Ministering to Millennials (Part III – Negative Perceptions Millennials Have about Christians and Their Churches)

(image credit to whatistyt.com)

(image credit to whatistyt.com)

Last week we diagnosed what it means to be a Millennial. Research suggests that the typical Millennial’s views on religion, specifically Christianity, are “discontinuously different” from those of previous generations. This week, we’re going to summarize the most common negative perceptions/criticisms that Millennials have about Christians and their churches.

Too Shallow

Considered by many as the most influential pastor in recent American history, Bill Hybels notoriously admitted in 2007 that “We made a mistake” by being overly dependent on programs at the expense of “age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.”[1] By and large, Millennials agree.

While teen engagement remains relatively high across denominations, the supposed enthusiasm of teens in North American churches appears to fade by the time college, the twenties, and independence arrive. Disciples have not been made. Faith hasn’t been rooted, or at least rooted enough to endure the trials and temptations of unmonitored adult life.

The Christian Millennials that seem to fair the best when it comes to faith retention, without question, are the millions of young people who are taught to believe that the Bible is entirely the inspired Word of God. Families with the highest view of Scripture have the best rates of generational faith transference.[2] In the twentieth century, you could safely assume that spiritual beliefs would be transmitted through American family lines, i.e. what the parents were, the kids would become. Ethnicities, too, often had preferred denominations. Much of this has gone away. Millennials don’t see ethnic variance the way their parents or grandparents do, nor do they perceive religious differences the same way. Currently, 45 percent of Americans opt out of their family’s faith.[3] More so with Millennials.

Millennials are largely opting out of church engagement altogether because they perceive it to be ineffective. They simply do not see a connection between the gospel of Jesus Christ and their day-to-day lives. Generally speaking, many Millennials “strongly agreed” that church is boring (31 percent), irrelevant to career (24 percent), unable to prepare people for real life (23 percent), fails to give purpose to their lives (23 percent), and is unclear in teaching (23 percent).[4] Put differently, while Millennials seem to have some intellectual semblance of the basic Christian framework of “faith in Jesus leads to salvation,” they don’t see the gospel as a comprehensive way of understanding the reality of the world or the meaning of life, or as John puts it, “the Logos.” (John 1) While the American church seems to have communicated the exclusivity of Jesus’ claims, it hasn’t explained as well the expansive implications of those claims.

For instance, if the gospel means that we’re all saved entirely by grace, that means that every human is fundamentally more alike than different, which in turn means that I never have the right to condescendingly look down on someone else as worse than me, because I too, just like that person, am a sinner who can only be saved by grace. Furthermore, I would never have to crumble under the fear of considering someone else better than me, because, after all, that person, just like me, is a sinner who can only be saved by the grace of God. If every human believed this, it would logically bring about the end of things like racism, classicism, and sexism. The average “Christian” Millennial, however, is not putting two and two together. Consequently, so far as I can tell, Protestant Christianity has decently taught a salvation by grace but has poorly taught the thought, attitude, and lifestyle implications of that same gospel grace. Young adults are not clearly seeing Christians use the gospel as a powerful resource for navigating through life more effectively than their secular counterparts. To some degree, that must mean that the American church’s gospel is too shallow.

Anti-Sexual

According to some recent research, four out of five unmarried evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine have had sex.[5] Some studies even suggest that while evangelical young adults hold less sexually permissive attitudes than their peers, they are not at all the last to lose their virginity. They may perhaps even possess above-average sexual activity patterns.[6] Couple this seeming anomaly with the fact that the social norm for Millennials is now that about 65 percent will cohabit at least once prior to marriage (compared to just 10 percent in the 1960s) and you have to conclude that American Christians are not processing sexual temptations well.[7]

The American church has long been perceived as a bit prudish. Perhaps that’s because a secular world has little to no respect for God’s design for human sexuality. Or perhaps it’s because the American church has long been, in fact, a bit prudish. How many Christian homes have refused to have God-pleasing, biblically-driven conversations about God’s gift of sex? Of the young men and women that I’ve counseled, including on sexual issues, my current guess is somewhere around “none.” For some reason, the issues that are likely on the minds of young adults the most – sex, money/career, and the meaning of life – are woefully unaddressed by Christian parents and Christian churches. When the issue of sex does come up, it’s almost always in negative terms so that the understandable conclusion that many young people draw from their traditional, conservative environments is that sex is a bit dirty, almost a necessary evil in the world.

