Why We Aren’t Reaching the Millennials

The numbers tell the story: although Christianity has tried several strategies to reach young people, none have been as effective as hoped. Recent studies reveal that not only is Christianity not bridging to millennials (those born 1981 or later), but it cannot even keep its established base.  The Pew Research Center found that:

The large proportion of young adults who are unaffiliated with a religion is a result, in part, of the decision by many young people to leave the religion of their upbringing without becoming involved with a new faith. In total, nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 (18%) say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.[1]

The Barna Group in their research identified:

Nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.[2]

The problem is not that the millennials are a more difficult or complex generation than their predecessors. The problem is Christianity itself. We as organized Christianity willingly changed our music, our services, our dress, and our buildings because we were told that these adjustments would make us more attractive to the younger generation. Now we find ourselves not only disappointed in the unfulfilled promises of this extensive makeover, but alienated from the older generations who opposed or resisted the changes.

I’m often asked to coach people on their disciple-making efforts. Much of the time I come away with the same two feelings: (1) deep appreciation for their intent and (2) disappointment over their approach. Western Christianity seems to be enamored with programs, campaigns, and curricula while giving lesser attention to the heart-and-soul matters of relational connection. If we’re not effective, we assume our methodology is what’s broken.

At this point many will go back to the basics and reconsider what the Bible teaches about discipleship. Unfortunately, even then the tendency is to skip over the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and dive into the book of Acts and Paul’s letter. I say this is unfortunate because in bypassing the Gospels we overlook four accounts of the time God came to earth and the great many lessons to be learned from Christ’s encounters with seekers, followers, doubters, and grievers. Joseph Hellerman describes it like this:

The earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth constitutes the one time in the history of humanity when heaven fully and finally came to earth. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we have the opportunity to see the question “What is God Like?” answered in the flesh-and-blood world in which we live. During His incarnation Jesus not only procured our way to heaven. He also shows us how to live on earth.  Now we can pattern our lives after Jesus.[3]

What is God like? Asking and answering that question is the starting point of all ministry, discipleship included. In a word, God is love.

At the baptism of Jesus, the heavenly Father declared his love for his Son. “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17). This was a clear declaration of the love bond between the heavenly Father and Jesus. This familial love then became the basis for Jesus’ love for his disciples and the disciples love for one another. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9), and “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all me will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

There is only one way and there will always be only one way to make disciples, and that is to love. Discipleship at is core is demonstrating how to love.

[1]Religion Among the Millennials. (2010). Retrieved August 2012, from www.pewforum.org

[2] Kinnaman, David (2011, Six Reasons Why Young Christians Leave Church. Retrieved August 2012, from http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church

[3] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 62.