The Millennial Exodus

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By Carolyn Custis James

“Christianity has an image problem among American youth.”
–David Kinnaman, Barna Group

In his ominously-titled book, The End of White Christian AmericaRobert P. Jones (CEO, Public Religion Research Institute) chronicles the decline of the white American church.

Among the symptoms that have led to this terminal diagnosis, Jones identifies a “major force of change in the religious landscape: young adults’ rejection of organized religion. Young adults are three times as likely as seniors to claim no religious affiliation.”

These aren’t just unchurched youths, which would be bad enough. Young people—even those raised by Christian parents, who’ve grown up in the church, walked the aisle, given their lives to Jesus, gone on mission trips, and graduated from Christian colleges—are leaving the American church in droves.

Something is deeply wrong with the white evangelical church. And millennials are voting with their feet.

 Many view this ongoing exodus as a catastrophic development for the church that cannot be taken lightly. This isn’t simply about declining numbers. The future of the church’s mission is at stake. According to many millennials, something is deeply wrong with the white evangelical church. And they are voting with their feet.

The unchecked bleeding of any organism will prove fatal sooner or later. Far too much is at stake if we ignore this millennial departure or chalk it up to normal generational differences, assuming that in time they will “come to their senses.”

So far, this trend is not reversing. And if we cannot manage to keep and mobilize our own, how can we hope to effectively reach others of this rising generation?

What Post-Evangelical Millennials are Saying

A 2006 Barna survey of 16-to 29-year-olds found that “three attributes young Americans associated with ‘present day Christianity’ were being antigay (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent).”

From time to time, various evangelical leaders and organizations circulate political and theological statements and manifestos regarding issues they collectively consider paramount—mainly, abortion and gay marriage. To which journalist Jonathan Merritt (son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president) responds with what Jones describes as “the literary equivalent of a shrug.” Merritt (a millennial himself) argued that these statements create what he called “a false hierarchy of issues, with older generations contending that only a few hot button issues are worthy of attention.”  

According to Merritt, “Younger Christians believe that our sacred Scriptures compel us to offer a moral voice on a broad range of issues…The Bible speaks often about life and sexuality, but it also speaks often on other issues, like poverty, equality, justice, peace, and care of creation.”

Millennials inhabit the 21st century and the changes and opportunities it offers. They aren’t contemplating returning to a long-gone era that their parents and grandparents nostalgically long for. Their friendships are crossing gender and racial lines. They’re not interested in internal debates that captivate and divide evangelicals. Issues the institutional church deems threatening and hills to die on are non-issues to them.

The Bride is Ugly

As a pastor’s kid, I grew up in the church. I was raised on the Bible. I loved, valued, and was blessed by that heritage. But as an adult and as a woman I’ve seen the dark side of the church.  I’m not leaving, but I have my struggles with the church too.

As a friend of mine once said, “The bride is ugly.”

Sometimes the church seems more American than Jesus-following. More head than heart. Caring more about power and control than love, justice, and mercy. All too often the evangelical church is more focused on circling the wagons to maintain the status quo than in engaging the challenges and opportunities of our changing world and leading Christians into the future.

All too often the evangelical church is more focused on circling the wagons to maintain the status quo than in engaging the challenges and opportunities of our changing world and leading Christians into the future.

I’ve seen evangelical church leaders abuse power, cover up abuse and scandal to protect themselves, and re-victimize the wounded. Friends of mine have turned to the church for protection from domestic abuse, only to be sent back into harm’s way to “try to be more submissive.”

I hear stories from women (and have stories of my own) of how the church marginalizes women and girls and pushes our gifts and contributions to the side.

In the minds of many, the evangelical church is known more for what she’s against than for what she’s supposed to be for: bringing light, hope, and great good news to a hurting world. In the public square, the American church has lost her prophetic voice—and now she is losing her future. Millennials are streaming out the door.

Listening to Millennials

This past week I had the privilege of speaking at Houghton College. Opportunities to engage this rising generation at Christian colleges are sobering to me, especially given the prospect of losing so many of them. Within the academic community, students enjoy more freedom to voice their questions and criticisms about Christianity and the church. But in the church, not so much.

How are we to win millennials back if we remain more passionate about the past (and holding on to it) than we are about the future? What would inspire them to return if the only vision we offer is negative and isolating? Why would they want to be part of a church that rejects and insults their friends? Is Jesus’ gospel rigid, petrified, and unbending, or is it nimble and robust enough to equip millennials and the rest of us to engage the changes and challenges of every new generation, no matter how unexpected that future may be? Does Jesus’ gospel fill our lungs with hope and passion for his world, or suck the oxygen out of the room? Does it equip us to send the same enduring indiscriminate invitation to a lost and hurting world? Does the twenty-first century evangelical church say “Come!” or “Stay away?”

Author John Seel describes millennials in his forthcoming book, The New Copernicans: Understanding the Millennial Contribution to the Church (October 2017), as “the hidden treasure of the church.” He goes on to say, “It’s important that we approach . . . millennials not as a quest for relevance or marketing savvy, but as a portal for a more accurate assessment on human nature and reality. Millennials have insights from which we have much to gain…Parents have much to learn from their millennial children. It is high time we listen carefully and listen well.”

Issues the white American church is facing today have been there all along. Racism, feminism, LGBTQ, same-sex marriage, globalization, multiculturalism, immigration—all of these have been simmering below the surface for generations, but have broken out into the open now and cannot be ignored. These are not threats to the gospel. The gospel of Jesus and his kingdom will ultimately prevail—with or without the white American church. His gospel intends to change all of us—not at a single point in time, but as an ongoing learning and refining process. How would it change us for the better if we were courageous and humble enough to listen and contemplate the possibility (as Seel advises) that we might learn from millennials?

Perhaps if we create safe space in the church for millennials to bring their questions and criticisms, we’ll learn to be less fearful of owning and voicing our own questions and concerns. Just maybe instead of dying a slow death, the church will recover and regain her health.

Whether the church advances or declines on our watch will depend on how we reverse this exodus—and that, my friends, is a very big deal.

Carolyn Custis James is an award-winning author and international speaker. She blogs at her website, as a Leading Voice at MissioAlliance, and at Huffington Post and is an adjunct faculty member at Biblical Theological Seminary. Her books include Malestrom—Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing WorldHalf the Church—Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, and The Gospel of Ruth—Loving God Enough to Break the Rules. In 2013, Christianity Today named her one of the 50 evangelical women to watch. 

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