Furthermore, the constant use of “homosexuality” as Exhibit A of the collapse of society is seen by most Millennials as unfair cherry-picking. Rightfully, Millennials have discovered the self-righteousness that exists in judging others on the basis of a temptation that you yourself don’t struggle with. Millennials are tired of hearing comments from their Christian elders about cutting off relationships with unrepentant homosexuals all the while these Christian elders are (seemingly) perfectly fine with their peer group of unrepentant gossipers. There is often a smugness in the way churches speak about sex and (disproportionately) about sexual sins. Millennials are more disgusted by that holier-than-thou attitude than they are by the sexual indecencies. Without making too fine a point of it, just note that in doing so, they’re in decent company (Matt. 21:31-32).

Inability to Express Doubts

Over a third of young Christians (36 percent) currently say that they don’t feel as if they could ask the most pressing questions they have about their lives at their churches.[8] The church is not seen as a safe place to express any doubt. While science seems to encourage skepticism, theory, dialogue, and mutual learning, church is seen more as a place where doubts are chastised and stomped out as quickly as possible.

This inability to express true feelings and opinions runs completely perpendicular to Millennial transparency. This generation is not just open, but radically transparent. Social networking is all about living in view and thinking out loud. An environment that doesn’t allow any of that doesn’t allow Millennials. Millennials are a “conversation generation” who want to discuss, debate, and question EVERYTHING.[9] They perceive many Christians as dialoguing only to hammer a point and win an argument, not genuinely learn. This naturally leads them to see theological conservatism as aloof.

To connect with this group, the learning style has to be a bit more Socratic. Highly relational and inherently inclusive, Millennials will reject any learning environment that isn’t, to some extent, perceived as “mutual learning.” In other words, “Thus saith the Lord” will not resonate with them. Why? Because who are you to claim you know what God says? Millennials are aware that, just like you, the Catholic priest down the road and the non-denom minister are also claiming to have an authoritative message from God, but these messages all contradict on some levels. While Millennials don’t know nearly as much as they think they do, they have significantly more access to knowledge than previous generations. They know that all three ministers claim something different and all three can’t be right. This doesn’t mean they’ll reject the Bible outright. It means you need to walk them through the steps of HOW we know the Bible teaches a specific point and WHY. They won’t take your word for it. You need to lead them on an experiential learning journey, a narrative thought exercise, not simply download information into their heads.

Hypocritical

More than any other comment I’ve heard from young adults who go through adult instruction classes is that they were previously disenchanted with the church because of hypocritical Christians.

Granted, plagued by sin, we’re always going to struggle with some hypocrisy this side of heaven. But, to what extent? Gabe Lyons writes:

“Of course, during his time on earth, Jesus experienced criticism too. But the negative perceptions he inspired seem fundamentally different from what we deal with in America today. I imagine Jesus and his early followers were much more likely to be perceived as lunatics, radicals, rebels, and cultists than to be thought of as hypocritical.”[10]

By way of example, fewer than one out of every ten churched Christians donates at least 10 percent of their income to churches and other nonprofit organizations. However, more than one-third claim to do so.[11] I’m saying nothing here about what a Christian should give, only that the claims of these Christians are significantly larger than the reality. Remember, Millennials have had to sift through endless levels of marketing in their short lives. By adulthood, they’ve learned to decipher authentic from disingenuous. Therefore, to a typical Millennial, it’d be far better to give nothing and be honest about it than give something and lie about your generosity. True-to-self, ugly transparency is nobler than self-glorifying deception.

Consequently, the fact that there is an enormous percentage of Americans who label themselves “Christian” but seemingly allow Christ to have little control over their lives is a major turn off to Millennials.[12] While they are open to many different beliefs and perspectives, hypocrisy is arguably the one thing that is seen as universally disgusting.

Judgmental/Exclusive

If Millennials have a cultural North Star for behavior, it’s tolerance. In part, this is the natural reaction of a generation that has grown up with peers who are significantly more diverse – ethnically, religiously, relationally, and sexually – than their parents and grandparents. They have zero patience for mistreatment of those who are different. Inclusiveness, diversity, and political correctness are the ideals that have shaped Millennials.

