Stop it with all the Music: Millennials are leaving the Church because the Church is worried that Millennials are leaving the Church.


DISCLAIMER: I include myself when I speak about millennials as a group, because I consider myself a millennial. I have not personally left the Church — far from it — but I resonate with many of the attitudes that Millennials feel toward the American Church, and that is why I speak in terms of “we” for this entry. 

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To understand me, you ought to understand something about American culture and the so-called “millennial generation”.

Millennials are a generation of people who came into adulthood around the year 2000. For me, that fits perfectly — the Clinton presidency coincided with my teenage years; the Second Iraq war and 9/11 both happened while I was in college. I can still remember walking over to my friend’s apartment off campus on the day the Twin Towers came down; his father had come up to make sure we were ok and spend the afternoon watching CNN with us. Those were some of the big memories that characterized my experience of growing up in the United States.

All of these things that I mentioned happened over a decade ago. Someone born at the end of the Clinton presidency would now be learning to drive a car. The towers have been gone for 14 years. 12 years have passed since we entered Iraq. We, the people who experienced these things as high school and college students are no longer in school — we are all adults. And we have been for quite a long time. Many of us now have children of our own. And yet, many in society refuse to acknowledge our adulthood.

Millennials have quit going to church.

One of the trends that people talk about, when they talk about us Millennials as a monolithic entity, is that we no longer feel it necessary to attend church. Indeed, this was the focus of one article that was sent to me recently over at… Red Alert Politics (Please forgive me if I’m not familiar with this news source.).

Though this particular site may be a bit obscure, it does site several bits of research from more well-known sources, the Pew Center, the Public Library of Science, and the Barna Group, that highlight the perceived trend that millennials have quit attending churches in the United States. Twenty-six percent of millennials do not identify with any religion, the highest percentage of any generation.

According to Pew,

Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

The solutions for the problem are offensive to me, as a millennial.

Many schemes have been developed to combat the trend of millennials leaving the Church. The scheme that people usually identify is the effort on the part of many churches to adopt “cooler” forms of worship music, liturgy, and appearance, thinking that millennials will be more likely to darken the doors of a church if they can hear a drumset and see people in sandals and shorts.

The Red Alert piece acknowledges this trend: “A lot of churches are trying to pander to the youth and it comes off looking ridiculous. Pastors are trying to be the cool step-dad, trying to gain favor with kids that aren’t his,” [RealClearReligion editor Nicholas] Hahn explained.

The first problem with this statement, and with the article that includes it, is that the entire article is about “the Millennials” — a group of people aged 34 to 15 years — and yet this commentator refers to “the youth”. For the vast majority of us, it is no longer correct to refer to us as“youth”. 

The idea offered is that “youth” would consider a church relevant if it appears relevant — that is, if the churchgoers wear “our” clothes and sing “our” type of music. This is offensive. It implies that an entire class of society — the vast majority of whom have left their parents’ homes (75% of Millennials are now on their own) — are too naive to look past such superficial elements as appearance and judge whether a church is making a difference in the lives of actual people. It implies that we still come to church in the way we might have when we attended youth group (the name usually used in churches for their high school ministry) — riding in the back seats of our parents’ minivans, wearing kakhi slacks and polo shirts that we didn’t particularly like.

Furthermore, this analysis implies that we pay attention only to the style of music, and are not qualified to comment on the substantive things that the church actually does with its time and money. It is no wonder that an entire generation has decided to look elsewhere when it attempts to invest in the community.

For millennials, there is no holiness in attending church.

I would imagine that, for most millennials, the notion that attending church has any connection to reforming one’s life is now dead. It is dead because the Church — in spending so much energy changing its style of worship, buying new instruments, and building cooler buildings — has communicated that the most important thing about church is coming to the building for an hour on Sunday morning. Lost is the actual message that the Church was created to communicate — that honesty, sacrifice, and the death and resurrection of Jesus bring renewal and life.

Millennials — the group the Church thought was leaving because of appearances — were looking past appearances the entire time, and what we saw did not appeal to us.

What we saw did not appeal to us. 

Wishard ventures into politics in the second half of his article, highlighting a couple of public statements made by liberal-leaning denominations. The point made is that Millennials are not impressed by social or political liberalism in the Church. 

But I would counter that we are not impressed by conservatism, either. What we’ve seen in the Church is a huge amount of judgment toward any divergence from a political and social ideology with which we aren’t completely in agreement. Whats been communicated is that if we want to follow God, we must support a political agenda that isn’t necessarily found in the pages of Scripture. We’ve heard statements that imply that any questioning of conservative political dogma are stupid, and will be summarily dismissed or corrected. 

Some actual quotes I’ve heard while inside an actual church:

“Capitalism is based on Biblical principles.”

“The ideas young people in our denomination have about politics and economics are literally stupid.”

“Our nation is a Christian nation”

“We are being persecuted by the liberals in the government.”

The Christian message should be about Jesus. 

Even those of us with only a cultural knowledge of Jesus understand that he was unwilling to be drawn into the political debates of his day, and, seeing that fact, we look at the modern Church with a certain amount of confusion. Why does devotion to a decidedly a-political leader require us to support such a message that seems so… political?

Unfortunately, the Church has done a better job of leading people to arguments for ideologies, than to Jesus. 

I’ve written a fair amount on how the Church should be the place for communities of openness, confession, and repentance. I would wager that the absence of Millennials in churches today is a sign that such communities, in general, are not being created among people from the millennial age group. This is the work of the Church, just as becoming a part of such a community is the work of the Christian. 

We left because they said, “Why are they leaving?”

Millennials are wise to all of this talk. We know that our culture is steeped in two centuries of Church tradition, and we know that people are asking where all the kids went. 

But we didn’t leave because of the music. We didn’t leave because of the clothes. We left because a community that cannot see us as adults has neglected to bring us into their process of transformation, and yet has changed their music and appearance in an effort to “bring back the youth”. Instead of willfully and purposefully bringing us into true communion as equals, they have reiterated their idea that we ought to warm the pews for an hour of our Sunday morning, and listen to them equate Jesus’ message with political ideologies, be they liberal or conservative, that are not essential to the gospel message that is found in Scripture. And we left because, on the occasions when Scriptures do seem very clearly to speak to very important socio-political issues in our country that we care about, the Church has seemed to say very little. 

This is why Millennials have left the Church. I’m afraid fixing the problem is much more complicated than changing the style of music. 

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