For years now, churches have been trying to solve the Millennial puzzle.
It’s one with a lot of pieces. Also known as Generation Y, people born between roughly 1980 to 2000 are known for questioning authority, distrusting institutions and an aversion to organized religion.
Congregations have tried just about everything to lure young people to church or keep them from leaving. Incorporating modern music, less formality in worship and youth-oriented small groups are a few of the approaches.
But one author suggests churches do something relatively few do: listen to Millennials and be sure that congregational culture and doctrine match up. Because if there is anything Generation Y can’t stand in religious groups, it’s a disconnect between faith as preached and the faith as lived.
“A lot of the Millennials I’ve met care about the things Jesus cares about more than the people in the pews every Sunday,” said Caleb Breakey, author of Called to Stay: An Uncompromising Mission to Save Your Church.
The text offers a challenge for churches to face the difficulty reality facing them: that Millennials are leaving and staying away at the very moment when churches need them most. It’s a message congregations arguably more true today than it was when the book was published in 2013.
The Pew Research Center has reported that Millennials are rapidly driving up the number of “nones” — those without religious affiliation. While many of those young people were raised in non-religious homes, others are abandoning their childhood faith altogether, or at least leaving organized faith behind.
And especially alarming for religious groups is Pew’s finding that those who jettison faith, or who never had it, are less likely to re-embrace religion later in life.
Breakey, himself a Millennial at age 31, said it isn’t gimmicks but honesty that’s needed to heal the growing rift between young people and the church.
Millennials appreciate frankness, added Breakey, also an author of books on relationships and pastor productivity.
“Have conversations with them on why we do church, why it’s healthy and when it’s not,” Breakey said. “As long as we are having those discussions, we are headed in the right direction.”
The worst thing to do is to depict those who skip or abandon church as bad people while extolling the virtues of those who attend and belong, he said.
Millennials and other young people also are expert at sniffing out hypocrisy. Churches must be certain that the way people treat each other before and after worship is keeping with the gospel being preached.
“You can say everything right, but if your church has a culture of fear or judgment or of shunning people if they don’t look or sound a certain way, that’s not a healthy place,” Breakey said. “Make sure the things you believe and say to be true match the culture being created.”
That means taking a hard look inward before launching programs and ministries designed to attract or keep Millennials.
“I think a lot of churches are right there,” Breakey said.