We’re hearing more bad news about how young America feels about organized church. Thom Rainer published this article about young church leaders; it also reveals the brokenness that exists between churches/denominations and a major portion of our adult population. While it’s sort of good news for church planters, it’s bad news for everyone for several reasons: The church is God’s plan to reach our culture. If the plan isn’t working, we’re in trouble. It reveals a lack of grace on the part of younger people. My friend Travis Johnson recently preached, “Flaws and all, the Church must be a central priority of our existence as Christians.” We can’t expect the church to be even close to perfect. The church has a lot of good to offer young adults but if we aren’t on speaking terms, nothing will be shared. We shouldn’t have to learn everything by personal experience. Elders have practical wisdom that is needed. Millennials have a lot to offer the church but if we’re not on speaking terms… And one of the biggest reasons this is bad news is – too much of what Millennials believe about the church is accurate. The church can be irrelevant. The church can care more about maintenance than mission. The church can be myopic. As a denominational leader, I can unfortunately respond: guilty as charged!
So, how do we repair the disconnect? I think that, if these breaches are going to be healed, the church has to do a few things; here are just a few:
We have to go to them. I am bothered by people who say/think, “Here we are, if they need us, let them come.” The title of this article reflects a strategy. The church must take the initiative to reach out. In case we haven’t noticed, no one is beating our church doors down to get in.
We have to be willing to talk. This can be intimidating because many 20 and 30 somethings are accustomed to critical thinking. They aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions. Sometimes their attitudes can be perceived as arrogant (and sometimes they are). But these open and honest conversations must take place. These talks are not lectures. They don’t happen during the preaching – they are over coffee. And they may not conclude with a neat little box with a ribbon on top. These talks can be messy, but they are necessary.
We have to be willing to change. Robert Quinn says, “People must surrender some of their previous attitudes, behaviors, positions, and comforts for their organization to advance.” An attitude we’ve heard in the church is, “This is our church, if they don’t like how we do things, they can just stay away.” I’ve heard this or similar attitudes from people who claim to know the exact way that church should be done and are unwilling to consider any adjustments. Without doubt, this is wrong. While the Spirit of Christ will never compromise on the Word of God, there is great flexibility on the part of God when it comes to reaching people. I do not believe that we should ever change the meaning of the Bible, but our methods of doing ministry must change. A church that refuses to change methods in order to connect with the next generation will soon be a former church.
We must do more than just include. My friend Mel Stackhouse recently tweeted, “There’s a big difference between being embraced, and being included; being welcomed vs belonging.” Millennials aren’t stupid; they know when they are being placated. We must care more about people than we do the compliance of the people. They must be valued and respected. We must embrace them; they must know that they belong. And young leaders want to lead! While wisdom and discretion is required for leaders, let’s not wait until someone is too old and tied to lead before we empower them to lead.
Most of all, we must be real. By real, I mean authentic. There is little tolerance for hypocrisy in today’s culture. Churches that preach what they live and live what they preach will find a following. Don’t be afraid to tackle tough topics and offer real-life hope.
I understand the fears of the boomers/leaders of the church. We fear losing something we love very much. If we do nothing about how Millennials feel about the church, that loss is certain.