We all know that the Millennial generation is far less Christian and Bible-oriented than previous generations, generally speaking. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has stepped inside of a church building in the last 5 years, as you rarely find congregations filled with twenty-somethings. We’re a generation with very little use for religion. That fact generally leads us to assume that all Millennials are less interested in what the church has to offer, as the culture at large is disinterested and we lose over half of our own in that age range. Thankfully, the latest statistics (as of October 2015) give reason for hope.
In a Relevant Magazine article, David Kinnaman (president of Barna Group and arguably the leading researchers on religious statistics in America) shared statistics that confirm that today’s young adults as a whole are moving away from Christianity. However, what he’s seeing in these studies is that the young Christians who are staying faithful are far more grounded in their faith than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations of Christians. They see the value of reading, understanding, and living out the Bible. As the article quotes Kinnaman as saying, this generation has “a more holistic understanding that theology matters, that Scripture matters; that worship should be taken seriously, that being a Christian is a whole-life commitment, rather than something you just do on Sundays.”
Why? Kinnaman chalks it up to the change in culture. Past generations could claim to be Christians without any backlash. It cost them nothing, but today’s young people are being forced to count the cost. They could potentially lose friends or even have educational or career difficulties if they stand on Christian principles. For many, that’s not worth it, so they leave. For those who are staying, they’ve drawn a line in the sand and understand that they have to be counter-cultural to be Christian.
In everything we’ve studied at Focus Press and what I’ve seen in my travels, Kinnaman’s research certainly passes the eye test. Millennials are always the smallest group (if there are any) in every congregation I’ve visited, but those I’ve met take it seriously. The Barna Group has certainly helped paint a picture of what Millennial Christianity is beginning to look like, and I think their conclusion should give us hope. However, I also think we should take lessons from what they are finding, and these two particular lessons seem to stand out for what parents, elders, and ministers can take from this new information.
1. God has to be made important to them
We’re a generation with a million options in front of us at any given moment. We’ve been trained from infancy to be very economical in our decision making, because when you have all of those options you learn to quickly pick out which ones matter to you and discard the others. We also have little regard for tradition for the sake of tradition. We’re only going to do something if we feel it has a point. Those who are staying see that church and godliness are important. Those who are leaving are doing so under the impression that they have better things on which they can spend their time and efforts. And, as noted, it’s going to cost them something to claim to be a Christian, so unless they see it as critically important, they aren’t going to make that sacrifice.
Every time I’ve visited congregations to present the “Lost Generation” lesson series I’ve asked for a show of hands of who plans to leave a billion dollars to each of their children. As you’d expect, nobody has ever raised a hand. Why not? Because you can’t give something you don’t have. If the Bible, prayer, service, and church attendance aren’t important to you, there’s a really good chance they won’t be important to your children. You can’t be lukewarm and expect them to have a fire for the Lord that you didn’t help light within them, as Deuteronomy 6:5-7 charges parents to do. It’s the parents’ job to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds and pass that love on.
If it’s important to you, you’ve got a much better chance of helping make it important to them. But if it’s only mildly important to you, don’t expect them to prioritize it as they grow older. Where older generations might have had plenty of lukewarm people in the pews because they felt they were supposed to be there for some reason, today’s generation isn’t even going to bother to waste the time. You as parents only have 10-15 years to show them that this is the most important thing they’ll ever be a part of. Make the most of that time, and don’t let anything less than total devotion to God in your life be a stumbling block to them.
2. Churches have to raise the bar
Youth classes and programs that keep young people from progressing on to deeper teachings do nothing but hinder them. Again, we’ve been brought up in an age where we can choose something else instantly. Boring Bible classes that don’t challenge us won’t cut it. Programs that try to entertain us can’t compete with Netflix, video games, and all of our iPhone apps, so that’s not going to keep us interested, either. Bible class teachers, youth ministers, preachers, and elders have to make sure that everyone from young to old sees not just that the Bible is critically important to their lives, but why and how.
Young people want to grow. They want to be a part of something that matters. They want to learn things that are important to them and everyone they know. Guess what? The Bible offers all of those things. We have to make sure that our churches are helping them see that connection and leading them to deeper faith.
The American culture in which we live is growing more hostile toward Christianity every day. We need our church buildings to be filled with people who truly believe and are ready to stand for their faith. Who knows whether a generation like this is here “for such a time as this,” to paraphrase Mordecai in Esther 4:14.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact jack@focuspress.org.