin wrote: ‘When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion—not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.’”

“While no two faith stories are exactly the same, I’m not the only millennial whose faith couldn’t be saved by lacquering on a hipper veneer. According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’” Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think. . . . Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.”

These quotations from Kinnaman and Evans reaffirm my hunch, which I shared in my seminar, that we need to be careful not to rely on anecdotal data and think we’ve easily got it figured out that the reason young people are leaving church and becoming “nones” is because of church style. The real reasons they’re leaving, and not coming to, our churches are much deeper, much more profound, and get much closer to the heart of the sorts of things the Bible talks about when it discusses basic human need.

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