Only two out of ten millennials believe Church attendance is important or worthwhile.
According to a Barna research study, the top three reasons people chose to no longer attend church are:
- They find God elsewhere (39%)
- It’s not relevant to my life (35%)
- It’s boring (31%)
We are a generation born into of world of constant technological and cultural flux. We are not afraid of change. In fact, stagnation makes us nervous.
Based on my research, conversations, and personal observations with people both in and outside the Church, I’ve compiled a list of six recommendations. Each of these recommendations is generalized to a fault, but it’s done intentionally to spark conversation.
I’ve never been to Seminary or held a high-ranking leadership position in a church, but I’ve been a church member my entire life. For every recommendation, there exist a dozen objections.
But I’m speaking from the pew, not the pulpit.
Note: This article is a supplement to an original piece The Future of Religion, or Why Church Needs to Change. I highly recommend you read that article before tackling these suggestions.
#1: Less Lecture, More Engagement
According to the research, people only retain 5% of the information imparted to them through a lecture. This means the most important element of a church service – the sermon – is also “the least effective method” of sharing information.
Lecture-style preaching may not resonate as strongly with Christian millennials with older generations for a simple reason: We are drowning in high-quality and easily accessible Biblical resources.
Fifty years ago, the primary (and possibly only) source of Biblical teaching the average person received was from their local pastor. This is no longer the case. Podcasts, blogs, books, and apps are filling in the Monday to Saturday void.
I’m not suggesting we do away with the sermon (teaching the Word is an essential element of a church gather). But we definitely need to recalibrate it.
As engagement and participation increase so does the rate of information retention. Group discussion (50%), practice by doing (75%), and teaching others (90%) result in exponentially higher retention rates (this is why pastors may be getting more out of their own sermons than their congregations).
In Go, Biblical professor Preston Sprinkle writes,
Learning without doing is not really learning. We learn by doing, not just by learning alone. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” he wasn’t heading to Sunday School. He was on his way to heal the sick, befriend the tax collector, stand up for the adulteress, and proclaim Good News to the poor.”
Application may be as simple as shorter sermons with discussion points, or as dramatic as restructuring the entire Sunday morning gathering, offering “equip night” classes and incorporating frequent church-wide service projects.
#2: Less Production, More Opportunity
Church services, for a majority of churchgoers, are very passive experiences. You walk in, sit down, face forward, stand for music, sit for a teaching, and go home.
And for a significant portion of those leaving the church (especially younger generations), this “passive participation” model breeds boredom and disengagement.
Look at how the standard church sanctuary is designed: Several pews or seats arranged in rows, all pointing forward toward a stage. It’s the same way our culture designs movie theaters, Broadway productions, and college lecture halls.
This is why the phrase “going to church” can be so subliminally damaging. We “go to church” the same way we “go to the movies” or “go to class.”
Furthermore, the more a church operates as a production company, the less opportunity church members have to serve the church or be the church – outside of a tithe to fund the “production.”
The DeChurched aren’t leaving institutionalized religion because they’re lazy; they’re leaving church because they believe it’s making them lazy.
In Church Refugees, sociologist Josh Packard writes,
The Dones are done doing things they find to be unconnected with God. Even though a stated message of the church is to be active in the community, and Jesus commanded his followers to care for the poor, the sick, and the hungry, the dechurched have experienced church as an organization that cares primarily for itself and its own members. When the dechurched leave, they take their commitment to others and to living the life they think God wants them to live.”
So, how does a church shift from passive participation to active engagement?
There are a thousand different ways to approach and answer this question – some more radical than others – but overall, I believe it requires a fundamental shift in the mission of the institutional church.
In They Like Jesus But Not the Church, Dan Kimball writes,
Being missional means that we see ourselves as representatives of Jesus “sent” into our communities and that the church aligns everything it does with the missio Dei (mission of God). Being missional means we see the church not as a place we go only on Sunday but as something we are throughout the week.”
