Recently our local newspaper, The Oklahoman, published an item on the opinion page about the measurable decline in the practice of religion in the United States. The report included the now well-known statistic that 40% of younger adults self-identify as “nones” when asked about their religious preferences. These statistics are supported by the Barna Research Group and the Pew Research Center.
“Nones,” who often claim to be spiritual without being religious, are described as objecting to the institutional church as old-fashioned, too involved in politics, insensitive, boring, judgmental, and intolerant of gays, immigrants, and other religions.
Some who claim to have faith in Jesus say that have lost faith in the church. They slip in and out of various congregations and home groups. Some of them say they get their spiritual food from watching sermons and listening to music on YouTube!
I don’t have glib answers for all the millennials’ objections to the church. Some complaints are understandable: comfort with the racial status quo, lack of compassion for the poor, marriage to the Republican Party, resistance to change. The list goes on. It is easy to pick at the scabs of the church’s faults. It is not so easy to help find solutions.
Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, wrote, “Following Jesus is a group activity.” She waxed poetic when she called on the church to stick to what the church does best (baptism, communion, fellowship, confession and preaching the Word). She says we make Christianity more complicated than it needs to be, especially when we try to adjust our methods and ministries to every new trend in millennial research. (You don’t have to agree with everything she writes to see the wisdom in that statement.)
So if many in the millennial generation are disaffected and disconnected, what is the church to do? Are sermon podcasts and internet message boards an acceptable substitute for the organized, institutional, visible, and local assembly? What kind of ministry do millennials want and need?
Respectfully and carefully, I offer five observations:
- Social media podcasts, YouTube and other online resources can never take the place of local churches. Healthy churches offer what technology cannot provide: relationships. Face-to-face contact with people in an environment of love has the potential to offer spiritual guidance, mentoring and fellowship. Millennials crave community and good churches work hard to provide that.
- The church needs to be more accepting of people who are not just like us. If we shut our doors to immigrants, the poor, to racial minorities, or to those with honest doubts and questions, we deny the gospel. Millennials value acceptance and inclusion. We can show them we welcome all kinds of people without watering down our message or violating the Bible’s moral standards.
- Preaching the Word should be accompanied by personal discipleship. A supernatural transaction occurs in the public reading and exposition of scripture. The preaching that is in a local church context is relational, for and among people who know and respect each other. YouTube cannot provide that emotional connection or accountability. In addition, young adults desire to be mentored in learning how to live for Christ and to apply His Word in everyday life. The podcast preacher will not visit you if you are in the hospital, offer marriage counseling, or meet for one-to-one discipleship. The pastors in our church still make house calls.
- The list of social problems in any American city is endless, and no church can address them all. But church members can be encouraged to get involved with local ministries of compassion in the name of Jesus. We will not bring an end to poverty, war, racism, homelessness or addiction. As long as there is sin, there will be human suffering as a consequence. Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that while we are not saved by doing good works, we are saved in order to do good works. We are called to serve the needy and to bring them the gospel as we do so. Millennials are motivated by compassion, and they are eager to serve the less fortunate. They respect churches that reflect the compassion of Jesus.
- Millennials have been targets of marketing and media campaigns all their lives. They know how to tune out advertising. “The church is the last place they want to go to be sold something” (Rachel Held Evans). The church will not hold their interest by trying to be hip, cool or slick. They can smell the hypocrisy if the church tries to become more like the world to attract them. Jesus did not say that He would reward a church for being the biggest and most influential. Rather He will reward His people for being good and faithful servants.
Servanthood means that instead of relying on salesmanship, good churches will rely on Holy Spirit-motivated relationships with millennials who are open to having respectful conversations about spiritual questions. Most young adults who put their faith in Jesus as Savior, do so as a result of dialogue with a friend who was humble enough to listen and to welcome discussion about spiritual questions.
I have found 2 Timothy 2:24-25 to be helpful as I think about this.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”
I am not an expert on generational demographics. But I do read and study and try to understand. One thing is for sure: God loves the “nones.” He wants His church to love them, too.