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What You Need to Know About the Millennial Exodus from Church

Why Are Millennials Leaving Church? 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. 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.

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 the Millennials Leaving Church

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.

With all the Millennials leaving church, how are we to win them 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 21st-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. (20)

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.

This article about the Millennial Exodus was also published on HuffingtonPost and Evangelicals for Social Action.

This article about Millennials leaving church originally appeared here.

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Carolyn Custis James (BA Sociology, MA Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. Carolyn is the author of Half the Church and Malestrom.