The Millennial Exodus: Numbers and Faces

Eight percent. That’s the number Christian Smith found in his National Study of Youth and Religion. Eight percent of Millennials stayed intensely devoted to their faith into young adulthood. These “devoted” disciples were the ones who not only attended church services occasionally, but were actively pursuing a spiritual lifestyle.

They stood out from the other 92 percent in the role faith played in their normal lives.

We at Student Life read that statistic as a summer camp and events ministry, and knew we had to do something. The data showed these devoted teens all had a few characteristics in common, the most influential being devoted adults in their lives. These teens had parents, mentors and youth ministers who were passing on their mature faith.

“If we can equip these adults with spiritual Truth,” we said, “perhaps the teens will be more likely to stick with their faith…” And MORF was born.

In those two years, I’ve watched the flurry over Millennials leaving church grow from a youth ministry concern to a topic of national news with more studies from Barna Group, LifeWay Research, Pew Research and others making headlines.

These statistics have been pretty personal for me. I am one of the 8 percent. A Millennial who has grown up in church only to watch so many friends walk away. And though I dearly love the Church, both as a whole and locally, I understand why others might be tempted to leave or give up. It’s easy to feel stuck, alone or to long for a third way between the Church and the world.

We want to encounter Christ personally and belong to an authentic community, but are driven away by the lack of Christ and community in so many churches: elitism, infighting, gossip, dead religious ritual, country club mentality, politics, isolation from anyone different from themselves… And we are very “different.” More diverse than any previous generation in nearly every measureable category.

Here’s the secret about Millennials. We are still very young. Our search for a faith community isn’t so much about where the “cool church” is, but which one will show us how live out the love of Christ. We want to feel welcomed and wanted. Not catered to and tolerated. We want to feel like we are part of a family, not an obligatory demographic to attract.

I watched the conversation play out in the traditional way the other day at Panera Bread. One young man was trying to lead his friend into a conversation about church. “I don’t have any problem with people who believe in God and that stuff,” his friend explained. “It sounds great. But I can worship in my own home or outside or something. There is no reason to go to church and have to sit there with all those people.” The friend attempting to invite him to church gently tried to explain the value of community. It didn’t help. He wasn’t budging. He was open to the idea of a higher power, but utterly refused to “sit through a lecture” about it, as he described a worship service.

A thousand fingers could be pointed: The entitlement and mournfully short attention span of young people these days. The technique of sermon presentation. The effectiveness of the church-going man’s apologetic for organized religion. But offering sage critique was not what captivated my attention. As their conversation unfolded, I heard all of the studies on Millennials come to life. The data became as tangible as the fragrance of cinnamon bagels. These customers were unknowingly verbalizing a generation’s battle with faith, putting faces to years of research.

As I eavesdropped, I wondered if this was more than an example of data with a soul. Perhaps it was a model. Not that all spiritual conversations must happen in a café (though we seem to be quite adept at that already). But that if we are to effectively minister to Millennials, it can’t be a tract, a lecture, a marketing tool. It won’t be a stage design, the size of a building or any particular musical style. It will be the sincerity of a relationship, intentionally cultivated, with mutual respect, authentic vulnerability and a sacrificial investment of time. I believe that if those two young men continue to talk about God, church and faith as friends, they will be different people in the end because of it. Relationships do that. They open up an avenue for the Holy Spirit to work. The church-goer learns courage, humbleness, patience, openness. He becomes more like Christ. The non-church-goer sees a more accurate picture of Christ and the Church than before. Together, they achieve a far greater purpose than any strategy for appealing to Millennials ever could.

I say this at the risk of receiving the same chastisement other bloggers have heard when we speak on how to reach our generation: a rebuke that young people should be seen and not heard, should solely be listeners in the presence of their elders, should not ask what the church can do for them but what they can do for the church, etc. But without listening to those you hope to reach, how can you know how to reach them?

I don’t mean adopting the outer trappings alone in an attempt to be relevant. Technology, communication habits, music, fashion, current events, family dynamics, politics, media… all are constantly changing, mere shifting sands that will not support a foundation on which to build a church. But there is a solid foundation which Jesus Himself modeled for us. Loving others by dying daily to ourselves. Sacrificing our time to plant a seed and watch it bloom – and, like all growth, discipleship does take so much more time than we are used to in this world of instant results. He walked with his friends every day, even through the messy and broken parts of life. That was His brand of discipleship. He talked about ordinary subjects – fishing, sheep herding, drawing water at a well, farming – and related them to the Kingdom of God.

Obviously, relationship is only the door. Millennials have plenty of other, more complicated issues with the Church. And these issues are as diverse as the generation that carries them. For a few of the more common ones, I highly recommend “You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman. However, before we as a Church can take any other steps forward to raise the numbers of this missing demographic, we must first love them, listen to them and let them know they are not just numbers, but worth the time of building a relationship.



Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces






Obligations and Movements


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s