How to Keep Millennials in the Church? Let’s Keep Church Un-cool.

I’m sorry Millennials, but I’m going to have to throw us under the bus here: we do not have everything figured out.

Recently a column on CNN’s Belief Blog titled “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church” went viral, partially because any time the words “Millennials,” “leaving,” and “church” are combined in a headline, people pay attention.

But why? Why do we care so much about the reasons Millennials are reportedly leaving churches?

I’m a Millennial, but I am weary of everyone caring so much about why Millennials do this or don’t do that. I’m sorry Millennials, but I’m going to have to throw us under the bus here: we do not have everything figured out. And if we expect older generations and well-established institutions to morph to fit our every fickle desire, we do so at our peril.

The CNN piece, written by Rachel Held Evans, makes some good points, to be sure. The line that I saw shared on Facebook more than any other is this:

“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.”

I wholeheartedly agree. I made the same point three years ago with my book Hipster Christianity, and in a Wall Street Journal column called “The Perils of Wannabe Cool Christianity,” where I wrote:

“If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that ‘cool Christianity’ is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.”

It’s certainly important to remind the church that efforts to be cool will do little if anything to keep young people engaged. It often has the opposite effect.

But I also think that the answer is decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be. But this is what Evans suggests. Her article ends with this proposed action step:

I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.

How about the opposite? Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?

And for pastors, church leaders, and others so concerned with the survival of the church amidst the glut of “adapt or die!” hype, is asking Millennials what they want church to be and adjusting accordingly really your best bet? Are we really to believe that today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation of Millennials has more wisdom to offer about the church than those who have thought about and faithfully served the church decade after decade, amidst all its warts, challenges and ups and down?

Part of the problem is the hubris of every generation, which thinks it has discovered, once and for all, the right way of doing things. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery,” defining it as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

But a deeper problem is that Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived. Just like the Photoshop-savvy Millennials she is so desperate to retain, the church is ever more meticulously concerned with her image, monitoring what people are saying about her and taking cues from that.

Erik Thoennes, professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University, is troubled by the church’s obsession with perception.

Much of this is an outgrowth of the audience-is-sovereign mentality of the seeker-sensitive movement, which has loomed large in evangelicalism’s recent history. Another part of it is Christianity’s capitulation to a consumerist culture where the primary goal is to scratch where the market itches.

But at the end of the day, the Christian gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever itch people think Christianity should scratch. Consumerism asserts that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about me. But to position the gospel within this consumerist, give-them-what-they-want framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamy variations. If Christianity aims to sell a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?

I’m not saying that the church should never listen to the audience or pay attention to data and trends. It’s just that more often than not, the “just tell us what you want us to be!” approach does more harm than good, turning the church into a shape-shifting chameleon with ever-diminishing ecclesiological confidence and cultural legitimacy. It smacks of desperation and weakness.

As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.

Brett McCracken
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  • stan2

    “As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.”
    That makes no sense at all.
    If you’re looking for “REAL”, the last place you would find it is in a church.

  • Leslie1957

    Great insight. The Church is not conservatism, liberalism, or any other tag . . . Brett McCracken has clearly expressed this in his last statement, that the Church is ‘something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.” His article is a message for all generations who have sought something from the Church that it was not designed to provide. Thanks for reminding us!

  • mashup_90

    The problem with both sides of this discussion is that the focus is on preserving the institutional church in some resemblance to how it looks today. Maybe 50 years from now there are no more brick-and-mortar church’s with paid staff. And, that will be ok because there will still be millions of believers in the universal church. The problem with church just might be church itself.

  • laboo

    “we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

    Fair enough, but Facebook likes aside, I wonder how many Millennials this really characterizes? I don’t see Millennials as a particularly Jesus-seeking group. The article cites no research that might demonstrate that.

    In most ways this seems just a recharacterization of what McCracken originally stated in his book “Hipster Christianity”, but he’s moved the focus off his ill-defined “hipster” category and onto Millennials, which can at least be relatively well defined. Changing his focus doesn’t seem to have resulted in any new insights, though.

  • Top8305

    Christians (ostensibly those who profess Christ Jesus as Son of God, Savior, AND walk in the Truth of His Way) should stop “proof texting” the Holy Bible to prop up their sophisms of what they want it to say, thereby morphing Christ into modernism and relativism; the Deceiver plays many Christians just the same as he played Eve and Adam.
    Read God’s Word in its totality and stop disregarding the swaths of Scripture that tells us that Christ left a Church with Teaching Authority, protected in His Truth.

