I want to let you in on a secret: I know the reason millennials are leaving the church—and you probably do, too.
In case you’re unaware, a recent article by Rachel Held Evans on why millennials are leaving the church has lit a fire under a number of Christians. That young people aren’t exactly gravitating toward Christianity is no surprise. More importantly, it’s no secret why many are leaving.
What Evans suggests is that what millennials are looking for—the secret to “getting” this notoriously difficult to pin down generation—isn’t a change in style, but in substance.
What does she mean by substance? She writes:
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around,” she says. “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
This is a pretty bold assessment, isn’t it?
I mean, to say that the reason millennials are leaving the church is because they can’t find Jesus there… that takes some stones.
But is it true?
I’m not entirely sure.
You see, Evans is taking the tried and tired road of declaring that the Church must change or die. She’s casting a vision of how the church needs to change “with” the millennials, to see their values and be a place where they belong.
And yet, what does any of it mean?
It’s fine to say we want to end the so-called feud between faith and science, but what does that mean? For that matter, what does it mean to change “with” a generation, rather than “for” it? The same question could be said about any of her assertions above, many of which are derived from books like You Lost Me by David Kinnaman.[1. A book I greatly appreciated, by the way. Read my take on that here.]
Here’s where Evans is right: Millennials don’t need hipper worship bands and they don’t need to be asked to turn their brains off.
That’s not what they need.
But is the answer to make church a place where it’s okay to have questions? Sure, as long as you’re asking them with the expectation of getting an answer.
Is it to make the church a place that isn’t tied to a particular political party or nation? Definitely, as long as we’re not afraid to speak up about tough topics like abortion for fear of being seen as being “too political.”
Is it make the church a place where LGBT friends feel warm and welcome? Yes, as long as we’re not too timid to tell the truth about what the Bible says about all sexual sin, including homosexuality.
But here’s the thing: doing any of these things (which, for what it’s worth, is what the vast majority of churches already do) isn’t going to make millennials suddenly want to come back to church.
Why? Because they’re not really the reason they’re leaving.
Do millennials have doubts that go beyond pat answers? Yep. Do they have a hard time with the biblical view of sexuality? Absolutely. Do they really struggle with what the Bible says about how the world came to be? Totally.
But the real reason millennials are abandoning the church isn’t because they’re dissatisfied with the answers to any of these questions. And it’s not because they can’t find Jesus in the typical evangelical church.
The reason many leave is they don’t know Jesus.
Evans’ take is one, ultimately, of cultural accommodation. It’s an approach we’ve seen fail again and again. When the mainline denominations abandoned historic orthodoxy in favor of theological liberalism, it gutted their churches. There’s a reason these congregations are hemorrhaging, and it’s not because their beliefs are offensive to the average person on the street.
There’s a reason the so-called Seeker movement was a largely an exercise in futility, and it’s not because it was producing vast numbers of strong, theologically-sound, mission-minded believers.
In fact, many of the millennials who are leaving the church are simply following the example of the previous generation of nominal believers. Christianity didn’t really make that much of a difference in their parents’ lives, at least from what they could see, so clearly there’s nothing to it.[2. For more on this, read The Millennials by Thom and Jess Rainer.]
So for all the damning talk of millennials not being able to find Jesus in our churches, the reality may be they don’t know what Jesus to look for.
You want to keep millennials in your churches? Here’s what you do:
Tell them about Jesus. Tell them about the Son of God, who came and lived a perfect life, who died on the cross for their sins, and who was raised from the dead in victory over Satan, sin and death. Give them the opportunity to repent and believe!
Teach with conviction. Squishiness and arrogant uncertainty is so tired, especially for a generation that’s been fed a steady diet of it. Tell them the truth about God’s Word; teach them sound doctrine with conviction.[3. Josh Harris’ excellent book, Humble Orthodoxy, is really helpful on this point.]
Live out your beliefs. What you believe works itself out in what you do. If you really believe the truths of Scripture, live in light of them. Evangelize passionately. Serve others joyfully. Let millennials see that your beliefs aren’t just intellectual thoughts, but convictions that drive all you do in life.
That’s the secret of reaching and keeping the millennials. And it’s no secret at all. So what are you going to do with it?