The Millennial Exodus Series

Here is a master post for my Millennial Exodus series over at MORF. So grateful to all of you who helped me with the research and development of this project along the way. Hopefully this isn’t the end of the project, but just a catalyst. So here it is, why Millennials are leaving the Church and what makes them stay:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

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The Millennial Exodus: Obligations and Movements

Throughout this series, we’ve talked about reaching out to Millennials with relationships, depth, authenticity, diversity,involvement and styles of worship. I know the question of “why Millennials are leaving the Church” won’t be solved by a blog series, but we can find key issues and examine how those issues affect the teens we minister to. In discussing this, however, there is an important difference in phrasing I’ve intentionally left out until this point. We’re not really looking at why they leave. We’ve been looking at why they don’t want to stay.

To put it bluntly, Millennials are leaving church because they no longer see it as an obligation worth their time. Parents may force them to attend “as long as they are living in this house,” but when they (eventually) do leave home, nothing is keeping them from leaving the church as well. The obligation is over. The reality of looking for a new church as a young adult is scary, uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing already, so why bother? Add in a few bad experiences with churches that don’t understand the struggles we’ve discussed in this series and even the most dedicated youth group alum would consider “taking some time off” from the Church.

The real question is: What makes Millennials want to stay in church? To see it as a necessity? More importantly, what would make Millennials want to lead the Church so it thrives in the future?

I believe these things happen when church is no longer a burden but a movement. For too long we’ve marketed church – and Christianity in general – as a safe, family-oriented place for happy people. We’re taught church is a healthy thing we do for our social lives, to satisfy some sense of noble martyrdom in serving others or simply because it’s what respectable families do.

Millennials, however, are increasingly connected to new social groups online. Relationships maintained through technology don’t guarantee quality, but the quantity of relationships is certainly higher than it has ever been. Also partially fueled by the power of online connection, our characteristic sense of social justice has given a new outlet to our service. Due to greater diversity and access to the rest of the world outside of our Christian bubbles, we no longer buy into the idea that in order to be accepted or seen as respectable we have to belong to a church as we know plenty of “good” people who do not.

On the other hand, when church becomes a God-movement, a deeply rooted cause to fight for, a passion to pursue, a rebel army against the forces of darkness… that’s what gets the Millennial heart beating faster. We want to see and take part in a faith worth sacrificing for in the fight against temptation. A faith worth going against what is easy and popular. We need a church that shows us true joy in the shadowlands so we have a reason to reject the culture of “whatever makes you feel good right now.” It’s not that we expect every minute to be a sugar high of excitement or entertainment, but we need a faith that calls us to a daring adventure.

And, I’m sorry to say, “safe for the whole family” does exactly the opposite.

We’re ready to be given a mission. “Family” is a distant concept in the transition between living with our parents and becoming parents ourselves. I’m not placing blame on older generations. Parents are simply in a different season of life, instinctually more concerned with protecting their malleable little ones. Millennials, on the other hand, are at a stage of life where newfound freedom, learning independence and making a difference in the world are the main concerns. We’re blazing a trail into the uncharted territory of 21st century adulthood.

Just about the only thing we do know is that this life isn’t safe.

So when churches claim that a hallmark of faith is “safety,” we don’t believe them.

We aren’t interested in a monotone, dull, detached God. We long for a Church that breathes life into our jaded hearts, weary from the tumult of change.

When scriptures about joy are read with a droning, bored tone; when songs of dancing are sung like a requiem; when the Church lives as if it is sleeping through its dead rituals, it’s no wonder that the very future of that Church finds it simply cannot stay any longer.

With the conclusion of this series, I issue a rally cry to the Church on behalf of my generation: It is time to awake, arise and fight for the future. Not in the name of tradition, but in the name of the divine radical, Jesus. Not against the lost, the marginalized, the sinners, but against pharisaical living, complacency and religious obligation.