From there, it’s anyone’s guess where God can take the Church.
#3: Less Judgement, More Warmth
Most churches don’t set out to be places of judgment and condemnation (at least, not in the 21st century). But the perception still lingers.
In UnChristian, researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons describe “judgmental” as:
To be judgmental is to point out something that is wrong in someone else’s life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized. Some part of their potential to Christ followers is snuffed out. Being judgemental is fueled by self-righteousness, the misguided inner motivation to make our own life look better by comparing it to the lives of others.”
In 2016, the Fuller Youth Institute explored 250 orthodox churches in America that are “growing young” to determine the congregational practices that lead to effective engagement of young people.
Instead of “cool worship” or “great preaching,” the respondents overwhelming referred to something the researchers began to call the “warmth factor.”
A church had a high “warmth factor” if congregation members repeatedly used phrases like “welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring.”
This doesn’t mean churches should preach a watered-down Gospel.
It means they should a preach a more complete and holistic Gospel.
And the complete Gospel doesn’t begin with total depravity.
It begins with God imprinting his own image on his most cherished of creations – man and woman.
You have to first develop what sociologists call “relational capacity” with another person before you begin in to speak into their lives. Only when people feel genuinely loved and accepted can they begin the process of transformative change. It should never be the other way around.
#4: Less Dogma, More Dialogue
For the DeChurched, doubting and questioning are essential components to the exploration of their faith. It’s not that they want or expect answers to their theological questions, they just want a safe place to ask questions and have a conversation.
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes,
When religious leaders leverage our fear and need for certainty by extracting vulnerability from spirituality and turning faith into “compliance and consequences,” rather than teaching and modeling how to wrestle with the unknown and how to embrace mystery, the entire concept of faith is bankrupt on its own terms. Faith minus vulnerability equals politics, or worse, extremism.”
More often than not, the DeChurched feel as if most religious institutions don’t encourage intellectual curiosity – in fact, most feel as if they actively discourage it.
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard wrote,
The adult members of churches today rarely raise serious religious questions for fear of revealing their doubts or being thought of as strange. There is an implicit conspiracy of silence on religious matters in the churches. This conspiracy covers up the fact that the churches do not change lives or influence conduct to any appreciable degree.”
And when they feel as if their exploration isn’t welcome, they feel as if they aren’t welcome either. However, a lot of churches maintain strict theological stances on issues like the Bible, creation, science, the afterlife, the end times, hot-button political topics, and the role of the church in society.
But in a place where doubts and questions are “problems to be solved (and quickly),” rather than “topics be explored,” the environment can feel increasingly hostile and intellectually manipulative.
I once read about a pastor that held a “Doubt Night” at his church. At the beginning of the service, he passed out pieces of paper to the congregation and told everyone to write down their biggest doubts about God, faith, and religion. Then he collected all the scraps of paper and put them in a trash can at the front of the stage.
And then he did something unexpected. Instead of dismissing his congregation’s doubts, he reached into the trash can and – for the remainder of the service – read aloud from each slip of paper.
He didn’t offer an apologetic, respond with a verse, or attempt to ‘solve’ any of the doubts in any way. He simply wanted each member of the congregation to know they were not alone in their wrestling and that this church was a safe place for their doubt.
This is not to say that churches should abandon their doctrinal statement of beliefs or theological standards but to be honest with their congregations and acknowledge the variances of opinion and thought that exist today and throughout history.
#5: Less Walls, More Outreach
Approximately 80 – 85% of the average church’s budget is devoted to internal operations, leaving only five to ten percent for outreach and missions (both domestic and international).
Obviously, pastor and staff member salaries, buildings, and youth ministries aren’t bad things. But this inward focus can create an expectation that church exists to serve the needs of its patrons. Pastor Skye Jethani calls this the “cruise ship” model of institutional church.
