Reversing the Millennial Drop Out Problem

In one of the best articles that I’ve read in a very long time, Sam Eaton explains how churches need to change to keep and attract Millennials. And here’s the interesting thing: I’m a Baby Boomer, age 62, the father of four Millennials, and what he wants to see in his church, I want to see in mine.

The Millennial generation is essentially those people born between 1982 and 1994, and so, young people ages 23 to 35 or so.

This is the generation widely criticized for having been raised to have inflated self-esteem and to never have seriously competed. They all got participation awards. Then again, we Baby Boomers are the ones who refused to tell our third grader that he’s got no future as a high school, college, or pro basketball player despite all the trophies he racked up for participation in games where no score was kept.

This is also the generation that is delaying marriage into their 30s (or forever) and often choosing to have no children or only one child.

On the other hand, these young people are far less racist, more willing to accept homosexuals as friends (even if entirely straight), and less connected to a given Christian denomination. In fact, they are highly suspicious of power structures of any kind, seeing power as more often a means of oppression rather than helping people.

A quick Google search will give you lots of other characteristics. For our present purposes, the key fact is that 59% of Millennials raised in a church have left the church. In your own congregation, think about the kids you celebrated when they graduated from high school. How many are now active in church of any kind at any place? Probably less than half.

Now, it’s been argued that many will return to church when they have children. And that has been true of prior generations. But the Millennials may not have children and they are much less likely to see church as an essential part of child rearing — because of their suspicion of institutions and their disappointment with today’s church. So some will come back — but perhaps only to drop their kids off while they go to the gym to work out.

Depressing? Well, it ought to be because the church faces serious problems with this generation, and the Churches of Christ are particularly poorly equipped to address these problems.

Defining the problem

According to Eaton,

  • Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
  • 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
  • 35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
  • Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).

Addressing the problem

Here are Eaton’s thoughts as to why the Millennials are so unhappy with church and what to do about it. This is a very poor summary of his article, which you should read in full.

1. Nobody’s Listening to Us

When your church puts together a minister search committee, how many Millennials (under age 35) are on the committee?

When your church plans its song service, how many Millennials have any real say in the musical style and song choices? How many songs are less than 10 years old?

When your church puts its budget together, how many Millennials are at the table?

2. We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements

Me, too. I mean, nearly every mission statement ever adopted is a variation on the five purposes of the church in Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. Essentially, most mission statements say, “We’re a church.”

I’m glad your committee figured that out! Now, let’s talk about why you exist as a church separate from the other churches in town? What is special about your congregation compared to every other congregation in your community? If you shut down tomorrow, who would miss you – other than your present members?

I mean, if a town has 200 churches all organized to worship, pray, serve, fellowship, and seek the lost, why not merge? What do you add to the mix that justifies your separate existence? Discussing that question would do most congregations a world of good.

(I’m channeling Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage, by the way.)

Eaton sees it a little differently:

Of course as an organization it’s important to be moving in the same direction, but that should easier for Christians than anyone because we already have a leader to follow. Jesus was insanely clear about our purpose on earth:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

And he is, of course, right. But you still have to ask what it about your church that makes it worthy of existing as a separate entity from all the other churches in town. What do you do for your neighbors that no one else does?

3. Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority

Let’s clock the number of hours the average church attender spends in “church-type” activities. Bible studies, meetings, groups, social functions, book clubs, planning meetings, talking about building community, discussing a new mission statement…

Now let’s clock the number of hours spent serving the least of these. Oooooo, awkward.

4. We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture

Eaton suggests speaking more about what to do today and less on what’s wrong with the surrounding culture. Amen. But we do need to help our members see why the culture is wrong when it’s wrong — both the secular church and the church’s culture. And the goal is not to change the world’s culture but to change the church’s culture to the Kingdom. We need to talk about how to live as children of God within the Kingdom that has come but is still coming and yet to come. How do we live in these in-between times?

5.  The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Effect

Today, my mom said to me, “Church has always felt exclusive and ‘cliquey,’ like high school.” With sadness in her voice she continued, “and I’ve never been good at that game so I stopped playing.”

The truth is, I share her experience. As do thousands of others.

There is nothing more anti-Christian than social cliques. Grow up.

6. Distrust & Misallocation of Resources

Over and over we’ve been told to “tithe” and give 10 percent of our incomes to the church, but where does that money actually go? Millennials, more than any other generation, don’t trust institutions, for we have witnessed over and over how corrupt and self-serving they can be.

Be sure some young people — under age 35 — are involved in the budgeting process. Include them in setting up internal controls with the advice of a good CPA. Make year to date expenditures compared to budget and to last year available on your website. Go out of your way to be transparent. Don’t wait for someone to ask.

7. We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At

Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes.

We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future. If we don’t have real people who actually care about us, why not just listen to a sermon from the couch (with the ecstasy of donuts and sweatpants)?

A. I agree.

B. This is not easy. I mean, ask me how to mentor someone at church and I just don’t know. I do it at the office, but I have the person I’m mentoring close at hand all day and I know what skills and experiences I need to pass along.