Many in this generation then perceive Christians to have something of an insider/outsider mentality.[13] In the twentieth century, Christians by and large identified their faith denominationally, almost by what they were against as much as by what they actually stood for. Millennials are immediately turned off by such a mindset. They’re constantly looking to find points of commonality rather than points of contention. If differences do need to be addressed, they strongly feel a need to do so with humility and respect. They want churches to be more tactful about how they approach the morality of others whom they do not agree with. And they commonly want to allow outsiders to participate in some capacity, even if two parties are not entirely on the same page.

As an alternative to criticizing or condemning what we don’t like, Millennials are much more interested in changing the culture by creating something better than the current status quo that we may not like.[14] So, instead of complaining about the immorality found in modern movies and music, create better movies and music that more suits your morality. Instead of lamenting the increasing prevalence of homosexual relationships, present a better image of heterosexual relationships. Most young Millennial Christians, instead of hiding themselves in the bubble of private institutions, would prefer to be encouraged to use the transforming power of the gospel to improve existing institutions.

In short, Millennials want to be for something, not against something else. And they’re annoyed that you don’t think that way.

Too Political

Barack Obama was elected into office largely due to Millennials. Eighteen to twenty-nine-year-olds voted for Obama at an overwhelming sixty-six to thirty-two margin.[15] Obama is perceived as inclusive, different, tech-savvy, passionate, genuine, and insightful. This is exactly what Millennials want to be. Everything about the man is “Millennial” except for his age.

Since the early 1980s, Americans have tended to identify Christians with the “Religious Right.” In 1985, 26 percent of young adults under twenty-nine claimed to be evangelicals. Currently, the number is around 15 percent. In that same timeframe, the category of “nones” (i.e. not religiously affiliated) in that age bracket has jumped from 12 percent to nearly 30 percent. And in virtually every study conducted, young Americans cite the entanglement of church and state as a reason for disinterest in faith organizations. Christians voting their beliefs is not perceived as loving, nor as a free expression of faith, but rather as a power play simply to control the behavior of others.

As James Emory White puts it:

“Christianity is again under fire; not because it is intellectually untenable to new arguments lodged by heirs to Darwin or Freud, but because we are perceived to be overly entangled with law and politics, filled with hateful aggression, and consumed with greed.”[16]

Bad Attempts at “Cool”

In what Thom Rainer called “one of the most significant findings” of his extensive research on this generation, “94 percent of Millennials indicated that, to some degree, they have great respect for older generations.”[17] They want to learn from their predecessors. What may also surprise some is that 41 percent of Millennial Christians describe a desire “for a more traditional faith, rather than a hip version of Christianity.”[18] For the most part, they do not dislike tradition. They are, however, bored with hollow tradition. Unless they see a practical purpose for a faith expression, they cynically perceive much of what church’s do as a performance, and a bit of a self-righteous one at that.

Millennials are far too perceptive to buy attempts at cool. What they find attractive is authentic, meaningful, genuine passion. As a church, you can neither come off as impassionate (cold and unaffected by your beliefs), nor as disingenuously passionate (emotionally manipulative). You’re not a good enough actor to fool them. You’d better truly care about what you’re trying to persuade them of, and your lifestyle of service, patience, and forgiveness to others better be backing it up.

Unable to Adapt with the Times

Millennials have lived their entire lives with countless choices. In 2009, the Coca-Cola corporation released a fountain machine that possesses a 146 flavor dispenser, called Freestyle. According to Tom Pirdo, CEO of Bevmark Consulting, “Freestyle is an admission by Big Soda that they have to endorse a young drinker’s consciousness.”[19] It’s technology, options, and quality. That’s what Millennials are used to.

While they don’t anticipate that a church is going to offer the same level of personalized options as major corporations, they also consider themselves far too individual than to have their needs be adequately met by the long-standing “one size fits all” approach of churches in the past.