Rather than viewing the church as simply a means to an end (connecting people with God), they made the church an end in itself. The logic was simple: if the masses did not feel the need to connect with God then perhaps another “felt need” could draw them into the church: the need for community, or entertainment, help with their kids or marriage.”
But a church planted in a local community should be good news for the whole community, not just those who attend its services. A Christian moving in next door should be good news for the entire street or apartment complex, even for those neighbors who don’t consider themselves Christian or religious.
What if a church gathering was known for more than just singing a few songs and listening to a message? What if every time the church met, the world knew that meant something amazing was going to happen?
In a culture of material excess, it doesn’t take much sacrifice to make a difference. All it takes is the church asking the community what it needs, and then taking the steps to meet those needs.
A church can’t meet the needs of a community if it’s not listening to the community.
Maybe a local school needs more mentors and tutors. Maybe a homeless shelter needs more towels and socks. Maybe an inner-city playground needs new playground equipment. Maybe a nursing home needs better technology and more visitors.
Some people may call this “charity” or “handouts.”
I call it the work of God.
#6: Less Programs, More Discipleship
Church programs include everything from youth ministries, men’s luncheons, conferences, young married Bible studies, college hangouts, and women’s to everything in between.
While the intention is good, church programs have an unintended consequence: They often separate and stratify the congregation by age, gender, and life stage. A program-heavy church quickly becomes a fragile ecosystem of various ministries and demographics competing for time, money, and space.
In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes,
The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.”
Simply put, discipleship is modeling the life of Jesus in everyday life in such a way that it is reproducible and teachable to your community.
In Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, Francis Chan writes,
We reduce discipleship to a canned program and so many in the church end up sidelined in a spectator mentality that delegates disciple-making to pastors and professionals, ministers, and missionaries. But this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we are being transformed into His image. God wants to change us so much that it intrigues others.”
In discipleship, the focus does not remain on believing truths about God but pushes ahead in order to do the will of God and teach others to do the same. Discipleship is an arduous, life-long process that requires honest self-assessment, feedback, and participation.
Disciples are not created through the passive participation of worship service, church events, or small group hangouts. You can not mass produce disciples. It requires intimacy and relationship. It’s messy.
In Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith, Preston Sprinkle writes,
Discipleship is best fostered through organic (natural) conversations that love others as whole people in the rhythm of life where we live out our faith. After all, that’s what Jesus did. And when we become Christians, we signed up to become like Jesus, to do the stuff that Jesus did.”
Addendum: What Now?
There’s a loosely connected network of house churches in San Francisco called We Are Church.
They meet in homes. No one on staff takes a salary. Tithes and offerings are poured directly back into the community or for the needs of someone in the congregation.
And one Sunday a month, they gather everyone together to celebrate what God has done in their communities with music and food.
The Values page on their website may be one of the most beautiful descriptions of Church I’ve ever read. Here’s an excerpt:
As followers of Christ, we are called to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). In a lot of our church experiences, however, we’re used to inviting our friends to church so that the pastor can tell them about Jesus, not us. Yet, this isn’t the job of the pastor—it’s the mission of every follower of Jesus.
We all spend our weeks in different mission fields: our neighborhoods, schools, offices, gyms, coffee shops, and more, so we come together on Sundays and pray for each other to stir one another up for boldness.”
No church is perfect.
And no church will ever be perfect.
But just because we can’t fix everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix something.
Complexity and efficiency are no longer the most desirable traits that are drawing young people toward church.
We desire simplicity, connection, and accountability.
In Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans writes,
I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff—biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice—but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.“
I don’t think I could have said it better myself.
“How Church Can Change” is the third part in a trilogy of articles titled The Future of Religion. The first article is “Why Church Needs to Change” and lays the groundwork for the reasons many mature Christians are choosing to walk with Jesus without the institutionalized Church; The second article is “The Lost Voices” and is composed completely of testimonies and stories from those who have left the Church.