We lose Millennials when we fill in the blank of “ignorance is ___” with “bliss” instead of “unacceptable.”

We lose Millennials when we don’t live what we preach, mean what we sing or take to heart the scripture we read.

We lose Millennials when family and safety become god and praise to the True God mere rhetoric.

We lose Millennials when we fail to see faith for what it is: a bold risk, an audacious mystery for which we surrender our lives, laying them at the foot of the cross.

We will keep Millennials when we place our hope for the future in Jehovah-Jireh instead of ritual, obligations, performance, security or reputations. We say to Him with sincere hearts: “whatever it takes, Lord, to see your Kingdom come on earth, in this generation.”

 

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

The Millennial Exodus: Involvement

Recently I discussed this series on Millennials leaving the Church with a long-time debate coach of high school and college students. He pointed out that the debate students he saw that left the faith weren’t necessarily the ones who felt the Church failed them intellectually, though they were some of the most intellectual of their peers. The students who left were the ones who felt disconnected, like spectators in an audience every time they were in an intergenerational setting.

On the flip side, the students who were encouraged to participate, not just in youth ministry, but in “real church” or “big church,” were the ones who stayed. That really resonated with me since the church I grew up in was very committed to involving kids and youth in pretty much everything. In many churches that celebrate confirmation in the early teen years, students are considered full members of a congregation when they are confirmed – along with all the duties of using their spiritual gifts within the Body (1 Timothy 4:11-13). Teens can read scripture or lead prayers in the service, do announcements, give their testimony, use their musical talents in worship, participate in increasing levels of leadership from helping with VBS to preparing Sunday School lessons, work with the youth minister to prepare rec games, mentor younger children, serve on event planning teams, participate in prayer groups… really, the ways to get teens involved in church life are as diverse as the church itself.

In the student publications world, faculty advisors are encouraged to let student journalists “own” their publications. Once teens start thinking of a newspaper or yearbook as “my paper” or “my book,” they invest their best effort. Upperclassmen chosen as editors aren’t always the most gifted writers or photographers; they are the ones who treat their publications like their job because they view themselves as “real” journalists working on “their” publication. I’ve heard other student organizations from theater to marching band to sports describe a similar effect.

Perhaps this is a picture of the ideal youth ministry: one in which students view the group as “my ministry.” Even better, what if teens viewed the church as their ministry? Not a place to be an audience member but a body where they could grow and help others to grow. Imagine a teen describing church as a family where they were expected to fully invest themselves as they have been fully invested in by their older siblings-in-the-faith.

This doesn’t guarantee a teen will love everything about church if they are involved. The risk with including such comparatively young and immature believers in adult church life is that they are often either expected to have the spiritual formation of adults who have been believers for decades or they are dismissed as ignorant children. They are neither. They are ready for more than Veggie Tales and puppets, but may not know yet where they stand on controversial issues that plague the church. They are ready to be given responsibility, but are still wrestling with their faith, their identity and how those two are connected. When my friend spoke of his debate students, it wasn’t that they were immune from intellectual questions or doubts fueled by science, philosophy or other academic influences, but they were actively involved in an intergenerational, trusted community where they could bring those questions and doubts.

Next we’ll address the question of the century: Does our worship style matter?

 

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

 

The Millennial Exodus: Style

This might surprise you if you were involved in the Worship Wars of the last 20+ years, but style is the least important of all of these “ways to keep Millennials.” Millennials aren’t solely leaving traditional hymn-singing, tie-wearing churches or contemporary radio-hit-singing, jeans-wearing churches. They are leaving all churches (except for historically black ones, according to this recent Relevant article. Rock on.)

However, for the churches watching their teens, 20-somethings and young 30s slowly trickling out the door, the main problem is not about coffee selection, skinny jeans or electric guitars. But there is something to be said for the presentation of each church’s unique style.

