Cracking the Millennial Code

Like some reverse Paul Revere, many ride through the fiber optics of the Internet and into church basements shouting, ‘The millennials are leaving! Watch out for the rise of the nones!’
— Andrew Root

We’ve all heard the statistics warning of an exodus en-masse of younger people from our Christian communities. The revenue generated from the number of books, articles, research papers, and other documentation that has been completed around Millennials and their perceptions of the Church – and WHY – could probably fund a small nation. Sadly, I’m only half kidding…

While I do believe this issue has been grossly inflated – and in many ways has generalized a problem that is much more prevalent within the “Evangelical” Christian community (i.e. Ethnic Christian communities are seeing significantly lower attrition rates with their young people) – there still remains some truth to the idea that younger people are growing more and more disenfranchised with Christianity. So yes, it’s good to throw up some red flags, but let’s make sure that we’re doing so with appropriate context. Still, the question remains: How do we “crack the code” on engaging Millennials? Here are some thoughts:

Firstly, we must understand that in many ways, their disenfranchisement with our religious institutions is not a blanket condemnation of the Christian faith and/or it’s figurehead – namely Jesus. Case in point, according to research from the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, while the number of religiously unaffiliated people has increased from 15% to nearly 20% – with the Christian community seeing the greatest decline in religious affiliation –the same study found that nearly 40% of those who are religiously unaffiliated also self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, while many young people are rejecting our institutions and opting to forgo the “Christian” brand, they nevertheless remain open to spiritual exploration as they seek to find answers to their big, existential questions. This presents a huge opportunity for our Christian communities to (1) self-reflect and wrestle with the ways we have contributed to shaping the Christian “brand” to be lesser known for Christ’s love than it is for our human judgments, AND (2) to more relevantly engage young people with better answers to their questions that go beyond the typical Christian-ese – i.e. “it takes faith,” “Just pray on it,” or my personal favorite “Because the Bible says.”

"... we must understand that in many ways, their disenfranchisement with our religious institutions is not a blanket condemnation of the Christian faith."

Secondly, and building off this last point, our Christian communities must pursue more authentic relationships with our young people. While the modern mindset promoted the idea that young people were “empty vessels” that needed to be “filled,” this concept runs completely counter to the post-modern mindset that has shaped how Millennials see their place in the world today. In their research booklet titled Making Space for Millennials: A Blueprint for Your Culture, Ministry, Leadership & Facilities, the Barna Group suggested that contrary to the often perceived narrative, Millennials actually WANT to engage in deep, authentic relationships within our Christian communities. In fact, they crave opportunities to be mentored, but only if they can have the same opportunities to “reverse mentor” as well. In other words, Millennials do not see themselves as people who need to be indoctrinated with correct-thinking. Rather, they see themselves as capable, qualified individuals with gifts and talents that their communities can equally benefit from as much as they themselves can benefit from learning from those around them. I’d suggest here that Christian communities take a second look at their discipleship programs and reimagine how they might be adapted to accommodate both discipling Millennials, while simultaneously elevating young people to disciple us as well. 

Finally, and to cap off this line of thought, we must give it all away. In her insightful work titled The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, author and theologian Phyllis Tickle suggested as a culture, our Christian communities are going through what she labeled a “rummage sale.” More specifically, Tickle argued that approx. every 500 years, there is a rethinking and reimaging of (1) what it means to be a Christian, (2) how that is lived out in the world around us, and (3) how our religious institutions have adapted over time to usher in human flourishing within the social phases they find themselves. While she is not arguing that the basic tenants of the faith change every 500 years or so, she highlights how the interpretations and applications of the faith, its doctrines, and its traditions are what change every few generations. In other words, at the core of the tensions that we find our communities struggling with is this “battle” between older and younger generations – i.e. older generations feeling like younger generations are straying too far from tradition and how things have been done, and younger generations eager to strike out anew to reimagine and reconnect with God in ways that are more authentic to their time and station. I would suggest here that one path forward is to simply give it all away and let millennials lead us into this new season of faith. Again, as I noted earlier, Millennials are not eager to go it alone here. They want older generations to walk alongside them. However, the caveat is that they want to be equal partners in the shaping or reshaping of our communities and practices in order to realize God’s “Kingdom come” for their world today.

In sum, if we are successful in understanding that young people are still searching if we endeavor to pursue authentic relationships with them; and if we let them lead us as we walk alongside them, we very well just may crack the Millennial code within our Christian communities.