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.
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.