    Thus says the LORD:
    Stand by the earliest roads,
    ask the pathways of old,
    “Which is the way to good?” and walk it;
    thus you will find rest for yourselves.
    But they said, “We will not walk it.”
    Jeremiah 6:16

    For I, the LORD, do not change,
    and you, sons of Jacob, do not cease to be.
    Malachi 3:6

    Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
    Hebrews 13:8

    “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother;
    . . . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” (vi.);
    nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church” (ix.).”
    De Unitate Ecclesiae — St. Cyprian (c200 –258)
    bishop of Carthage, important Early Christian writer. He was born around the beginning of the 3rd century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he received a classical education. After converting to Christianity, he became a bishop in 249 and eventually died a Martyr at Carthage.

    May God Bless you.

  • butletmeadd

    Regarding the brick and mortar church that so many people want to go away because they blame it for all sorts of bad things, this is what scripture says: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25. People develop all sorts of associations to benefit their well-being and church is for teaching, correcting and building one another up in the faith we have in Christ Jesus. Praying for one another is one of the great benefits believers receive when they assemble to worship Christ. Fellowship with Christ and believers is a real need, not an option. Hebrews is a book of the Bible not to be overlooked.

  • MisFit Musings™

    Excellent article. Powerful and too the core of what is wrong with the church. As a Pastors kid, I know all to well the wrangling that takes place when the younger crowd clamors for something new and fresh. Sometimes, you just need to accept that those fences were erected for a reason and deal with it. New doesn’t always equal better. Too often, it’s just the opposite.

    • uncool vs. cool doesn’t matter

      I think people really want authenticity. They want to hear about people’s honest experiences, struggles and hope. I think that can happen in an environment that feels cool and new and that can happen in an environment that feels uncool and old. Lots of old school churches and veteran church leaders are superficial and perception obsessed and lots of new churches full of young people are full of authenticity. So, I think this article sort of misses the point. It’s substance, not style that matters.

  • abasjewel

    I believe what all people want is authenticity. If my struggle has driven me to Christ–and it has–then I’m going to share the stuff that I’ve lived through. And believe me that “stuff” doesn’t make me look good, but it points to the unconditional love of a Saviour and heavenly Father who has done everything it took to draw me closer to His heart and love. I am in my 50’s and love the multi-generational church. I’m learning from those younger than me and they’re learning from me, too. We’re learning together that God truly is who He says He is–in the scripture and in our day to day lives. He longs to show us that we all matter and all have a role in the Church. It’s about relationship with him and one another. God’s love propels us to love him and to love one another–authentically love!

  • Barefoot Hippie Girl

    Well said. I like how you hit popular ideas and reasons and debunk them. I am not a Millenial-I think-but am just on the outside. I am very alarmed by the self focus, cater to us to keep us attitude. Youth doesn’t know everything. I laugh with my husband at how we knew EVERYTHING at 20, but how little we know now-35. With age often comes humility and teachability. And wisdom. We do need to listen more and talk a whole lot less.

  • Jace Paul

    There’s some profound wisdom in this article, applicable not only in religious circles but elsewhere as well. Our culture gives undue credit to youth – no, that’s woefully understating it: the truth is we worship youth in America. We sever our ties to the previous generations because our focus is on the immediate sense of what’s “relevant” or fashionable. In approaching social problems and defining culture (art, music, film), our scope should include the wisdom of experience and the energy and imagination of youth.

    That said: I don’t think Millennials are going back to church. There are far too many alternatives to traditional faith that appeal to their independence and creativity. They’re the first generation of a global community connected by technology, and so they will never be satisfied with sectarian or insular faith communities. They want to create their own faith using the full tapestry of ideas and traditions – Christian, Buddhist, Wiccan, secularism, New Age, and all the rest. As the Dalai Lama himself has pointed out, the ethics and faith of the future isn’t tied to a historical tradition or a cultural identity, it’s broader – even universal.

    The mainstream churches would do well to stop fretting about getting young people back into the pews and start thinking about consolidation and streamlining. The church can continue to be present and ‘relevant’ far into the future, but it will need to become smaller and more efficient to do so. Let’s stop planning a party for people who aren’t going to show up.