The Great Divide

How churches can respond


We can’t deny it anymore; turning away is no longer an option. The growing disconnect between Millennials (13–32 year-olds) and the Church is too stark to ignore.

According to the Barna Group, 59 percent of Millennials have left the Church, many never to return (even when they start having children). Our own churches and youth ministries are riddled with stories of that once-promising teen, so passionate about Jesus in junior high/high school, who now has joined countless others who have thrown in the towel on the Church.

This comes at a time when denominations are on a sharp decline. More churches are closing their doors than new ones are opening. The voice of the Church in arenas such as morality, politics, family and education is all but lost.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe it when Christ promises that “the gates of Hades will not overcome” His Bride (Matt. 16:18). I believe there will always be a remnant. But I also believe these promises do not give us license to carry on as if nothing is wrong. I believe that as a denomination we must take seriously the task at hand: to build strong bridges that overcome the divide between churches and Millennials.

Envision is the Alliance response to this reality. Whether it’s to re-engage the 59 percent that have walked away or to equip and unleash the 41 percent yearning to live lives of significance, our vision is singular: To raise up the next generation for Kingdom change.

As a denomination, we are learning how to move forward. But what about individual churches? During my time leading Envision, planting a church in liberal Madison, Wisconsin, and being a youth pastor, I have learned that the Church must embrace certain realities in order to build the bridge to Millennials.

Demonstrating What God Is For

They call Madison, Wisconsin, “the church planters’ graveyard”—not exactly the most encouraging thing to hear as a first-time planter! One of the main reasons the soil is so hard in Madison is that many residents have seen and heard what the Church stands against. They assume all Christians are anti-homosexual, anti-alcohol, anti-Democrat, anti-tattoo. The list goes on. I’m not saying that we should necessarily be for all these things, but to Millennials, all of the “anti’s” are uninviting and grating.

In his book They Like Jesus but Not the Church, Dan Kimball illustrates this through the eyes of a Millennial named Gary, who says: “The church is a group of judgmental mud slingers. They seem to really like picking fights with others. Whether it is homosexuals, or other religions, or even with each other. That’s the weirdest part. Jesus said to love one another, but you’re always hearing how the church [members even fight] among themselves and with other denominations . . .” While this may seem like a strong accusation, these are sentiments we can no longer ignore. Personally, I believe this is why so many are leaving our churches: We have done such a good job at communicating what we are against that the message of what God is for has been lost. Our church environment becomes cold at best, antagonistic at worse.

How do our churches begin to build a bridge to Millennials? Our mantra in Madison became demonstrate what God is for to a culture that assumes what the Church is against. For example, when confronted with accusations about homosexuality and political views, rather than starting with what we stood against, we began with what God is for: redemption, purpose, design, fulfillment and Kingdom. While we still came to some of the same biblical positions, we got there from a different starting point and posture. And we found people were far more open to listening and having conversation rather than just automatically writing us off.

The story of the woman caught in adultery is a beautiful picture of the difference between showing what God is for and what religion is against. The religious posture of antagonism toward this woman’s choices filled her with condemnation and, if Jesus had not stepped in, would have resulted in her death. But the Son of God held a different stance—one of grace, love and forgiveness.

Sadly, many people in our churches have an attitude similar to the religious leaders in this story. And as a result, people are met with condemnation and feel death lurking in our communities. Let’s be honest . . . would you stick around?

I believe that if we can adopt Christ’s posture that begins by showing people what God is for, we give the gospel the chance to speak the words of life, holiness and freedom that it intends.

Leaving Space for Doubt

Millennials are the biggest generation in the history of America to date. Thanks to the Internet and social media, its members have access to more information than ever before. Millennials can explore worldviews in the comfort of their bedrooms. Because of advances in travel, any country in the world can be visited in less than 24 hours. As a result, the largest generation is confronted with considerably more challenges and alternatives than their parents and grandparents before them.

Certainty and absolutes have been replaced with questions, experimentation and ambiguity. “Professional” is a word that holds little weight anymore, thanks to the availability of information and experience. Doubt is the new normal in the faith journey of the Millennial.

The question the Church must ask itself is twofold: do we accept this reality? And, are we prepared to walk with the Millennial through this journey? If the answer is no to either (or both), we will continue to see the mass exodus of Millennials from our communities.

In his book You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes: “A generation of young Christians believes that the churches in which they were raised are not safe and hospitable places to express doubt.”

Jesus gives us a beautiful picture of what it looks like to allow doubt to exist in the faith journey. In Mark 9, a sick boy’s father acknowledges that his belief is incomplete: “[I]f you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (v. 22). But Jesus does not push him away, degrade his imperfect faith or give him pat religious answers to try to convince him otherwise. He leaves room for the doubt while giving the man a glimpse of who He truly is.

If we really desire to see this gap-of-disconnect decrease, then our churches must be a safe place where Millennials can express doubt and be confident that someone will lovingly and patiently journey with them, revealing Jesus in small but powerful ways.

The Ongoing Work

Envision does not have all the answers. And we certainly don’t have a “savior mentality” that assumes we are the solution to this disconnect. Our goal is not to replace the local church or create programs for it. Our goal is to come alongside the church and learn together how to raise up this next generation for the Kingdom. Through opportunities like working with church staff and providing conferences for leaders or young adults (Envision Conference) to equipping Millennials for leadership (International Leadership Summit) and encouraging life-on-life relationships (Together), we desire to support the church.

A reality we must embrace is that in 15–20 years, all Boomers will be out of positions of leadership (both in secular and ministry fields). The Millennials are not the “leaders of tomorrow”; they are the leaders of today.

Is the church equipped to engage, disciple and mobilize this generation? Or are we simply content to let this great divide grow wider?

Past Alliance Life Issues


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