A recent press release landed in my inbox suggesting that churches were failing millennials. On the contrary, I believe millennials are failing churches.
For those of you who don’t know, ‘millennials’ are young people reaching adulthood in the early 21st century. Research for the Church of England says this group is the ‘hardest to reach’. The picture may or may not be different in independent evangelical churches.
Premier, a media company with various Christian radio stations, has announced that 52 per cent of its audience is made up of millennials. Justin Brierley, one of Premier’s presenters, says millennials tune in to his programme because they are ‘suspicious of organised religion and church’.
Charmaine Noble-McLean, head of content for Premier, says ‘radio is a convenient and relevant way for them to access their faith’. And Premier CEO Peter Kerridge says, ‘It’s obvious that people are searching for a spiritual experience outside of traditional church gatherings and in an on-demand world this trend will accelerate’. He adds, ‘Christian Radio is intimate and private; it touches the soul’.
Really? Is that really the answer? Do we just ditch local gatherings of committed believers in favour of radio stations? Do we just pander to millennials, making things ‘convenient’ for them and ignore everything the New Testament says about believers gathering together in fellowship? Do we just pretend Jesus and the apostles didn’t have a clue what they were doing when they laid the foundations of the church?
The problem is not with churches, the problem is with this generation of young adults. Many of them have grown up with a sense of entitlement, and without a sense of commitment.
Many of them are spoilt for choice, having grown up in a culture driven by consumerism. Many of them were rewarded simply for participation rather than achievement. Their ethics are driven more by their feelings than objective truth.
Data backs this up. One study showed that 40 per cent of millennials believe they should be promoted in their careers every two years regardless of performance. Another study found that 60 per cent of millennials say that they’ll just be able to ‘feel’ what’s right in any situation. In a global survey, only 18 per cent of young workers admitted that they planned on staying with their current employers for long.
Millennials are also more driven by their peers than ever before. Back in the early 20th century only a fraction of teenagers were at school. Most were either at home or in the workplace interacting with older adults. As such, they were socialised to take responsibility and grow up. By the middle of the century, more teenagers were interacting with other teenagers at high school, and a teenage subculture was born.
By the early 21st century that youth subculture has been stretched to include young adults, with an endless stream of peer group communication via smart phones and social media. Never before have people reached their mid-20s so influenced by their own peer group and so utterly detached from others.
This peer-pressure is often anti-intellectual. If a person only ever engages with their own peer group, they will never be exposed to the ideas and experiences of different generations. Thus, many millennials condescendingly regard other generations as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘speaking another language’.
All of this has its impact on the church. Millennials, as a generation, tend not to really grasp the importance of the local church as an institution. They are far more likely to dip in and out of church life depending on their other commitments. They are more likely to find a church which reflects their peer group, rather than a church with a multi-generational congregation.
At worst, they want a church to meet their needs rather than a church in which they can serve others. They are more likely to make decisions based on how they ‘feel’ rather than objective principles.
But we must not pander to that culture. Instead, we must lovingly confront that culture with the gospel. We must teach this millennial generation that the church matters because it is the bride of Christ.
And commitment matters because we are all members of one body, united in the Spirit. And ethics should be directed by biblical truth rather than personal feelings. And true churches are made up of different generations, where young people listen and learn from older more experienced believers.
I’ve been speaking about this generation of millennials in fairly blunt and negative terms. But let me also say, I know some outstanding young adult believers who shine like lights in the darkness. They are selfless, hardworking, committed, thoughtful and humble. They serve tirelessly in churches, when it would be easier not to. They suffer jibes from their peers because they refuse to go with the flow. They are seeking to be shaped by Christ and not by the world.
Sadly though, they are the minority. Most millennials — including some who are believers — are lacking in these Christ-like qualities. I accept too that some churches could be better at engaging with this generation. But, on the whole, I believe it is millennials who are failing the church.
Mike Judge is pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church. He is a director and co-editor of Evangelical Times.