As a youth pastor, I am overwhelmed by the number of books available outlining the current crises of the church when it comes to the Millennial generation and their exodus from the institutional church. Often these books fail to adequately describe this reality, in terms of our surrounding culture and its impact on church culture, preferring to rely on alarmist rhetoric and faulty analysis. Moreover, the answers proposed by these books do little, in my opinion, to uproot the underlying factors driving this exodus.
In addition, discussions surrounding this issue by church leadership and laity alike are often grounded in blatant ignorance at worst and baffled confusion at best. One cannot doubt the good intentions that motivate their concern for the younger generations. However, regardless of the tone of the discussion, the result is almost always the same – an unfortunate unwillingness to listen and engage with the root causes of this exodus and a refusal to make the necessary changes in order to address the concerns of younger generations.
My youth ministry colleagues and I share similar frustrations when it comes to these kinds of discussions. Often a concerned parent, grandparent, or church leader will approach us, seeking an answer for the absence of teens and young adults in our congregations. However, their legitimate concern for youth is quickly undone with intonations of: “This kind of behavior is typical of young people – all they do is complain! When I was young, I did the same thing, but at least I stuck around. Young people today are too entitled – instead of trying to be part of the solution, all they do is sulk and walk away when they don’t get their own way!”
As a member of the Millennial generation who works with younger members of this generation, I cannot emphasize enough how wrong this perception is. Indeed, it is precisely this kind of attitude that is causing young people to walk away from the church. Millennials are not leaving church simply because they aren’t getting their own way. Rather, it is because they realize they don’t even have a place at the leadership table. The question is – how can we expect a generation to stick things out simply in order for them to maintain the status quo once they are finally given the opportunity to lead, especially when the diagnoses they are presently offering concerning the state of the church are uncomfortably accurate?
It seems as though we are ignoring the prophetic utterances of the younger generation at our own peril, completely blind to the fact that “business as usual” when it comes to church is bearing bad fruit. The painful irony is that the church leadership who are so quick to stonewall the ideas and passions of Millenials are often from the “Greatest Generation”, a generation that shares much in common with the Millenials, particularly a strong civic-mindedness and entrepreneurial spirit. Inversely, one of the biggest differences between these two generations concerns their relationship to institutional religion – whereas the Greatest Generation felt at home in churches, Millenials, for better or worse, remain highly suspicious of religious institutions.
When it comes to addressing this issue, churches are in a bind. Lead by well-meaning members of a generation who are reluctant to engage a younger generation by actively listening to their concerns and risking their proposals for change, a siege mentality often grips the hearts and minds of older generations who, while concerned for their children and grandchildren, are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to become a truly intergenerational church family. And the exodus continues.
We are reaping what we’ve sown. Driven by a strong sense of fair-play, Millenials are interested in collaboration among equals. This also means that they are not interested in fighting, so when conflict looms, they simply walk away. They are also highly community oriented – if they don’t find community in one place, they will look for it elsewhere. And in our highly digitally connected world, they will certainly find it. This means that if younger generations are not given the opportunity to participate in meaningful discussions that will shape the present and future of the church and if they are denied leadership roles, they will not bother investing their time and energy into what they see as a fruitless endeavor. They will go to where the action is and where they can have an important role to play.
This is precisely why David Kinnaman’s new book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith, is so important. It provides a clear and incisive picture of both the Millenial generation and why they are leaving the church. Kinnaman wants to explore the question: “Is Christianity’s dropout problem a unique sociological phenomenon of the early part of the twenty-first century or just a natural part of the human life cycle in which youth people experience faith maturation?” In other words, is this exodus of young adults from the church something new or is it something that every generation of young adults goes through? Rather than taking an either/or approach, Kinnaman adeptly argues why this phenomenon is both a new and old problem and outlines his proposals for how to reach this generation.
What I especially appreciated about You Lost Me was the careful distinctions made in distinguishing groups of “dropouts” and the very different reasons each is disengaging from church. Kinnaman’s discussion of the importance of intergenerational relationships in fostering life-long discipleship also struck home for me as I am currently developing a mentoring program in my congregation to serve as the foundation for our youth ministry.
To be clear, the primary focus of You Lost Me is so-called “churched” young adults. However, the proposals Kinnaman and others (such as Shane Claiborne, Kenda Creasy Dean, Scot McKnight, and Kara Powell) offer to engage the Millenial generation are also applicable in address the flip-side of this issue (i.e. why are “un-churched” young adults avoiding faith and church altogether). Rather than demanding that the older generations simply aquiese to the ideas of the Millenials, the proposals offered are pragmatic and constructive and, for congregations willing to take the risk of implementing them, will produce good fruit.
I don’t often recommend books on youth ministry/culture because I find many that are not worth recommending for one reason or another. However, You Lost Me is certainly an exception. It is not simply a book for youth pastors – it should be mandatory reading for youth pastors, senior pastors, church leadership, parents, and anyone concerned about addressing the reasons for the exodus of young adults from the church and from faith.
“Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group”.