What Can We Learn from the Millennials Leaving the Church in Droves? Part 5

Preston Sprinkle

Before we dive in, I want to thank you all for offering helpful feedback during this series. Through Tweets and DM’s, comments and texts, emails and phone calls, my thinking has been tremendously shaped by people interacting with my posts. One of the reasons why I blog is to get feedback on ideas that are swimming around in my head. That’s not a bad place for ideas to begin, but it’s a terrible place for them to be kept. So thanks for the affirming and critical responses. I’ve learned a great deal from them both.
I’m going to end this series by offering some ways in which Christians can learn from the Millennials who are leaving the church. Even if they don’t always leave for the right reasons, there’s still much to be gleaned. After all, it’s rare that humans will leave a community where they are both known and loved, where people know who you really are and are still committed to you. It’s tough to say good bye to people who will give their lives for you, who know your deep dark secret, your addictions, your insecurities, and yet still delight in you as a person no matter what. But that’s the communities Jesus seeks to create. And we have the Spirit of the living God who can make it happen.

So how can we become this sort of community—a community that makes it hard to leave?

David Kinnaman says something crucial in his book You Lost Me. He writes: “The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem…it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture” (p. 21).

I think he’s right. The church needs to rethink how it’s disciplnig its people. This is why I’ve become passionate about the topic and agreed to write a book about discipleship. As I’ve reflected on all the stuff I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to, here are 6 main areas (= suggested chapters in my book) that I wish to explore. I would love to hear what you think.

1. Grace-Based (not Performance-Based)

Discipleship at its heart is growing deeper into grace, and yet most approaches to discipleship leave grace out of the picture (verbally or functionally). The common thought is that grace is what gets us saved, but then we need to buckle down and grind out holiness on our own.

In other words, many approaches to discipleship have been performance based rather than grace based. But the grace that saves us is the same grace that matures us. “The gospel that makes disciples is the very same gospel that matures disciples” (Dodson, Gospel Centered Discipleship, 40).

2. Relationships (not Programs)

Every description of discipleship in the Bible shows that it’s about relationships and not a program. Programs have their place and can contribute to the discipleship process, but discipleship can’t be done through programs alone. Programs are generally less personal, information-centered, and focused on one person discipling many. They are good at distributing a lot of impactful information to a large group of people; they are therefore efficient. But most program-based methods lack the authenticity and depth that’s necessary for true growth and can only happen in much smaller, more intimate and authentic, settings. Programs don’t take into account an individual’s growth rate and they usually have low personal accountability (Ogden, Transforming Discipleship, 45). In terms of Millennials, program-based discipleship will be even less effective as it was for Boomers and Busters, since Millenials highly value relationships.

3. Communal (not Individualistic)

While most Americans are highly relational, when it comes to spiritual growth, many of them prefer to do it alone. However, the New Testament is very clear that discipleship—“becoming more like Christ”—cannot happen apart from community. The community of Christians is the body of Christ, the “fullness of God” on earth (Eph 1:22-23). And the body cannot function if it’s dismembered (1 Cor 12). Many of the commands in the NT have to do with loving, serving, forgiving, and walking with “one another,” which means that much of what it means to be a Christian is impossible to do on your own.

4. Holistic (not Compartmentalized)

It appears that many approaches to discipleship have unintentionally adhered to a secular/sacred divide, where one’s spiritual life is keep separate from the rest of their world. The gospel has little to no bearing on their secular life (vocation; interests in film, art, music, sports; hobbies, etc.). Christians, especially millennials, are hungry to connect the gospel to all areas of life, and yet the church is not doing this very well. For example, 52% of Christian teens in youth group aspire to science related careers, and yet only 1% of youth pastors addressed issues related to faith and science in 2009 (Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 140). This means that even if these teens are “being discipled,” such discipleship is not holistic; it’s focused on personal holiness but leaves the gospel out of a huge aspect of their lives.

5. Thinking (not just Believing)

This chapter will reiterate the problem of biblical illiteracy and lack of holistic discipleship and then focus on the fact that disciples need to be taught how to think not just what to think. Millennials especially are tired of clichéd, tired answers to complex questions. They want space to be able to think through deep issues in life and not have to memorize some “right” answers.

Biblically, learning is a significant part of what being a “disciple” (Greek: mathetes) means. It means to learn from a teacher or rabbi, to follow him and sit at his feet. But if we look at the mode of Jesus’s teaching, it was always relational and oftentimes he caused them to think by telling parables, stories, illustrations that led them to right thinking rather than making them memorize right answers.

In short, discipleship needs to be highly relational and encourage honest questions and dialogue. It should not be focused on monologue, lectures, and listening to and memorizing the right answers.

6. Living (not Just Thinking)

This chapter, of course, is directly related and complementary to the previous one. As much as discipleship needs to focus on the mind, it also needs to penetrate the heart, hands, and feet. Discipleship is ultimately about transformation—becoming more like Jesus.

Most discipleship manuals agree with this, and this chapter will briefly affirm what many leaders are already saying: Discipleship is about living rightly not just believing rightly. However, this chapter will go beyond personal holiness as the transformational goal and explore other missional ventures that are integral to “becoming more like Christ.”

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