Finding Where the Church Fails to Connect with Millennials & How We Can Reverse the Trend

Millennials have left the building. One simply cannot deny that significant numbers of people born between 1980 and 2000 (aka "millennials") are missing in many churches across America. Yes, exceptions exist—some churches brim with students and young adults. But the majority of churches in America lack young adults.

Admittedly, not all statistics seem to paint the same picture. Hence, you'll read competing articles—"Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church" versus "Have 8 Million Millennials Really Given Up on Christianity?"—each using the same data but having different analyses and prescriptions.

Even if you doubt the accuracy of the national data as being too alarmist, look into your local churches (including your own) and take a measure of millennial involvement. If you see many 18-25-year-olds active in your church, then take a minute to thank God for his work in your faith community. But if the "missing millennials" theme seems to fit your local church, then perhaps it's time to make an effort to figure out why—and to come up with some ideas for reversing that reality.

One Millennial's List

Chuck Lawless, a professor of evangelism and missions at Southeastern Seminary, made the effort by sitting down with a 22-year-old Christian named George and asking him what he would like to see in and from a local church. The young man, though not a ministry student, responded so quickly that Lawless suspected he'd already given considerable thought to the matter.1 Here's a summary of his thoughtful list of items:

  • Bold preaching and sound doctrine that is not watered down. The church should speak truth without sugarcoating the gospel.
  • Genuine opportunities to get involved, where he can make a real difference in the world.
  • A real community of believers, people with whom he can hang out, but who also push and challenge him.
  • A strong commitment to evangelism, especially locally. He would like opportunities to connect with and influence the local community for God.
  • Worship services that are "unrehearsed, naturally flowing and Spirit-led," but that also have an "authenticity that validates the message and structure that follows the Lord's leading." He would also like to see a "strong, team-focused worship leader" and variety in worship.
  • Hospitality that welcomes others. He would like a church that welcomes strangers and does not "cocoon itself" around the familiar.
  • Humility in leadership and flexibility in terms of where and when the church gathers. The "where" is not as important as that the congregation "truly be the church" and "truly know God."

For those of us older than the millennial generation, Lawless's concluding comment may contain a great recommendation: "George's responses remind me that I need to have more conversations like this one." Indeed, if one characteristic drives most of this young man's vision for church life, it would seem to be this: relationship, fueled by authentic Christian conversation.

What the Studies Show

If you think George's description sounds like a recipe for a healthy church community, you're not alone. This young man grew up in church, but he describes a church experience that probably differs markedly from that of his upbringing. The question is, does he speak for his generation? What can we learn from Christian millennials about the mindset of the unchurched members of their generation?

George Barna and LifeWay Research have both conducted extensive studies to discover why millennials are not in church, and also what kind of church would attract them.

In August 2009, the LifeWay team conducted a study of 1,200 American millennials, finding that about two-thirds called themselves Christian, 14 percent said they were atheist or agnostic, another 14 percent listed no religious preference, and 8 percent claimed affiliation with a religion other than Christianity. But even among those claiming a religious identity, religious involvement was fairly infrequent; for example, 31 percent said they prayed daily, but 20 percent never pray. Similarly, only small minorities read sacred texts even once a month (34 percent), attend worship services weekly (25 percent), or participate in scripture-study groups (20 percent). Only 26 percent trust Jesus Christ as Savior.2

Studies done by Barna Group researchers confirm LifeWay's findings.3 To address the problem, the group has launched the Barna Millennials Project as a way of equipping existing churches to understand, appreciate, reach, and fully integrate millennials back into the life of the church. Barna's team has interviewed close to 28,000 millennials over the last decade, and they issue regular updates of their ongoing research with individuals in this age group. Reading such findings is a mandatory first step for anyone who wants to reach and make disciples for Christ among the members of this generation.

Seeking Orthodoxy Proven by Orthopraxy

Okay, so the formal research is robust—no need to repeat all the detailed findings here. But for the sake of my own incarnate involvement with the data, I wanted to confirm the findings among students I know.

In conversations with students who all currently happen to be sophomores in college (which may technically make them post-millennials, but these inter-generational labels are a bit squishy), I learned that part of the problem is that they perceive few adults in churches to actually be mature Christians. "Why would I want to sit under the teaching of people who obviously have no passion for the gospel and no real interest in changing the world?" one respondent asked. "Week after week they sit and soak . . . without ever doing anything about the non-Christians who live next door to the church building."

Good question.

Another said this: "I had a classmate at school who asked me to prove that there was a real difference between believing in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and Jesus. My high-school Sunday-school teacher couldn't help me answer the question—at all. That's when I left."

