In my last post, I pointed out that millennials (18-29 year olds) are fleeing the church. Again, it’s not that I’ve based this on a few anecdotal stories. It’s not that I’ve read one or two surveys that have argued this. The evidence is overwhelming,
confirmed by many independent surveys and interviews that have used both quantitative and qualitative research. The question isn’t if millennials are leaving. The questions are why, and what should the church do about it? (I’ve recently come to realize through my friend Derwin Gray and others that black millennials are not fleeing their churches in droves. The current problem is largely a white one. I’ll explore this in a future blog.)
It’s not just (white) millennials who are leaving. The “dechurched” population is growing in unprecedented numbers regardless of age. According to a Pew Research, the percentage of “Dechurched” people has increased from 15% of the population in 2007 to 20% in 2012. There’s no sign that such “Church Refugees” are shrinking in number; there’s every sign that they are continuing to grow (see Packard and Hope, Church Refugees).
Now let me be clear. Perhaps clearer than I was in the last post. I believe that some churches are thriving. They are doing an amazing job at reaching millennials and engaging culture with a relevant and biblical gospel. (I’d put the last few churches I’ve been a part of, including my current church, in this category.) They are modeling the radical love of Jesus and, though not perfect, they are “being the church” in ways that are both effective and Christ-like. I also believe that at least some millennials are leaving the church for terrible reasons. Selfish reasons. Sinful reasons. Or, they’re leaving the church because they really don’t want anything to do with Jesus. I don’t want to canonize the opinions and unmet desires of millennials and then turn around and say, “you Christians totally suck at doing church!” It’s way more complicated than that. And, again, I think there are a variety of factors leading to the mass exodus of (especially) younger people from the church.
However, I am struck by the reasons that millennials give for leaving the church. They usually have something to do with the church not reflecting Jesus. They wanted community. They wanted substance. They wanted older men and women to pour into them. They wanted more depth, more Bible, more concern for injustice, the marginalized, and the poor. Many millennials still love Jesus. They want to engage in the radical mission of Christ, but found that church people are more concerned with potlucks, gossip, and constructing new buildings. And they are, for lack of better terms, leaving church in order to be better Christ-followers—for good or for ill.
Now, we’ve got to understand that the Dechurched come in many shapes and sizes, and I’m not talking about the quantity of pizza they consume. Drew Dyck has written an outstanding book called Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith…and How to Bring them Back. In it, he talks about the following six types of Dechurched millennials.
Postmodern Leavers. They feel that typical Christians are overly dogmatic on silly issues, and they don’t appreciate the nuances of reality. Postmodern leavers grow tired of thin answers to complex questions, and they long for rich, intimate relationships where they could discuss issues without being preached at; express doubt without being judged. They want to bring their gay friend to church, but they knew he wouldn’t be received.
Recoilers.These Dechurched folks have experience abuse in the church. Physical, mental, relational, or spiritual abuse. They’ve experienced painful hypocrisy and have left the church in search of safety and love. I’ve heard quite a few horror stories about such people first-hand, and it’s amazing that they are still clinging to Jesus.
Modern Leavers.Modern leavers flee because of intellectual reasons. They are persuaded by Dawkins that evolution is intellectually superior and Christianity’s truth claims can’t be scientifically justified. Surprisingly, though, this group constitutes the smallest percentage of Leavers. Most people—yes, even university students—leave the church for other reasons.
Neo-Pagans. Some Leavers exit the church because it was too stale, dry, and non-spiritual. Interestingly, Wicca is one of the fastest growing religions in America, and most of its adherents grew up in the church. The deep spirituality of Wicca scratched an itch that wasn’t scratched in the church. And church’s perceived “anti-Creation” stance (it’s all gonna burn anyway) and low view of women didn’t resonate with their love for the earth and belief that we are all created equal.
Rebels.Rebels simply want to party and don’t want to be shackled by the moral demands of the church. Some of them are straight up sinners. Keg-tapping, money-grubbing, horny sinners who want to live it up in their short years on earth. Like the Moderns, this group is surprisingly small. Most people leave the church for other reasons.
Drifters.This is the largest group. Most people leave the church for no major reason at all. They weren’t abused. They don’t agree with Dawkins. They don’t want a longer moral leash. They simply grew tired of the church routine and didn’t find anything all that compelling about church. They slowing stopped going, since nothing in “church” had any relevance to their real life. Most Drifters say they still believe in Jesus and share many values that we see in the life and teaching of Christ. It’s the church, not Christ, that they have left.
Let me speak directly and bluntly to some of you churched folks. You love going to church. You can’t wait to hear another sermon next Sunday. Some of you might blame the teaching of evolution, the gay agenda, or moral laxity among our youth as the main reasons why they don’t attend church any longer. You think millennials are running from the church because they’re a bunch of selfish rebels (some are, but most aren’t).
And yet, if I can guess, if I can tap into my prophetic abilities (I’m lying; I don’t have any), there’s a good chance someone close to you has left the church and abandoned the faith. And you’re super sad about it. You’re distraught. You want to know if you can do something to win them back.
Let me speak to you heart to heart, Christian to Christian. We have to understand these different types of Leavers if we are ever going to reach them.
For instance, the Postmodern Leaver will not be persuaded by intellectual, analytical, C. S. Lewis-type arguments. Even if Mere Christianity convinced you of the faith, it may not speak as powerfully to them. You can quote Bible verses until you are red in the face, and it’s not going to go anywhere with a Postmodern Leaver until they know they are unconditional loved. If you don’t listen to them, ask good questions, empathize with their doubt and pain, they’re not going to be convinced that the Jesus you’re preaching is real. You must be relational. You must be humble. You must be excessively merciful and willing to dialogue. Your ears and heart have to be ten times bigger than your mouth.
I know it sounds basic, and maybe it is. But you must be willing to listen. Ask questions. Don’t preach. Just love. Listen. Learn. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be convinced that the message you say is life-giving is worth hearing one last time.
Boring, dry, irrelevant church services are going to do nothing for the Neo-Pagan, who has a deep spiritual hunger. If she looks around at a church service and doesn’t see any passion, any emotion, no value for women, no real hunger for the divine, then she’s not going to be convinced that your Divine cares about her and is something, or Someone, worth giving her life to.
The Modern Leaver is incredibly frustrated with clichéd Christian responses to complex intellectual questions. Your favorite stage preacher, even some of the smart ones, are not going to be good resources. You may actually have to read Dawkins or Hitchens, or (God forbid) Darwin and interact with (rather than just dismiss) their arguments with solid research if you hope to retain any sort of credibility in their eyes. And if you equate young-earth theology and the rapture with the gospel, you might as well put gas in their tank as they drive away from Christianity. Some of our pet doctrines aren’t bad. Maybe they’re correct. But they can’t steal away the beauty and priority of Jesus. He and He alone is the good news.
Leavers are all different. In order to reach them, we need to understand these differences. In order to love them with the compelling love of Jesus, we need to listen.
Many people give reasons why young people are leaving the church. But it’s the ones who are listening and loving who are doing something to win them back.