Why Are Milliennials Leaving The Church?

There’s been much discussion of why the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) is leaving the church. Some have argued that it’s due to the church being “too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” Others argue that the church has lost its substance and no longer calls millennials to follow Christ.

It seems that everyone is eager to offer his or her opinion. Addie Zierman weighed in with a post on the On Faith blog hosted by the Washington Post entitled “5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials.” I thought it might be interesting to examine each phrase.

1. “The Bible clearly says…” According to Zierman living in a connected world where people have more access to information and are exposed to scholars with differing opinions renders this line offensive. She suggests more humility, more “I think that this is what the Bible says but I could be wrong.”

I agree that the Bible isn’t clear about all things and that preachers and teachers shouldn’t pretend like it is. I have found that people of all ages, not just millennials, appreciate it when I say things like “I don’t think that the Bible is crystal clear on covenant baptism vs believer’s baptism and that’s why we aren’t going to fight battles over that issue.”

But let’s not confuse fear or cowardice with humility. The Bible is clear on all the most important issues and it’s not humble to deny that. We get lots of comments from non Christians or new Christians that they appreciate that we are willing to teach the hard truths in the Bible without fear of consequence. And they say that even when they don’t particularly like what we’ve laid out.

2. “God will never give you more than you can handle.” We are told millennials hate that phrase because it makes them feel like spiritual failures when they turn to friends or therapy for help.

Again, I find myself in substantial agreement. If a person was really struggling, do you really think it’s smart to say this to them? But even more than that isn’t there a sense in which God does give you more than you can handle in your own strength and wisdom? I think that God puts us in situations that are way over our head so that we will turn from self-reliance to God-reliance (2 Corinthians 1:7-9).

3. Love on.” (e.g. As youth group leaders, we are just here to love on those kids.) Zierman reports that in addition to finding this phrase creepy, it makes millennials feel like they are someone’s project.

One of my pet peeves is Christians using words or phrases that no one else in our culture uses. At the top of the list is the word “youth.” No one uses that word except the police (two youths were picked up for shoplifting), government bureaucracies (new report issues about youth drug use), and churches (this Sunday’s service will feature the youth choir). I don’t know where that church is but I don’t want to go to it.

In the same vein, no one in the wider culture says that they want to “love on” a group of kids. They’re right. It’s creepy. Stop saying it.

4. “Black and white quantifiers of faith, such as ‘Believer, Unbeliever, and Backsliding.” Millennials don’t like distinctions that draw lines between who’s in and who’s out. “They want to be accepted and not analyzed.”

My reaction is mixed. I get that no one is really in a position to finally declare where another person stands with God. And I absolutely agree with those who said that every believer’s faith is mixed with doubt (Mark 9:24).

But we can’t ignore that the Bible uses these terms. Jesus said that there are two roads that lead to two very different destinations and that every person is on one of them. So even if we don’t fully know another person’s heart (or even our own heart), that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t. Let’s don’t try to get smarter than the Bible.

5. “God is in control…has a plan…works in mysterious ways.” It seems that the millennials problem isn’t with the truth of this statement but with how it’s used. They are turned off by those who use what they deem pat answers to end a conversation instead of entering into a person’s difficulty and trial.

I don’t think that you have to be a millennial to dislike it when someone gives you information (even true information) without first listening and trying to understand what you are going through. The model here seems to be Jesus’ conversation with Mary and Martha on the occasion of Lazarus’ death in John 11. Jesus loves this family and weeps with them over their loss. And in the same conversation he points them to himself as the one who is at work, the one who has a plan, the one who offers hope and even an answer to death.

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