A third shared, "The issue for me is truth: either God is real and the Bible is true and that really matters . . . or it's all a lie and a big waste of time and money." He then clarified his concern by pointing out the disconnect he sees between behavior and belief—orthodoxy versus orthopraxy. "I probably know too many people who go to church but don't live as if God is really real the rest of the week," he said.

They use obscene language, they treat waiters and waitresses like trash, they drink and smoke and go to Hooters—as if that's not an offense to their marriage vows. I don't get that. If you're going to be a Christian, then be a Christian—not just in church but all the time, everywhere.

His comment reminds me of the opening lines of the DC Talk song, "What If I Stumble," which begins with Brennan Manning saying: "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."

But hang on a minute. That song, off the group's highly influential album Jesus Freak, just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its release. Which suggests that Gen X birthed this desire to see orthodoxy proven by orthopraxy.

Young People with an Old Problem

But wait again. Isn't that what the "Jesus People" were pushing back in the 1970s—living for Christ every day, through everyday life? Go back and listen to the Keith Green albums, like No Compromise. The music changes from one generation to the next, but the message remains the same. Here is Green from 1978:

Make my life a prayer to you;
I wanna do what you want me to;
No empty words and no white lies,
No token prayers, no compromise.

I wanna tell the world out there
You're not some fable or fairy tale
That I've made up inside my head;
You're God, the Son; you've risen from the dead.

Green sang a prayer that his words and life would help solve both the problem of the "tooth fairy" and the shame that complacency had brought to Christianity.

As Solomon observed, "There's nothing new under the sun." Is our position today really any different from the one in which Green found himself in the 1970s?

Millennials observe the very real chasm that exists between the public profession of faith of many who go to church and the private realities of what they say and do in all the other hours of the week. The lack of integrity of many Christian leaders—including parents, church leaders, denominational authorities, and others—seems to be a primary cause of the exodus of young people from the organized church. They have not experienced authenticity; they're not seeing Christians who integrate their faith into everyday life.

Evangelical Christians often blame the exodus of the young on the corrupting influence of secular universities and the seductiveness of popular culture, which seemingly woo students away from church and into debauchery. But as David Kinnaman demonstrates in his book You Lost Me, the church lost the millennials by its ineffectiveness—and for many, the loss came long before they left for college. The secularist professor simply finished the job begun by Christianity without integrity.

So where's the hope?

Needed: A Commitment to Relationship

Let's go back to the case of the Sunday school teacher who couldn't answer the Easter bunny question. I'd suggest that the real problem wasn't intellectual (having the correct apologetic answer) but relational (letting the frustrated student walk away). Those of us who lack a Ph.D. in apologetics need to compensate with a rock-solid commitment to our relationships with our students. In other words, we need to grab onto them in a moment of transparency and say, "Hey, those are great questions you're asking, and I wish I had all the answers. I don't, but that doesn't mean there aren't good answers out there. Let's figure these things out together." The transparency itself becomes an act of love—and it buys you the time you need to find the apologetics guru (in book form or in the flesh) who can answer the question. Isn't that what multi-generational discipleship is all about?

Chris McFarland of RESET shares his perspective as one who intersects with hundreds of thousands of students nationwide. He describes the current generation as "one of the most biblically illiterate generations in history," but notes that its members have "a deep desire for an experience with the living God. While they may not be in the church, there are those that are passionately following Jesus and being the church at coffee shops and similar places everywhere."

McFarland says that the members of this generation are looking for an opportunity to get back to their created and intended purpose. Being on the frontline of the work with millennials, he gets to see this happening. He says,

They are turning to Jesus. Through Jesus, they believe that there is a God whom they can touch, feel and walk with. They are ready to take bold steps. They're all-in for Jesus. Throughout history, think about how you've seen God move. God has used different generations to transform culture.

God is doing a new thing, but isn't he always raising up the church? Those who have invested in buildings and church campuses get scared when young people don't seem interested in maintaining bricks and mortar. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're uninterested in the gospel. There is evidence all around that a fresh wind of God's Spirit is blowing among high-school and college students and other young adults. This should encourage us.

The organized church—the existing "four walls" of the established church—must begin to relate authentically to the millennial expression of the church, even when such expression takes place outside those walls. There is only one Body of Christ. From our vantage point, it may appear horribly fractured, but from God's view, there is only one Bride of Christ, and she is destined to prevail.

"Will there be a church?" is the wrong question. Yes, there will be a church, but will we be found in it when the time comes for the real roll to be called? If we obsessed more about that question and less about where all the millennials have gone, then we might become the kind of authentic community of Christ-followers that millennials are looking for. 

is the president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals, chairman of the Common Ground Christian Network, and step-mom to six kids in both the millennial and post-millennial generations. You can follow her on Twitter @carmenlaberge. She blogs on several sites including

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #33, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |