WRITTEN BY Chase Ringler
We all have heard it. It usually starts, “Why can’t millennials…” or “Why are millennials so…” These phrases indicate there are cultural growing pains taking place in the United States right now and a number of these pains can be attributed to the millennial generation growing up (or as some would say, not growing up). The cultural upheavals that millennials are at the center of are not simply limited to secular society, but we see that the church is dealing with a millennial crisis as well. The main problem the church has with my generation is, “Millennials are not going to church!”
It’s true. Millennials are not going to church. So, the question arises, why?
Perhaps many young people have stepped away from the church because the church was never the body of Christ to them. Maybe growing up the young people were put in the nursery, in children’s church, in youth group, and when they went off to college they either didn’t find a church that was full of people their age, or they attended a campus outreach that was only their age. Maybe they only heard about morality at church, and were taught once they got to college that morality is subjective not absolute. Maybe when they graduated from college they had the same problem as the other 70ish% of kids who went off to college and didn’t join any Christian function. Maybe they realized their churches couldn’t entertain them as well as the world can. Maybe they never felt welcomed by the older members of the church. Maybe they saw churches get torn apart because the “grown-ups” acted like children. Maybe they were taken back by the consumerism that has driven most churches. Maybe after “sinning” by getting a tattoo in college or doing any other taboo they felt they would be judged by the church so they never returned. Maybe they think that the world revolves around them and what they like, and they don’t like the typical church music, church clothes, or church building. Maybe none of their friends go to church, so they don’t either. Maybe they don’t have enough discipline to go to bed on a Saturday night so they can get up on a Sunday morning. Maybe, maybe, maybe…
In my experience with my generation, all of these are true in one way or another. They’re all related to this sad reality – the American church has not focused on its first love and has let a lot of secondary issues reign. Basically, the church has walked away from the Gospel. The Gospel is central to all of these areas and the lack of the Gospel changing grace in the lives of my generation is a direct result of a lack of Gospel proclamation and understanding in the church at-large. Don’t get me wrong, there is a huge lack of personal responsibility in my “Netflix” generation, but there is also a lot that the church should have and still can change.
As the body of Christ we are called to be loving to one another. Jesus clearly says in John 13:35 that the world will know who His disciples are by their love for one another. This was clearly a significant sign of the early church in Acts 2:42-47. Yet, when I type “Christians are” into Google, most articles displayed say we are hypocrites. And it may be just me, but I don’t really think of hypocrites as loving people. When we are known as hypocrites, we cannot be known for the Gospel—at least the true Gospel. The Gospel is all about the love we have been shown by the God of the Universe, and this should compel us to love all mankind! So, what if they are sinners? We all would be sinners if it were not for the marvelous grace of God! If the American church started to show love to one another think how much our image would change in the world’s eyes.
As I made mention before, the church is the body of Christ. A body works best when I don’t chop off my parts into different sections. So, why does the American church chop off the senior saints from the children? Titus 2:1-6 is pretty specific in the fact that the older women are to teach the younger women and the older men are to instruct the younger men. So why then do we separate the generations in churches? Since we do this, we now have unknowingly severed the younger generations from ever participating on their own accord with the older generations, and we rob them of seeing the beauty of the bride of Christ. The Gospel is about uniting us under the headship of Christ (Colossians 1:18). How different would our churches be if we united intergenerationally?
