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Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church

A video recently came across my feed about how churches can better appeal to millennials. This interested me because I am a millennial, and while I still attend church, I see why a lot of people (especially people my age) don’t. The woman’s solution in the video was that we millennials require a “new approach”. While she had a couple good points about learning to be less judgemental, her tone frustrated me. I also made the mistake of reading the comments section which included everything from silencing the woman in the video (who I then wanted to defend even though I disagree with her) and people commenting that millennials are leaving because WE ARE IN THE END TIMES.

Sigh. Ya’ll. So Rachel Held Evans wrote a fantastic book on this topic, called Searching for Sunday. That whole book explains this perfectly. The challenges that I see my generation facing in organized church, whether it’s a catholic, protestant, or an evangelical denomination, don’t come from off base marketing. It has very little to do with the “approach”. It’s equally funny and frustrating to see how little self awareness organized Christian religion has. The fact that people think they can simply change up a worship style and update some graphics to appeal to a different generation is really amusing, but let me share what’s hard about church sometimes for me, and why many of my friends have chosen other paths.

Many millennials are the first generation that grew up immersed in church. Our parents were all in, and that meant we were at church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. We did the mission trips, youth group, and camp. We memorized full chapters of the Bible. Church was our world. We are also the first generation indoctrinated with purity culture (aka Christian patriarchy) from childhood. We laid awake at night terrified of our preachers’ vivid descriptions of hell. We wondered if we’d grow up to reach adulthood, or if Jesus would come back first. We were terrified of the end times. These things are vaguely threatening and theoretical to adults, but to kids it’s a whole different experience. We were immersed in this world.

As we got older, we started coming up against life in new ways. We started navigating new challenges, and realizing the organization and community that was a safe haven for our parents left us with some serious baggage to unpack. Whether a “Christian” significant other didn’t treat us in “Christian” ways, or we experienced abuse at the hands of the church, or we experienced a traumatic church split, the rose colored glasses were eventually shattered. We didn’t just deeply internalize talk about the rapture, hell, and end times as kids, we also deeply internalized instructions like “love your neighbor,” “welcome the stranger,” and “whenever you do these things, you’ve done them for me.” Because we internalized these things so deeply, it’s hard for us to rectify the church’s message with its actions both across history and today.

Our world is smaller than it was 30 years ago. The immediacy of information available from across the globe shows us new perspectives and windows into the lives of other people and cultures. Many of us millennials who grew up in the church have a profound understanding that our “neighbors” are those many in our parents generation were happy to pretend didn’t exist. Our neighbors are separated from their children at our country’s border. Our neighbors are subjects of hate crimes in their own country, but many of our churches are silent. Of course, many churches are afraid of alienating members by getting “too political” but Christianity has been political since it married power as the state religion of Rome. Our God’s name has been wrongfully invoked in holy wars, on the doctrine of discovery, on slavery, colonization, and on genocide of Indigenous peoples over the last five hundred years or more. These events are intensely political. Our God left us an ancient library of Scripture, full of resistance and liberation stories and our ancestors subverted them to build empires. We don’t get to opt out of the conversation now with platitudes of peace, love, and how only God can fix this mess our ancestors made while we continue to benefit from the systems of empire they created. Christianity has always been political. Liberation is political. Justice is political. Love is political.

Do you want to attract Millennials to your church? Learn liberation theology. Learn to interpret Scripture through the lens of power dynamics. Intentionally include writing and references in church literature from people of all backgrounds and genders. Create space and lead your community in repentance and lament. I don’t mean a performative repentance of “Oh I really should read my Bible more”. I mean repentance of complicity in systems of oppression. Lament our history and harm caused by our ancestors. Allocate funds in the budget for reparation donations to communities most marginalized by the quest for unholy power and land in the name of our God. Offer education, book clubs, and small groups to discuss how we can divest ourselves of these systems of empire, and practice a living, breathing, peace in our communities.

I haven't personally had to make this decision yet, but many of my friends are now considering how church will affect their kids. There's an ideal of raising kids in a loving and faith filled community, but when you remember how certain things affected your early development it gets more complicated.

It becomes clear how far some of our churches really expect the Bible to go (ironically, especially the ones who proclaim they are “Bible believing”.) We don’t need a new approach, we need a new depth of integrity. We need churches and church leadership who are willing to sacrifice their security and social status to address the actual problems our world faces. We need churches who report cases of abuse instead of hushing it up for fear of a PR scandal. We need churches who prioritize creating a sanctuary for victims over entertaining rapists. We need churches who welcome us with open arms, who affirm all of our gifts, and who don’t put up barriers to our service. We need messages and teaching that show Jesus & faith through the eyes of Christians from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders, not just white, straight, men. We need to see the gospel at work in the lives of people TODAY, not the heyday of 50 years ago, when Christianity could exist in a vacuum, and church could be an isolated echo chamber.

I don’t judge my friends for not wanting to participate. I don’t judge them for needing a time out or respite from constantly sifting what parts of church are holdouts from social systems of oppression, and what parts hold healing. I don’t judge them when they can’t find God in church anymore.

If this just sounds like a shift in tone or approach to you, you don’t understand the problem and you won’t be able to fix it. This isn’t about political correctness or feeling judged. This is about who we really believe in our souls the Gospel is for. It’s about who we will listen to sharing it. If we believe the Gospel is truly for everyone, it will apply to everyone, and we need to hear the stories and missions of everyone. Millennials like me are not satisfied with a convenient and privileged version of the gospel. Our moral compasses are true, even if they lead us to uncharted territories.

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