 

Sometimes Change is Needed

While cultural relevance should never take over the Gospel or foundations of the faith on a list of priorities, we can’t continue doing things the way we’ve always done them with this new generation. Millennials have shorter attention spans, as a whole, with a greater desire for kinesthetic learning and interaction. “Listening to a lecture” as one young man put it so bluntly, isn’t exactly a desirable setting for attracting lifelong texters, social media addicts and video gamers. I believe it’s possible to tweak and adjust style without watering down substance… in fact, as we discussed a few weeks ago, what Millennials need is more depth!

Perhaps a better way to say this is that we are an active generation. We need to do and lead and apply in order to learn. We need to be able to respond, interact, participate, even if it’s just asking us to write a personal response down in our notes or giving us tools to use in devotional times that tie in with the week’s lesson. We want to experience faith and community, not simply hear about or study them.

We need the church to model this. Leaders can include fewer rhetorical questions and more actual questions. They can inspire more real discussions and accept fewer “Sunday School answers.” Utilizing technology such as text-a-question Q&A sessions or the limitless possibilities of social media can help, as long as students know when to put their phones away and simply listen without distractions.

 

But Don’t Change Who You Are

More than anything, I hope this is an encouragement to all churches: keeping your teens and young adults doesn’t require changing your style every time a new ministry fad pops up. Everyone’s ministry has different strengths and weaknesses. I know that is a cliché, but especially when it comes to the outer trappings, Obsessive Comparison Disorder (to use Paul Angone’s term) runs rampant.

As we discovered a few weeks ago, authenticity is far more important to Millennials than attempts to be cool. Keeping Millennials is not about keeping up with every one of the trends; it’s about doing what God has called us to do with excellence. Sometimes that will mean changing to be better ministers to the so-called “next” generation. But may that change never come at the cost of our unique purposes as members of the Body of Christ.

 

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

The Millennial Exodus: Diversity

When I wrote about depth in the second post of this series, I first issued a disclaimer about how diverse the Millennial generation is in terms of age. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials “are the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation’s history.” This has paralleled a rise in political and cultural diversity, along with religious diversity. We no longer think of other denominations, or even other religions, as “those people,” far away from “us.” In fact, the “us” versus “them” mindset is a sure way to lose Millennials as “those people” are likely our friends, family or co-workers.

As a Church that strives to be one Body, we have to reevaluate how we define words like unity, acceptance, endorsement and outreach if we are to minister to the Millennial generation. We can turn to Romans 12 as an example of how we can approach this.

While not compromising on our non-negotiable foundations of faith, we can listen to and love others. From that place of confidence in what we believe, we are secure enough to “go unto all the world” in a society that doesn’t resemble us or agree with us (Romans 12:14). Engaging and interacting with those different than us doesn’t mean we endorse what they do/say/believe. It does mean that we love them enough to humble ourselves, listen and serve them as Jesus did (v. 13).

A word of caution: former norms of family structure, politics, church background, culture, etc., may still apply to leaders, but not to the whole congregation or even the rest of a youth ministry. If your leadership team is predominantly from one clique, cultural background or side of town, it may be easy to overlook those who don’t fit the “norm” (v. 6). For an easy example, look at how “marriage” is often used as a spiritual illustration. We know marriage is a wonderful symbol of Christ’s relationship with the Church. But to a generation that, as a whole, has few examples of marriage ending in anything but divorce or disillusionment, these descriptions aren’t self-explanatory. I can’t begin to describe the immense impact of sermons that simply explain the permanence implied with a marriage metaphor to a congregation of Millennials. We can’t take quick comprehension of old illustrations for granted. Instead, we can use this change in societal norms as an opportunity to explain the Gospel more clearly and seize this opportunity to reach out in a new way.

Millennial diversity also extends into views on faith. No longer can we assume that students who self-identify as Christians believe Christ is the only Truth. An overall shift toward relativism has forced even those of us with a firm grasp on absolute Truth to re-learn how we share Christ with others. In a world that rejects anyone who claims to “have a corner on Truth,” our insistence upon “Jesus’ way is the only way” is heard as ignorant, narrow-minded, offensive or bigoted. If we can show Romans 12 style love to them, even when they sling words that wound or falsely accuse us, then we can “overcome evil with good” (v. 21).

