Millennials are leaving the Church. That’s the conclusion that is drawn from much of the recent readings. The statement is only partially true, however, and it presents a great opportunity for the evangelical church to reconsider how she approaches the millennial generation, makes disciples, and views diversity. Taking another look at this problem offers some promising solutions.
Millennials are Leaving the Church
In a recent article titled “59 Percent of Millennials Raised in the Church Have Dropped Out — And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why” on Faith It, writer Sam Eaton reported that “only 4 percent of the Millennial Generation are Bible-Based Believers. This means that 96 percent of Millennials likely don’t live out the teachings of the Bible, value the morals of Christianity and probably won’t be found in a church.”
Drawing on information from a 2014 Barna study concerning this group of 22-to-35 year olds, the findings are consistent with reporting from the past decade or more. A simple Google search of “why are millennials leaving the church” will only lead us to draw a dismal conclusion about the relationship between the church and her lost millennials. In research for my book, Mentor for Life, however, I made a note to highlight that the Black Church is not experiencing the same decline among this coveted group.
But Black Millennials Aren’t
In his article titled, “Why Aren’t Black Millennials Leaving the Church,” Bryan T. Calvin drew on the 2012 PEW Research Center to make the case that Black millennials are not leaving the church, and there are specific reasons why they are staying. He writes, “In general, the numbers consistently show that blacks of all ages are more likely to maintain religious affiliation that whites.”
Why is this? He continues, “It seems that blacks are more invested in the practices and rituals associated with church life…Maybe the difference is that whites and blacks view the institution of the Church differently. Historically, the black church has always played an important communal role.”
Calvin continues his piece with another observation, “Talking about Millennials leaving the Church without specifying which Millennials is only half the conversation. And if the American Church is willing to enter into conversation beyond the racial lines that has often been drawn up around it, they may realize that the solution to their ‘problem’ of Millennials leaving is closer than they thought.”
Solution One: Embrace Diversity
Diversity seems like a buzz word and the lack of ethnic diversity in various arenas seems like am ever trending topic these days. I almost hesitated to use the wording here. Yet I persisted because I don’t know if the reality of the lack of ethnic diversity— including the lack of value of diverse voices, diverse experiences, and diversity in leadership— has sunk in to the psyche of the evangelical church.
The millennial generation values diversity while the evangelical church gives diversity lip service. The millennials have observed this hypocrisy and they are voting with their feet. The writing is on the wall. White millennials will not come back to the church unless there is authenticity and drastic change.
So the evangelical leaders who care about the church and the proclamation of the gospel across generations, will have to either go where the millennials are, or invite the millennials into your home. Please know, however, that when you welcome them, you must also be willing to welcome their diverse group of friends.
Within the context of this diverse group, God might be inviting you to humble yourself before them, to listen and to learn. We must learn to cultivate safe spaces where diversity is truly valued, where every person and every voice matters, and where each of us is challenged to grow. In this sacred space, there is a compelling witness of the gospel and the equipping of individuals who go out to practically share good news with their diverse neighbors.
Solution Two: Be a Mentor
As part of his solutions, Sam Eaton gives voice to millennials, “We Want to be Mentored, Not Preached At.” I highly value hearing the preached Word. Indeed, it is necessary. I also highly value a great Bible study. Having led diverse people groups and generations in Bible study or small groups, through mentoring or discipleship for nearly two decades, however, I have made a few observations.
One observation is force-feeding the preached Word, or more specifically, waiting for people to attend church on Sunday morning does not cut it in a culture that is Biblically illiterate.
People are lonely and lost, and a loving and compassionate Jesus will compel them. They can be changed by your love for Jesus, and by witnessing your personal relationship with him. For that change to happen, however, we must be willing to go where they are, or invite them into a less intimidating space than a sanctuary.
Mentoring is intimate. Relationships have the innate ability to impact people for good. Entering into a committed mentoring relationship allows millennials to witness first-hand the relationship and presence you share with Christ.
Solution Three: Focus on the Group and not the Individual
This year, Christianity Today published an article titled, “How Black and White Christians Do Discipleship Differently.” In it, they focus on Barna’s recent study regarding “Racial Divides in Spiritual Practices.” Concerning the state of discipleship, Barna reports that “black Christian leaders are more likely to say that ‘deepening one’s faith through education and fellowship’ is a goal of discipleship,” and mentorship as part of a group is a crucial part of fellowship.
This education includes the study of the Bible in a group, memorizing and meditating on Scriptures. Furthermore, they conclude that “Black communities tend toward communal rhythms of spiritual development” and that “one’s personal spiritual life had implication for social justice.” Finally, the report indicates that Black Christians place a higher value on their friends.
In short, the Black church tradition and African American culture in which I was groomed intentionally offers discipleship and mentorship within the context of groups or communities, instead of focusing on one-on-one mentoring or discipleship models.
Several of these articles are consistent when reporting that millennials value relationships and authentic conversation. Because communal relationships are already a high value for communities of color, this is an area where Christian leaders from the majority group can learn from leaders of color.
This survey of the Black church and their discipleship model reveals that discipleship can indeed take place within the context of groups. More specially, discipling and mentoring within groups offers a layered approach to discipleship that includes:
- Bible reading and study,
- Cultivation of spiritual disciplines like scripture memorization,
- Positive peer pressure, peer-to-peer mentoring, and accountability,
- A holistic Christian ethic that includes the pursuit of biblical justice, and
- Grooming and training mentees for leadership.
Solution Four: Unleash the Generations
There was a time when Sunday afternoons and meals were reserved for extended family. Three or four generations would gather to break bread, share wisdom, and enjoy each other’s company. Aside from the rushed and often stressful holidays, I don’t know if we are regularly seeing the same commitment to family, and intentionally cultivating relationships across generations. Even our churches are sometimes segregated by age.
We must not forget that our God is the God of generations. From the first book of the Bible, he refers to himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God works across generations. God’s glory goes forth when his message and mission is passed on from one generation to the next, and that is why we cannot afford to lose a generation of young people. Losing the millennial generation robs God of his glory.
Millennials benefit from having the presence and wisdom of elders. Regardless of our age, we all need people who will point us in the right direction, and help us stay on track.
One of the greatest blessings of my life has been sharing time and space with older and wiser people of God—hearing their stories, their lessons of overcoming and preserving in the faith, of suffering well, helps my load feel lighter and makes me hopeful for the future. Young people need hope.
They need someone who is going to assure them again and again that God is present with them on their life’s journey. He will not leave or forsake them.
This is why I have led and trained leaders to cultivate mentoring groups that are not only ethnically diverse, but also crosses generational lines. Millennials have much to learn from the generations that have gone on before, and we have much to learn from them.
Want to get started mentoring millennials? Check out these free practical tools.