Fifty-nine percent of millennials who grow up in the US church drop out. We've pressed on with thoughtful outreach programs, and we have been fueled with evangelistic zeal. But when it comes to interacting and engaging with millennials, time and time again the church has been criticized for coming up short. The harshest critics call us 'irrelevant' and the sympathetic commentators call our endeavors empty. As we turn our pockets inside out, and examine our best efforts it appears as if we have little to offer hungry, searching millennials. One thing is overwhelmingly clear: millennials are deeply spiritual and live with ease in the non-material aspects of life. But the church is clearly failing to translate this soul searching into church going.
What will it take to compel a generation?
As a non-American I often ask the question why does it matter that there is this decline in the US? After all, faith is growing rapidly amongst Christian young people in the developing world and there is also no significant drop off in this age group in other major religions.
It does matter. And it matters to the world at large. For over 40 years that I've spent working as a banker and as a church leader I have had the privilege of engaging with American commerce and with churches and young leaders across the country. I have had extensive exposure to the financial and religious sectors in the country. The USA has been both a source of great energy, global capital and a rich well of theological dialogue made generously available to the world at large.
To find millennials disengaged and to fail to reach a generation with the good news of the gospel is not only bad news for America, it is bad news to the world. It is vital that this generation of Americans does not lose its confidence in the Christian message. Although Christianity still claims the highest market share of American millennials, this generation identifies as religiously unaffiliated at higher rates than any other generation. The US religious tide of this generation is shifting and changing. I believe its destructive force can and needs to be turned urgently.
In establishing an approach, we must recognize that Jesus was unapologetic about the "Strange Kingdom" he had come to establish. Jesus didn't try to dilute or water-down his message to attract others. Today we suffer from two extremes. On the one hand in an effort to win millennials an anaemic presentation of the gospel is advanced. On the other we have the pre-packaged certainties which are advanced with deep conviction and little reason. Neither of these approaches are honed for a thoughtful generation. We have to reassert out firm belief that we can disagree well. That the gospel is counter-cultural and the kingdom of God even more so. Fake news is not a new concept. Jesus' mock trial was littered with fake news making it easier to push Jesus to the side of society. Pilate thought it easier and better for him to wash his hands of Jesus, he sent Jesus away; we shouldn't be surprised when people do the same thing today.
Secondly, we need to apologize for trying to attract millennials to this Strange Kingdom by assuming there is a 'millennial profile.' No outsider can suggest: "This is what Millennials are thinking" or that "Millennials want this" as if we're trying to dissect some foreign entity. I believe there is a stronger, more compelling way to think about reaching this generation than focusing on generational stereotypes. The 'millennial void' that plagues many churches can be recognized and resolved when we move away from trying to 'target' them as a potential audience, but instead, we listen to them as their ideas and thoughts serve as answers to the demands of this age. In addition we need to develop a theology that allows for disagreement and to learn to disagree well while maintaining the overriding command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Taking this into consideration, three things come clearly to me as I reflect on what this means for us today. In particular, what we need to recognize about millennials and what this Strange Kingdom holds for them:
A core story to live for: This generation has lots to live with and little to live for, and yet it is hungrier and more informed than ever. Steve Job's famous Stanford University Commencement address encouraged graduates to "stay hungry, and stay foolish." Not to settle or to become complacent. To keep pushing forward with purpose. Purpose is what the next generation longs for, but has to deal with more distractions, options and choices than ever before. We can offer them a purpose that is rooted and grounded in love, a purpose that is generated not from outside but from within. Churches and their leaders can co-write a core story for the generation based on the resurrection power of Jesus which spurs us on to live for a cause that will outlast us, yet include us in its advancement.