A tense point for Millennials, of course, is when our characteristic inclusiveness clashes with the Church’s rigid list of the excluded and unwelcome (however unintentional or subtle that list is). Neither all-permissive tolerance nor elitist, entitled “country club church” (to borrow Thom Rainier’s term) can accurately reflect Christ. We are most like Him when we love others for who they are while not watering down who our God is. It is the Holy Spirit, after all, that transforms hearts and minds, not our list of behavioral rules. Our part is to “not conform to the pattern of this world” ourselves as we are reaching out to serve it (v. 2).

As David Kinnaman says in “You Lost Me:”

“At the heart of the Christian story, however, is the Triune God’s rejection of both exclusion and tolerance. The Creator was not content to exclude those who had rejected Him, but neither was He prepared to tolerate our hatefulness and sin. So what did He do? He became one of us, one of the ‘other,’ identifying with us to embrace us in solidarity, empathy and selfless agape love – all the way to the cross.”

If we can walk as Jesus walked – between boldly standing for God’s Truth and humbly loving the marginalized – we can be His hands and feet to the most diverse generation.

 

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

The Millennial Exodus: Authenticity

When I wrote about depth in this series on keeping Millennials in the Church, I promised we’d also talk about authenticity as the bridge to and from depth. When we go deep in spiritual matters with each other, we open up the possibility to be more authentic. When we are more authentic, it provides the necessary trust and respect a healthy deep spiritual conversation is built upon. Authenticity is also the special ingredient that attracts Millennials without fail. I’ve yet to hear a teen or 20-something complain that a church wasn’t showy or fake enough.

The risk, of course, is knowing how vulnerable we should be. Too far and we could overwhelm each other or get hurt ourselves. Too little and we miss an opportunity for mutual growth. The only solution is to trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance – through communicating with Him, through our lessons from experience, through learning from others – to discern what is best in each situation.

But authenticity isn’t just about a verbal confession, whether over coffee with a friend or from a blog or pulpit. It is a distinguishing characteristic of those who live their beliefs.

I love the quote about John Wesley from Roy Hattersley: “The problem contemporaries had with Wesley was that he not only believed that ‘heart and life’ should conform to the ‘pattern of our most holy Redeemer’ but actually tried to live according to that impossible aspiration.”

Sometimes an authentic life is not a popular one. But it is real. It is the best testimony we have for the Kingdom.

Millennials have been marketed to our entire lives. We need to know what is lasting and worthy of our trust. Depending on which study you read, we see about 3,000 to 5,000 ads per day – products and programs guaranteed to make our lives easier, more glamorous, happier and healthier. They all use words like organic, handmade, original, indie, vintage… marketers know we are searching for what is true. And we are often disappointed, as many have let us down thus far.

“Authenticity is the cry of all but the game of few.” – Pete Wilson

Merriam-Webster helps put this buzzword into application: “authentic” is, unsurprisingly, defined as “not false or imitation, true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.” This definition has American Millennial written all over it. A celebration of independence, uniqueness, truth. But I also like one of the other definitions listed: “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.”

This is perhaps the best definition of authentic faith that we can hope to offer. If we are an accurate reflection of our Creator, the One who first loved, we can share that love with others in the most authentic way possible. After all, “we are not trying to please people, but God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4-6). That kind of authenticity assures Millennials that church isn’t just another bait-and-switch or propaganda piece that will leave them disappointed.

For our churches, this means living out what we claim we believe with our endless supply of song lyrics, memory verses, liturgies, sermons, devotionals, bestselling books… it means taking the scripture from our Bible study and applying it in community, living out the Word together. It means relying on the Holy Spirit to move in our worship services instead of manipulating emotions to produce a desired effect. It means teaching young people by example how to live out an authentic, deep relationship with God and others.

