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The Millennial Exodus

by Rick Chromey

“When you…realize that church isn’t the…place you thought it was or that you want it to be for your friends, well, it’s a pretty short walk out the door.” 

— (Millennial blogger)

The Millennials have graced the American generational landscape since 1982. These Reagan, Bush, and Clinton tots enjoyed cultural blessing, political partiality, and municipal protections. They were the “Baby on Board” Spy Kids who “mmmbopped” and starred in High School Musicals to everyone’s “glee.” We covered their sockets, slapped on bike helmets, dressed Millennials in uniforms, and buckled the tykes behind airbags. We organized their sports, inflated their GPAs, and gave everyone a trophy.

When 1980s Baby Boom parents migrated back to Christianity, the megachurch phenomenon emerged. These upstart congregations featured high-tech nurseries, McDonald’s Playland ministry environments, and specialty pastors to nurture cradle to college programming. The smaller church, desperately hungering to remain relevant, burned budgets on cutting-edge curriculum, hip conferences, and books by celebrity pastors.

In the 1990s these Millennial-tots-turned-teenagers, some addicted to “cool,” continually chased the next spiritual “high.” And the new drug was worship. Youth ministries dropped the games and fired up the worship band featuring something fresh: the “youth sermon.”For some, it was now possible for kids to grow up “in church,” graduate high school, and never suffer through adult worship services.

Now you know why some Millennials find adult church boring, irrelevant, and a waste of time. Many never experienced it as a kid. Unlike other generations, the many Millennials, especially those who attended mega-churches, were excluded.

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If these Millennials who grew up craving spiritual “highs,” then it’s our fault. We created consumers, not disciples. So it’s no wonder Millennials left the church in droves and religiously check “none” as their irreligious preference. We did many things right ministering to Millennials, but, in general, the church did two things very wrong:

First of all, we reduced spirituality to “tricks and treats.” We taught Millennials to bring Bibles and friends, memorize Scripture, and attend activities using Skinnerian bribery. We doled out Bible Bucks, candy, and other prizes to persuade participation and encourage spiritual behaviors. One children’s ministry gave away toys for kids who chose baptism. Another youth ministry distributed $5 bills to teens who prayed, read Scripture, and attended meetings. We massaged the Message so they’d like it but not need it. And to keep motivating, the payouts had to be bigger and better. Consequently, when the bribery was removed, Millennials wisely chased more rewarding values like community, purpose, and dignity.

Second, we chose to parent Millennials. From birth we separated them from their parents. Mom and Pop deposited their babes in the church nursery and never looked back. We gladly surrogated, teaching Millennial kids the Bible and how to worship. We mothered hurts, watched their activities, and “vacationed” with them at camps, concerts, and mission trips. We baptized them. Parents eventually expected youth pastors to fix their kids. So we did. Instead of assimilating Millennials into the whole church, we segregated them in children’s church and youth services.

I realize these two reasons are generally stated but feel they provide a powerful historical apologetic for why a generation soured on Christianity. Consequently, it’s shortsighted to lament statistics, point fingers, or blame secular culture.

Rather, it’s time to change how we minister to children and teens, to focus on giving them a real Jesus one that is big enough to walk into their darkest moments with them.

The emerging iTech generation (born since 2004) hungers for something better than what we fed their Millennial siblings. In my book Sermons Reimagined, I argue for briefer, interactive, experiential, and image-soaked communication. It’s worth considering for kids, too.

Or, unfortunately, the exodus will continue.

4 thoughts on “The Millennial Exodus

  1. The question to ask is perhaps not “Did the institutional church fail to make disciples of these kids?” but “Did it fail to make disciples of their parents before them?” One must consider the answer to be yes. This forces the question of whether the institutional church is the real problem here.

    Millennials have not forsaken Christ entirely. What they HAVE forsaken is the typical way we do church in the U.S. Getting church leaders to admit that they broke the church by going after fads OR that the Constantinian church model may have been broken for centuries and not enough folks have been brave enough to say so (being burned at the stake tends to cut down on criticism, no matter how perceptive)…well, there’s the challenge.

    I mean, the Protestant Reformation was 500+ years ago. When’s the next reformation?

  2. I agree with you, DLE! The issue is a failure to disciple. It’s a failure of parents spiritually educating their own kids. It’s a failure in methodology and strategy, falling prey to Skinnerian bribery.

    I don’t necessarily agree the Constantinian church model “may have been broken for centuries” though. The Church has always reflected its cultural context. It changes as culture changes. The Church of the fourth century reflected a Roman political sphere (and it worked). The Reformation Church reflected an emerging Gutenberg culture (and it worked). The 20th century American church reflected an Industrial Age business model (and it worked).

    The problem is its no longer working. Why? It’s because we live in a world that’s never existed before thanks to recent cyber, mobile and visual technology. The Internet changed the world. So did television and mobile cellular phones. We can’t keep doing business like its 1995.

    Consequently, as you rightly noted, the 15 century-long Constantinian church era is OVER. We are also post-Reformation, post-modern, and post-Industrial. The waters the Church is in today are uncharted and we need new pioneering voices and fresh vision. We don’t need a REformation again. What we need is a REstoration back to the Original DNA of the Church that Jesus Christ instituted (simply and powerfully revealed in Acts 2:42-47).

  3. fellow worker

    Rick, I hear what you are saying in your post. I hear you say “we” in your assessment of the problem. What I don’t hear is repentance and acceptance of your part in the problems doing this sort of church (US style) has created for at least two lost generations.
    I was 18 in 1982 which would be premillenial. As much as the church has failed the millenials it has also failed my generation because so much effort was put into seekers that leadership acted as if we needed to go along to get along with the way they wanted church to go.
    I was probably the last generation to understand what a cross cultural missionary was. The problem is, as you can verify, the church stopped supporting and sending missionaries during the era of destruction of the family unit caused by doing church the way you described in your post.
    What was your role in perpetuating or perpetuating what is now described as problematic? Were you on staff of a mega church? Were you a youth pastor?
    Lastly, I totally agree about the original DNA you mentioned in your comment reply. What I don’t agree with is your thought that we need a visionary to restore the church. What we need is leaders who follow the Jesus of the Bible and churches full of fellow workers. The emergent church is not the answer. Emergent is the problem.

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The Millennial Exodus

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