I'm Listening, Sam

Why Millennials Leave the Church

by Mike Leake May 16, 2017


Last week, while heavily medicated from getting a tooth extracted, one of my former students sent me an article to read and give him my thoughts. Because I figured my thoughts at the time would be an incoherent mess of thoughts smattered with thoughts of Sasquatch and other mythical beasts, I decided to read and respond a bit later. The article is from a millennial, named Sam Eaton, who gives us twelve reasons why he believes millennials are leaving the church.

Being born in 1981, I’m never sure how to respond to these because I’m not sure if I’m part of Gen X, Gen Y, or if I’m a millennial. So much of what the author says in this article resonates with me. In fact so many of the bullet points that Eaton suggests for improvements are things that I’m trying to build into the culture of our little church here in Southwest, MO. But I’m really not doing this because I’m trying to reach millennials, I’m doing it because it’s basic Christianity–it’s what a church should be.

What I appreciated so much about Eaton’s call is that, when you sift through all the complaints, what he’s simply telling churches to be is biblical. It can be broken down to five points that are applicable to any generation:

  • We should be intentional and passionate about being good listeners to every generation.
  • We should practice hospitality.
  • We should be doers of the Word and not merely hearers (or speakers).
  • We should be disciple makers.
  • We should pursue authentic community.

All twelve points are really saying one of these five things. And I give all five of those a hearty "amen." I’m passionate about seeing churches grow in creating a culture which reflects these five things. And so, I’m listening. And I’m anxious to partner with millennials, like Sam, to help churches become increasingly like Jesus. However, I’ve got a few points of kick-back that I’d like to offer.

First, changing to reach a generation is why millennials are repulsed by the church in the first place. In my mind, we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess because a few decades ago we were faced with a similar crisis and we asked the wrong questions. We changed to reach the Boomer Generation. This caused us to move away from the center and that’s why you are dissatisfied today.

The reason millennials in some areas aren’t being reached isn’t because we aren’t equipped to speak to millennials. The gospel is timeless - it is counter-cultural and counter-generational. And the church that is shaped by the gospel will speak to the basic needs of every generation. So be careful when you call on churches to listen to your generation and adapt to its needs, because you’ll end up in the same spot in about twenty years.

Secondly, you are the church. Therefore, it is a bit nonsensical to say, “Your move church.” No, it’s our move. If you are a believer in Jesus then you don’t have the option of disengaging. I get that the church can be frustrating at times. I get that it really seems like you could do so much more on your own or in some para-church ministry where you don’t have to worry about institutions and such. I also get that Jesus died for his church and not for a building. But, Jesus did die for the church, that screwed up bunch of blood-bought redeemed sinners. Practice what you preach and do what you can within your local church to make those five points happen.

Thirdly, be the change you want to see. In one of the points in the article, Eaton decries the fact that millennials are often told they aren’t “good enough.” And I get that. It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to be called a snowflake, to not be listened to because you are younger – to be dismissed. But can I humbly suggest that the author might have been guilty of the very thing he is offended by? The whole article is basically saying millennials aren’t coming to church because you aren’t good enough for them. It cuts both ways.

Lastly, love isn’t how you feel about something. At the beginning of the article, the author says that he really wants to love the church, but he is increasingly feeling burned by the church and starting to understand why more and more millennials have a negative view of church. I understand this sentiment. And I think he’s saying he really wishes that the church was easier to love. But cruciform, Jesus-type love isn’t ever going to be easy. It loves the unlovely. It’s intentional. It doesn’t sit on the sidelines and say, “Man, I’d really like to love you but you just won’t let me.” No, Jesus reaches us in all of our muck and mire. He chooses to love the unlovely. That’s the type of love we are called to exercise towards one another. So, I get that the church can be really jacked up at times, but Jesus still loves her and washes her with the water of the Word.

Hang in there, Sam. The church has been through some pretty dark times, but she’s beautiful. We are beautiful because of the One who loves us. He is radically dedicated to seeing us be more like Jesus. The gospel is powerful enough to reach any millennial—no matter how discontent. Drop an anchor there and watch the Lord work.