Next in this series, we’ll explore an interesting revelation that comes when we share our authentic selves in community – the Church is a diverse body. How can we embrace diversity?

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

The Millennial Exodus: Depth

“The Millennial generation” is actually an incredibly broad name. Many studies refer to Millennials as anyone born between 1980 and 2000. This includes parents of young children, young professionals, college students, and of course, your teens. So to issue a disclaimer on this series before we get in too far: anything that refers to “Millennials” is a generalization that may or may not be specific for you or your students, but hopefully in this series we’re hitting on some struggles that this generation deals with as a whole.

This leads us to a collision between one Millennial need and a consistent worry of youth workers: growing deep spiritual roots. “Going deep” is one of our favorite catchphrases in young Christianese, but how does it happen? What do we mean when we vow to rid our homes, relationships and ministries of shallowness?

As the “going” part implies, depth is a journey. We don’t start there, but we can get there with intentional time and effort poured into our own spiritual formation and the discipleship of the Millennials we lead. Shallowness sneaks in when we “no longer try to understand” (Hebrews 5:11-13). We revert back to spiritual milk in our apathy while greater revelations of God’s Truth and love wait for us. This shallow faith lacks the assurance, trust and hope to last, getting swept away by the storms of life faster than your kids can sing “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock.”

Building an inter-generational community can help guide Millennials to rock-solid faith. As we have stated, significant relationships with spiritually mature adults most accurately predict whether a teen will stick with their faith as they grow. (And weekly rounds of “How are you?” “Good! Busy!” do not count as a deep relationship with a Millennial.) We can no longer use busyness as an excuse for disconnection. Nor can we consider any in-person conversation to be mentorship, as rare as it is to talk “in real life” nowadays.

Speaking of face-to-face conversations, if we are calling for a deeper church and a deeper faith, it’s time to value the person in front of us more than whatever treasures our smart phone may hold. If we can ignore our inner timer that says “Hey! I haven’t checked Facebook/email/Instagram/Twitter in the last 30 minutes!” we will be better listeners, ministers and witnesses for the Gospel. If we can screen our calls and texts while spending quality time with others, we place honor and worth upon them.

This is not to say we should never take out our phones if another person is in the room. It actually shows how much we value the importance of their words if we are using our technology as a tool to make notes, set a reminder or look up information they need. If we’re just in a casual conversation with a friend in person and receive a time-sensitive call or text, we can gauge the situation depending on the context. We can gauge the situation and context to discern whether to respond to a time-sensitive call or text rather than always jumping when our phones chime.

If the person I’m in a conversation with is just browsing their phone or checks it without explaining why, I wind down the conversation and walk away thinking “well, apparently they have more important things to do.” Both my trust and openness with them are damaged. Not only have we missed an opportunity for a more meaningful connection, I’m going to think twice about going deep with them in the future because I know I’ll always rank lower on their priority list than the next notification to light up their screen.

Even if all of the smart phones are put away and we are spending time with each other, it can be difficult to know how deep a Millennial is willing to go spiritually. We Millennials have learned to filter our photos, craft our tweets and censor our Facebook statuses to present a message to our peers, so it may take a while to break through our external selves – our “personal branding” – to get us to share what’s really going on in our spiritual lives. We’ve grown up in the age of mean girls, cyberbullying, online predators, hoaxes, email viruses and phishing scams. Earning our deep trust may take some time.

Next time we’ll dive into authenticity, the bridge to and from depth. The more authentic we are with each other, the deeper the spiritual formation can go and vice versa, the deeper we go spiritually, the more authentic we are free to be with each other as layers of self-protection give way to Spirit-led transformation.

 

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements

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.

 

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Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series:

Numbers and Faces

Depth

Authenticity

Diversity

Involvement

Style

Obligations and Movements