Have Fundamentalists Shown the Millennials the Door?
For nine years I had the privilege of being a youth pastor. Observing nearly ten classes graduate from our youth group was exhilarating. Invigorating. But, following those same students post-college has been somewhat discouraging. Deflating. My concern was that many of these young people didn’t return to our church (to any church!).
My initial reaction was to fault the schools of higher education that these young people (referred to as “Millennials” by demographers) chose to attend. My thoughts, honestly, were that these colleges were poisoning the pupils. My view: the universities (Christian and secular) must have been guilty of stealing these students’ faith and birthing disillusionment in their hearts towards the church.
My next scapegoat was “worldly Christianity.” My blame game progressed to my faulting secularized Christianity that was in my view “standardless,” “contemporary,” and so “cool” that it was magnetizing young people away from the church.
Embarrassingly, the last consideration that crossed my mind was the possibility that prior to the students leaving and/or after they returned from school, that our own ministry might be the culprit of their disillusionment. To be sure, universities and “worldly Christianity” have, at times, contributed to young people, like Demas, forsaking the church. Yet, when the x-ray light was taken of my own ministry, I discovered two areas in which I was the very culprit in pushing our children out the door.
First, in 2009, I was given the book Already Gone. The book piqued my interest because it considered data from this same demographic (twenty-somethings, or Millennials) that had been reared in conservative churches across America, but left those churches. The study essentially revealed a woeful failure by both parents and youth ministries. The book’s essential discovery was that in most churches “youth ministry” had been relegated to programs and entertainment. The study further revealed that the major “disillusionment-bull’s-eye” was during these Millennials’ junior-high years. Simply, they had questions that weren’t answered. Those surveyed said that when they desperately needed apologetics and answers, they just received more antics and entertainment. This led our ministry to become more aware about being more intentional in discipling teenagers as well as adjusting our scope and sequence in the education of our children 0-18.
Besides assessment of our educational ministry, we discovered that there was another way in which we were culprits in the great exodus. We were actually at times “pushing away” some twenty-somethings by our own judgmental, Pharisaical attitudes. We noted that spiritually-speaking, these young people were in many ways more spiritually-minded than many of us “seasoned saints.” For instance, they are returning from college doctrinally aware and engaged. In addition, they love the Gospel. They love Jesus. They are inspired by expository preaching. They desire their worship music to communicate these beliefs accurately and passionately. BUT, they packaged these things differently. And, THAT was not acceptable! To name a few: dressing “down” to church services was a slippery slope for us; listening to contemporary-sounding music was not allowed (and we were inquisitors!); quoting people we didn’t agree with completely was also taboo! So, no matter the hungry heart, we fairly quickly showed these young people the door because of their offensive “packaging.” Sad. We were producing some of the very problems we were critiquing. And worse, we have been guilty of dismissing the very answers to prayer we have been so importunately praying for!
When God miraculously answered the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a child, they were overjoyed! In Gabriel’s prophecy, John was predicted to be “great before the Lord.” I wonder, though, what John’s parents thought when he ventured out into the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey! Sure, their son was passionate about Christ (“Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world . . . . He must increase but I must decrease.”) He was also outspoken about repentance (“. . . vipers who hath warned you of the wrath to come?”). But in spite of those positive, godly characteristics, he was, well, unconventional, and certainly non-traditional! Do you think Elizabeth ever said to Zachariah, “I just can’t get use to his attire and his disgusting diet! We taught him better. Very disappointing.” I know it is “reading between the lines,” but the comparison has significance to our ministry.
What if the answers to our prayers for revival are the Millennial Christians? What if these twenty-somethings are God’s miraculous answer? Can they be “great before the Lord” while at the same time choosing to wear camel’s hair? I speak in metaphors, but I think you understand the comparison. Will our “John the Baptists” find a place at the table if they are “great before the Lord” but have little time for our fraternal issues and traditions? If they prefer a few different instruments in their worship will they be shown the door? If they don’t really care about the issues with Billy Graham, will they be suspect? If they want a clearer translation of the Scriptures, will they be despised? If they use their relational gifts and creativity to “reason with unbelievers” in ways we never thought of, will we reject them? If, like John, they are “all about the Gospel” instead of the “traditions too,” will they be maligned, slandered, and censured by conservative blogs?
Parents, let’s have big, transcendent goals. We are commanded to bring up our children in the “fear and admonition of the Lord.” Since the great commandments are to love God and others, let’s focus on the big goals of rearing children who love God passionately and love others sacrificially. This is not a blanket dismissal of teaching our children the whole counsel of the Lord. It is rather a reminder that we do have some more superseding goals to focus upon. So, let’s not squelch their love for God and love for others just because they aren’t adhering to some application that they should have learned in our homes.
Pastors, encourage the grace you see at work in the lives of the “twenty-somethings.” As a pastor, I can attest to this weakness very transparently. One only has to compare the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to almost every church he wrote to in order to be taught the importance of seeing and encouraging God’s work in people’s lives. Do we see, acknowledge, and blossom God’s work in the lives of our Millennials? I found that my spirit was one of assessment, and sizing-up these young people when they returned home to see if they were continuing to observe the “traditions.” I am ashamed to admit that I would sometimes dismiss their “fire for the Gospel” and love for Jesus when I noticed an historic application left unobserved. I’m ashamed. Should we warn these twenty-somethings of doctrine, teachers, and practices that can do harm to their souls? Absolutely! We are commanded to as God’s under-shepherds. However, I have discovered that much of these “warnings” are issued because we are guarding our historic applications rather than truly being concerned about the soul of these believers.
Pastors, in addition, let’s “welcome” these young people home! Frankly, there is no demographic in our church presently that has more zeal for Christ, His Church, and the Gospel than our twenty-somethings! We are beginning to see them as God’s answer to our prayers for revival. Will you?
Para-Church Organizations, ask yourself this question, “Why are the twenty-somethings absent from your ministries?”
I believe the Lord gifts local churches with para-church organizations (fellowships, mission boards, camps, colleges, etc.) for the continued edification and building of His Body, the Church. I fundamentally believe that these organizations should serve the church rather than set the agenda for the church. I praise the Lord for so many para-church organizations that our church profits from directly. I have noticed, however, that some of these para-church organizations have had an exodus of the twenty-somethings (and thirty-somethings for that matter!). I think it is important, if for no other reason, in terms of the longevity and viability of an auxiliary ministry to ask the question, “Why are these young people absent from our ministry?” Have you and your ministry made one of the mistakes discussed above? Have you “run them off” because they haven’t subscribed to every application and tradition your ministry has long espoused?
Answering these questions will help us clarify if we really want God to provide us “forerunners” who will prepare the way of the Lord, or “cookie-cutters” who will always do, say, and think the way we do.