Millennials, as a generation, aren’t asking churches to alter their teachings, no more so than any previous generation anyways. They don’t, however, recognize a connection between a church’s articles of faith and a certain style of worship, governance structure, program palette, or refusal to embrace technology. And since I’m sure every pastor wants to know, Millennials don’t have a strong preference of style for their worship music. They do, however, want their worship music to be rich in content, objectively beautiful, possess high quality in its execution, and create an authentic (i.e. personally meaningful and passionate) experience. But they will walk away from your congregation quite quickly if they hear people still fighting about worship styles.[20]

Study after study seems to indicate that local churches already have lost any real social influence. Currently, the seven dominant spheres of influence are considered to be movies, music, television, books, the Internet, law, and family. The tier underneath consists of schools, peers, newspapers, radio, and businesses. Very few people report the local church as a culture-changing factor on society anymore.[21]

Many Christian leaders might listen to a Millennial’s desire to make some logistical changes in church and say, “Tough. This is the way it’s been for 2000 years.” Just understand, Millennials will deem you as “closed-minded,” politely say, “Okay” and walk. Many have already done so. They have almost no sense of organizational loyalty or religious obligation. While pandering to consumerism is obviously not a healthy option for churches, stubbornly digging in heels on matters that we are free to change is equally unhealthy. Many churches are desperately in a stage of needing to wrestle with a Pauline willingness to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means (we) might save some…for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23) How do we reach out without selling out? This has been part of the artistry of mission work since the dawn of the Christian Church. The gospel must remain unchanged. But other elements of church life not only freely can be, but must be adapted, so that by all possible means we might save some…for the sake of the gospel.

….

What can we do? I have some ideas to get us started. Check back next week!

(image credit to thenextweb.com)

(image credit to thenextweb.com)

[1] “Willow Creek Repents?” October 18, 2007, http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2007/october/willow-creek-repents.html

[2] Kinnaman, pg. 52

[3] Bass, pg. 140

[4] Kinnaman, pg. 117

[5] Tyler Charles, “True Love Isn’t Waiting,” Neue 6 (April/May 2011), pgs. 32-36

[6] Mark Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, pg. 206.

[7] Rainer, pg. 3

[8] Kinnaman, pg. 192

[9] Lyons, unchristian, pg. 33

[10] Ibid., pg. 45

[11] Barna, Revolution, pg. 34

[12] According to The Seven Faith Tribes by George Barna, somewhere around 79 percent of Americans self-identify as “Christian” while only around 18 percent of Americans (whom he labels as “Captive Christians”) are actually willing to inconvenience or disrupt their lifestyles for the sake of Biblical truth. If this gap is true, and I personally believe he’s on to something, then this 60 percent of America that calls itself “Christian” but refuses to recognize or live by the authority of Scripture defines America. It’s the “average American.”

[13] Kinnaman, pg. 171

[14] Andy Crouch, Culture Making (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pg. 67

[15] Rainer, pgs. 2-3

[16] White, pgs. 36-37

[17] Rainer, pg. 88

[18] Kinnaman, pg. 27

[19] Bruce Horvitz, “Coke Aims for Cool with New 146-Flavor Dispenser” http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/04/14/coca-cola-coke-freestyle-soft-drinks-beverages/7478341/

[20] http://thomrainer.com/2014/04/02/worship-style-attracts-millennials/

[21] Barna, pg. 118

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2 thoughts on “Ministering to Millennials (Part III – Negative Perceptions Millennials Have about Christians and Their Churches)

  1. John Huebner says:

    Thanks for a solid analysis. Looking forward to your suggestions on getting started on reaching out to the Millennials with the gospel!

  2. tomas H says:

    For instance, if the gospel means that we’re all saved entirely by grace, that means that every human is fundamentally more alike than different, which in turn means that I never have the right to condescendingly look down on someone else as worse than me, because I too, just like that person, am a sinner who can only be saved by grace. Furthermore, I would never have to crumble under the fear of considering someone else better than me, because, after all, that person, just like me, is a sinner who can only be saved by the grace of God.

    As I can’t dispute this in any way, But the confusion I have is when someone uses this in response to church discipline in a case of a visible sin or apathy in church attendance. I to am looking forward to your suggestions on getting started on reaching out. after all 2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, Menials have lost the part of Luther’s explanations of the commandments “We should fear and love God”. Fear is not a positive term but a necessary component
    of respecting the authority of scripture. I believe we are missing this in our confirmands. plus to many of the non denominational churches and certain denominations. have lost this as well. but sadly the things you outlined in this blog undermines this. This is what our young confirmands are being told the minute their instruction is over. Thank you for this Timely Blog!

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