Some thoughts:

i. Assign members to an elder as a “shepherd.” Train the elder on building relationships. Let the Spirit do his thing.

ii. Use small groups, and maybe seed Millennial groups with older adults as resource couples/mentors.

iii. Have your older members give testimonies about their lives with Jesus. Maybe have the preacher interview them.

iv. If you hold a class on marriage, child rearing, or personal finances, have older couples/members in the class as resource couples to share their life experiences. Encourage them to spend time with class members outside of class. Give out their cell phone numbers and offer to take calls.

v. Mix up the teachers for Millennial classes. Some classes should be taught by Millennials, so they learn how to teach and leadership can rise up. But some classes should be taught by older members who can form relationships with the students and give a seasoned perspective.

8. We Want to Feel Valued

We need a church that sees us and believes in us, that cheers us on and encourages us to chase our big crazy dreams.

9. We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)

People in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image.

We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.

these topics are the teaching millennials are starving for. We don’t like how the world is telling us to live, but we never hear from our church either.

10. The Public Perception

It’s time to focus on changing the public perception of the church within the community. The neighbors, the city and the people around our church buildings should be audibly thankful the congregation is part of their neighborhood.

11. Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)

Under-promise and over-deliver. Remember, they distrust institutions and authority. Don’t promise change and then fail to deliver.

12. You’re Failing to Adapt

None of this is new material. Why haven’t we made these changes already?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Reversing the Millennial Drop Out Problem

  1. Mark says:

    The rules which govern most non profits include never upsetting any donor, much less a large donor. In churches, this rule is also present. While churches have to have money to operate, sometimes the need for money is so strong and fear of upsetting the large donors is so great that the younger people are/were sold out or told to wait their turn. This is what Jesus came to revise when he disagreed with the scribes and Pharisees. No one had the guts to ask the older people to do anything for the younger people even to attempt to keep them in Christianity. I mentioned one time that the older people should be told that they are running their grandchildren right out of the faith. The response leans toward some form of “when they donate money, they will be heard.” This is no different than modern political parties.

  2. Ben says:

    Interesting stuff… I’d challenge you to rethink whether churches need to come up with more convincing value propositions to bring back Millennials. I’m a Millennial who works in the corporate world, and I’ve become convinced that the modern incarnation of the evangelical church is destined to fail precisely because it’s tried to treat the church like a free market business. Christianity is not a market proposition, and applying marketing axioms to worship isn’t going to produce anything more than a temporary and surface-level bump. Many Millennials I know – including me and my family – have left “corporate”-style churches for home churches or similar groups.

  3. Dwight says:

    13. Stop talking about others with an air of superiority and then teach on grace. They are incompatible. We cannot be say that we aren’t the only ones going to heaven and then say, “We are right and they are wrong.” Or we can’t negatively talk about their faults and then congratulate us on our achievements while ignoring our own faults.
    Many people today are seeing through the contradictions of the past and rhetoric.

  4. Larry Cheek says:

    Another part of thus whole problem is that the church has tried to convince everyone that it holds your life in it’s hands (your salvation actually). This whole document is directed towards the corporate church. Ignoring the church which is within each and every one of us, and this corporate church never taught us how we are to worship God individually. It wants to be in control of that. The more I study and learn about the early church, the more I see that the assemblies were not the center of the church that brought the message of the Gospel to sinners. No one can find a scripture where any of the NT Christians invited a sinner to come to church or the assembly. This is the closest to unbelievers being in an assembly, notice by the context did any Christian invite them and tell them what to expect, NO, they just dropped in, text does not mention that the knew anyone.

    1Co 14:22-24 ESV Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. (23) If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? (24) But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all,

    Here again, is mentioned, just merge all assemblies together to make one church. How soon we forget that our unity is in Christ not being assembled together. If there was only unity when all the known Christians were gathered into one assembly than the Apostles must have not been in unity, for they very seldom if ever met together in one assembly.

  5. Dwight says:

    Larry, I agree. I call this “church-centric” where our life revolves around our church association and not primarily Jesus.
    This is an excerpt from my study on the church
    “The “local church” or assembly on Sunday/Wednesday has become the hub of our Christianity, where our access to Christ and the things we do for Christ flow into and out of. We see the universal congregation to be a reflection of the local church and not the people. In fact the conversion to Christ usually starts out with a local church relationship and this is promoted in the way we seek to convert others by “inviting them in”. The more time one spends at “church” is seen as a reflection of that person’s spiritual growth and Holiness. And how we perceive our “church” or “church affiliation” and the doctrine held within is how we perceive our own righteousness, the righteousness of others and how the congregation of the Lord should look. We see the “church” from a limited stand point, because we have a limited understanding of what the “church” is. We go to “worship service” even though our life is to be a service to God and we should continually worship Him in praise in our life. Ironically, the assembly or local church time is only 3-4 hours out of a saint’s 168 hours in their week. This means 164 hours of being free-range Christians who may or may not see themselves as Christians unless they are in assembly. But God’s church is always open.”
    By the way Larry I sent you the study this is from, so you can look it over and I will send it to anyone who ask, I need critics and reviewers.

    I do believe that when Paul is writing, 1Co 14:22-24 “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all,”
    that he is not talking of individual churches necessarily, but rather people, after all he is writing to the congregation in Corinth (the saints in Corinth) who met or assembled in their homes(congregating).
    He is probably speaking about that IF all of the Corinthians met in one place for the exercising of spiritual gifts, then they should be aware of what those gifts are for as they were doing it to show off to one another. They were not to abuse the purpose of the gifts for personal reasons.
    Also the speaking of tongues and prophesies weren’t limited to the assembly as noted in Acts 2 and elsewhere. This was not a church function as teaching, preaching, giving, etc. wasn’t, it was a Christian function.

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