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The Millennial Exodus: How We Created It

by Rick Chromey

Some of you won’t like what I’m about to write, but I need to point out something that’s bugged me for decades.

Perhaps it’s the reason the Millennial generation has walked away from church and even Christianity.  Despite enjoying the best in resources, facilities, events, pastors, and opportunity since the 1980s, the Millennials continue to leave church in droves.

Everyone wonders why.

Well, here’s my take.

I think it’s because we bribed them to follow Jesus.  Of course, you might prefer more sanitized terms like incentive, reward, or prize, but I still think it’s bribery:

“Say your memory verse (perfectly) and I’ll give you candy.”

“Bring your Bible, get a Bible Buck to buy toys at our store.”

 “Invite friends and receive a Christian concert ticket.”

“Be good today and we’ll have a pizza party next week.”

“Perfect attendance and the church pays for your mission trip.”

Do this and get that.  I’ve been watching these incentive “church” games for over three decades.  I used to play them myself until I recognized they don’t work.  Not for long, anyway.

I’ve also witnessed some extreme abuses of incentives:

  • A youth pastor awards a car to whoever brings the most friends to an event.
  • A children’s minister fuels child baptisms with extra trips to the prize chest.
  • On Easter Sunday, advertised free televisions are given to first-time visitors.
  • A youth ministry doles out $5 to everyone who attends meetings, plus awards bonus bills to teens who pray, serve, lead, or teach.

Its no wonder the Millennial generation is cynical of “churchianity.”  They’re a smart bunch and clearly have tired of the bribery.  Furthermore, countless managerial studies and educational research confirms incentive-based strategies fail to produce long-term results.  Consequently, many businesses and schools have ditched incentives, but in the church, many still believe spiritual growth can be manipulated and microwaved.

So is there a better way?  Actually, yes, there’s a much better way.

When I’m hungry, my stomach “growls” for food.  Similarly, every human has six inner needs that rumble for attention.  When leaders, teachers, and parents feed these needs, it sparks natural motivation to learn, behave, and produce:

GRACE:  Forgiveness. Freedom.

RELATIONSHIP:  Connection. Community. Collaboration.

OWNERSHIP:  Control. Contribution. Choice.

WORTH:  Value. Voice. Vision.

LAUGHTER: Enjoyable. Entertaining.

SECURITY:  Emotional. Physical. Mental. Spiritual.

When churches and ministries create environments of grace soaked in relationship, powered by ownership, and focused on worth, they naturally g-r-o-w attention and affection, loyalty and liberty, duty and discipline. When children, teens, and adults also feel safe and enjoy the process, motivation really sparks.

Abraham Maslow and William Glasser, among other psychologists, have long recognized these inner needs, but few practiced them better than Jesus.  He discipled entirely by feeding the GROWLS and never resorted to manipulation with incentives to motivate spiritual growth.

That’s why some won’t like this post.

Many in the Millennial Generation weren’t won to a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Instead, they were bribed to view Christianity through the lens of consumerism (“what do I get?”), narcissism (“what’s in it for me?”), and perfectionism (“did I do it flawlessly?”).  In our incentives, even if practiced innocently or ignorantly, we actually taught works righteousness, churchianity, and moral therapeutic deism.

Essentially, we persuaded a generation to focus on prizes rather than a Person, to value stuff rather than spiritual awakening, and to view Christianity as destination rather than journey.

We also created winners and losers.  And perhaps that’s the biggest barb in these bribes. The Millennial Generation learned at church that if they can’t win—because only winners get the prize—then it’s not a place for them.

And so they left.

And now you know why.

9 thoughts on “The Millennial Exodus: How We Created It

  1. This is right on point!! Thank you for writing this article!!

  2. I would think it is because we have so diluted what Christianity is all about. We have created ever increasing shows, concerts rather than the simple time where believers spend time together, focused on the simple task of encouraging and edifying.
    We have created a whole set of professionals doing “worship” for us, rather than include as many as possible of the MEMBERS (Remember, “When you meet together, each of you has…).
    We have lost the simplicity of what the Gospel is all about. We have changed the ‘diet,’ where meat is no longer served, but milk only (2% milk, at that – LaGard Smith).
    We have joined ourselves to the worldly way of doing things. We keep asking for more and more money, to sponsor more and more “Church programs” rather than feeding the hungry and be mission minded.

  3. I think you’re right on, but this isn’t the whole story. There are likely many other reasons so many young folks have walked away (or never even been in a church).

  4. My experience as a parent, teacher, and part-time youth leader was different. In my family our lives revilves around God, church actvivites and family gatherings. Sadly most of the parents had their children in numerous sports and other extra-curricular activities that all too often had games or practices during church, youth group, etc. So there were seasons and multiple seasons when the children, teens, and whole families rarely came to church. Teaching the children God was not important. And many of them fell away because they were not taught that God comes first. Sports, etc. became idols I’m their lives. If enough parents had refused to participate in Sunday games I believe schedules would have changed. Thankfully we could never afford such activities for our children and I think they were better off for it. They get more than enough worldly influences in school. They need to be with their parents and family, in church, learning and living and seeing the Word lived before them.
    We did try the earning tickets to buy things in the “store” thing during VBS a couple years and it got out of control. So we changed it to each day they received a “grace” gift (unearned) that went with the days lesson. Cheaper and helped focus on the Word and not the gimmes.

    • Roger Marks

      This has been a perennial problem of the church forever and a day. If you want to be involved in what we do you have to do it when we want to do it. Flexibility is an unknown word.

      A church I was part of reached young people the church was not interested in. We didn’t meet on Sunday morning because none of them were up Sunday morning. We met on either Saturday or Sunday afternoon whichever was the most convenient for most of them at about 4 pm and we went on until….

      During the time we ordered takeout food and had a meal together. During the time together there were snacks placed on various tables that people could snack on anytime they wanted to. Drinks were available to anyone anytime. Our seating was armchairs and settees.

      On Friday night some went out to evangelise in a local pub and some stayed behind to pray.

      Very few of the people who came missed a meeting.

  5. This “bribery” can be traced right to the desk of Dr. James Dobson, author of Dare of Discipline. Dr. Dobson baptized the humanistic psychology of Watson and Thorndike called behaviorism. Dr. Dobson argued that children could be trained like he trained his dog, Zigi, to respond to commands by rewarding him. Dr. Dobson told parents they should train their children in the same manner. The evangelical church adopted behaviorism in its children and youth programs. You have children who look like Christians without conversion.

  6. Yes, if you just manage to do everything right, you’ll keep ’em forever. Sure. There is nothing internal to Christianity itself that is problematic.

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The Millennial Exodus: How We Created It

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