Let’s be honest. No matter how great and funny a youth pastor is, or how breathtaking a worship band is, or how culturally up-to-date a pastor’s sermons are, humanly speaking they are not as good as what the world has got to offer. Jimmy Fallon is funnier than every youth pastor. Justin Timberlake performs better than every worship leader. BuzzFeed, for the time being, will be more culturally up-to-date than the most culturally sensitive sermon. Are we called to be funny? Are we called to be entertaining? No. We are called to faithfully share the Gospel and make disciples. Take it from a millennial, entertainment becomes numbing. Hours of Netflix, YouTube and social media only show that we are searching for something that we cannot find, and have become numb to reality in the process. What we truly need is something authentic, and meaningful. There is nothing more authentically genuine and meaningful than the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Instead of experiencing love, teens and younger children all too much see the opposite. Have you ever heard of a church split? I have personally seen spiritual lives ruined by supposedly transformed adults getting into fights about literally anything in the church. What does this do? Instead of displaying to the younger generations how a church should operate in love, they see firsthand the sinfulness of the church and generally never stay around for the beauty of a possible reconciliation. Personally speaking, my home church went through two or three big crises when I was 12 to when I was 17. Hundreds and hundreds of people left the church. Almost all of my friends who had parents in leadership at the time don’t go to church anymore. Today, there is hardly anyone my age that attends the church. Deep wounds cannot be healed apart from the Gospel of grace. But, if millennials have never seen the Gospel of grace in action, how are their wounds to be healed?
Who is to blame for these church splits? The adults should have acted more loving and gracious to one another, but the root of the problem goes deeper. How many people stirring up trouble were actually transformed by the Gospel in the first place? For too long the American church was content with giving morality lessons. Lines were blurred with Biblical truths and cultural Christianity. What we were left with were sermons entitled “Ten Legalistic Steps in Training Up Your Child” and the text came from Focus on the Family not directly from the Word. Where’s the life changing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in that? When millennials left to go off to college we ran into professors who had disavowed morality as defined by the cultural Christianity churches. The absolute truth that was blurred, or not taught in the church, was disregarded by the moral subjectivism of professors. Because the church did not root millennials in the absolute Truth (John 14:6) of the Gospel, they were dissuaded by the far less judgmental subjectivism.
Children weren’t transformed by these sermons and neither were their parents. Many adults came to church because it was advantageous for them to be there on a Sunday. Pastors succumbed to a pragmatic “how-to” mentality and gave leadership lessons, instead of preaching the Gospel. The centrality of the Gospel was lost and what replaced it was the ugly head of man centered consumerism. Churches started popping up all over the US with slogans, “We have the music you like,” “We have the best child care,” “We provide opportunity.” The slogans “worked” because they accurately assessed the human heart. “What’s in it for me?” is the American mentality at church. So, instead of being concerned with seeing the beauty of the Gospel of Christ and how He can transform you, the reality is most people are concerned with “What can I gain from this church?” The church must stop appeasing the consumerism of people and start preaching the truth of the Gospel. The truth of the Gospel is that the Gospel isn’t about you at all, it’s about Christ. We’ve lost that message.
You know, not every millennial is an unsaved pagan. I have friends that I would say, without really second guessing myself, are in Christ and love Him deeply. However, they do not feel comfortable in the church. They long for fellowship (millennial word “community”), but they are not welcomed in the average American church because at one time they smoked marijuana, they drink, they have a tattoo, whatever. Part of the problem lies within them. They need to understand that the church is one of the greatest provisions of God’s grace to His people. However, the church must embrace another truth of the Gospel; Christ is for sinners. Rahab the prostitute wasn’t perfect but she was in the bloodline of the Savior of the World. Zacchaeus was a dirty rotten IRS worker, but Jesus still showed love to him. Saul, later to be called Paul, killed and imprisoned Christians and Jesus called him to be an apostle. The church needs to start looking past sin or Christian taboos and start embracing all people with the love of Christ.
I think a large reason why millennials are leaving the church lies with the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not been preached. Lives have not been transformed in older generations, and they are not being transformed in the younger generations because the Gospel is not the central message of our churches. Despite the church’s mistakes and sins there is hope. I mean, what is the Gospel? It is the hope of the world found in the faithfully loving Savior, Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus to live a perfect life and die a death and to be raised up again on the third day so that sinners could be reconciled to their Savior! Every son was once a sinner. So, despite our shortcomings as the American church, there is hope! There is hope that God is in the business of redeeming the wicked. There is hope that God loves His church and gave Himself for her. There is hope Christ died for millennials and that anyone He saves is a part of His church. This is good news. This is the Gospel. Preach, teach, and live the Gospel and take courage that God is able to conqueror through His Son, any problem—even the millennial problem.
Chase is the Youth Pastor at Wallen Baptist Church