I've seen so many blog posts lately about why people-especially Millennials-leave the Church. It seems as if every time I get on the Internet, there's some “trying-to-be-catchy” title like "5 Reasons People think Church Sucks“ followed by "7 Ways You can make Millennials think Your Church Doesn't Suck.”
If you are a pastor or leader and have read one of these, I apologize. I’m sorry for shock bloggers that use pseudo-advice to draw you in. I apologize, because I know that there are many pastors desperate for advice on how to present the gospel in a context that the people they are trying to reach will understand. Yet, I believe many of these blogs and articles can actually hurt more than they can help.
Don't get me wrong! There are some great research groups out there that I admire, such as The Barna Group. They do factual work and help many people understand the cultures they are having a hard time grasping. And there are some wonderful writers out there who really are trying to help. They are not the problem. The problem is that much “advice” that gets circulated so widely has little foundation in truth. I see several problems with many of these lists of advice.
1. They are BROAD brush strokes.
We've all seen/read it before- "Millennials do/don't ______ because of ______." Honestly, how can you make such a general statement? How could all Millennials possibly agree on anything? People have never been able to agree no matter what age! You certainly can’t expect those who have grown up in one of the most progressive and turbulent times in generations to. We can’t all be grouped and we have varying opinions. And that's ok, because we're not all the same. Sure, just like any other stereotype, there are some that fit the mold but there are often more that don't. They lump together a wide range of people, diverse in age and culture. The blog may be written about Millennials who are suburban couples in their late 20’s with two kids while the pastor reading it may be trying to reach Millennials who are high schoolers in the inner-city. Broad brush strokes never work. Whether it is in the church or not. You simply can't have a one-size-fits-all method. Jesus Himself didn't have one method for every situation because it just doesn't work that way.
2. They treat symptoms and not causes.
This season there may be an uber-specific reason people say they have for not coming to church. Like I don’t know, it's right after the holidays or something. People are trying to get back on schedule and need to catch up on all of their school work/working out/social life/trivia crack. But none of these are real reasons. I think the real reason that people aren't going to church is because they don't feel a connection with God when they do. We all know the "light show effect" has long ago lost its impact. People will not come "for a show" anymore. Netflix has way better shows and you don't even have to leave the comfort of your house. What I believe people are looking is a real connection with God! That "looks" differently everywhere, but how it "looks" isn't the main thing. The main thing is that the connection is happening.
I will liken it to waiting in line for a roller coaster. You're with your friends talking about how amazing it's going to be. They may tell you how it gives an adrenaline rush and you see other people who have ridden it and hear them excitedly talking about it. You wait and wait and finally you make it to the front of the line. The moment is here! This is what you took time out of your day to do! But then the attendant tells you "That's it. Make sure you come back next week when we'll be doing it all over again. You won’t want to miss it!"
But the problem is you wanted the ride, not the line. Many churches are advertising the roller coaster but only providing the line. When you look at it from this simple point of view, you can see why many people never return to church. If they never get to experience the thing they came for, why would they ever return? Just to experience the disappointment again?
Give people the solution (God). Don't just treat their symptoms. (Excuses we make up to cover the fact that we don't have a connection with God.)
3. They make pastors feel bad about their own churches.
The majority of churches in America have a membership of around 70-80 people. These aren't the churches you see on T.V. or read about on the cover of the newspaper. Yet, these churches still make up the majority. So when some blogger writes a piece about how your church is wrong for not doing ____, it really hurts. The pastor knows he doesn't have the cool hair, the coffee bar or the latest stage design. So if they already know, why do we have to keep reminding them? We keep telling these lies that if they don't have these certain things, then their churches aren’t ever going to reach people. Then you see passionate people, who will do whatever it takes to reach a dying generation, change how they do things even when they are uncomfortable with it. The scary part is when they read a blog the next week and then see a book come out the next and try to replicate the author's experiences, soon they have lost all sense of authenticity and identity. Which, by the way, if you haven't figured out are the two biggest things people are looking for!
Why should someone change their identity and become a sell-out to reach people who can't stand sell-outs?
Look at how drastically the music industry has changed in the last 15 years. Now, people can make it by being independent. Because it’s more important to this generation that people be themselves rather than fitting into someone else's box.
If you are a leader or pastor who has read these type blogs and is feeling discouraged, I want to encourage you. Sure, there may be things you could tweak to help better contextualize yourself, but don't change who you are! If you feel most comfortable in a suit-please wear a suit! Make it an on trend suit but you can still wear a suit. Whatever you do, DO NOT sell out. In other words, don't change who you are in hopes that you will fit a trend. I know this goes against what seems to be true, but everyone is looking for authenticity. And they can tell if you're not authentic as soon as-or even before from website and social media-they meet you.
My "1 Thing You should do to Make Your Church Awesome/Contextual/Relevant/Cool/Hip/Trendy" list: Love people. It doesn't change from week to week and every church can do it.
Have true authentic love for people and have real relationships with them. This doesn't mean you have to agree with everything they do or say but it does means you have to care. Don’t just talk about it, or make it a slogan and plaster it on your website. Make it a value in your life. We live in a world where most relationships are about ankle deep. People are craving to be known, especially Millennials. And I know this is hard. It's a paradox in my own life, because I feel the need to have that connection, but then also I am quick to not engage people. It is hard really loving people. Its hard when you don't understand them or don't have common interest, but its something we all have to do! I have to intentionally put down my phone when I'm with people, and realize that this is what matters- not Instagram.
So be you and care for people. Know their names. Drop them a text every once in a while. Dare I say take them to dinner? You make be thinking "They won't want to hang out with me. My head isn't half shaved and I don't own anything leather." That's great! Because we see enough people trying to be cool already. It’s a terrible cliche but God never called us to be “cool.” The principles that Jesus taught can in some instances be on-trend and “cool” and in other instances not be. For some reason in the western Church we have come up with the notion that an experience with God is not enough, that we need to provide more than that to help people. We’ve gone so far in that direction that now people are sick of the add-ons. But that's for another blog. It’s simple! Just remember one thing:
Millennials don't need cool. We need real.