Why the Church is Losing a Generation & What We Can Do About It

As I visit with and am around churches and church leaders of all different denominations and locations, I see a trend…

We’re losing the next generation… my generation.

I don’t know where it started or how it happened, but somehow, my generation isn’t interested in what the church is doing.

  • We’re interested in ‘spiritual’ matters,
  • we’re interested in working together,
  • we’re interested in relationships,
  • we’re interested in making an impact,
  • we’re interested in helping others,

but we’re not interested in what the majority of churches are doing. 

Youth ministry doesn’t seem to be working as we’ve always done it,
college ministry is declining in attendance and therefore, in churches willing to do it,
the average age at most churches is getting higher,

and the church is losing a generation.

While some churches are far behind and don’t seem to care (they refuse to take the smallest step away from ‘the usual’),
others are fighting and beating the air as to what to do.

I don’t write this to say that I have the answer, I definitely don’t, I write this to say that it’s alarming me that my peers don’t care about our church… about our Christ.

I don’t have ‘the’ answer, but here are some thoughts about what church has to look like in order to get back my generation…

1. Relationship. – The attractional church model worked… it can still. Not without relationship, though. When I say relationship, I don’t mean we sit people in circles, take prayer requests, and read a Psalm, I mean real, organic relationship.

2. Realism. – Genuine care about my generation. Real faith displayed in daily life. My generation is looking for something that’s more real than the rest of what’s fed to us… your people need to live out their faith for the world to see.

3. Responsibility. – My generation wants responsibility, we want the real truth. For the most part, we’re starving for direction and something that works and is absolute. We don’t mind owning something and being challenged with it.

Now, I know these aren’t processes or programming ideas, but they’re just things that I’ve noticed about the millennial generation. In fact, I’m not sure the answer for getting this generation back into church lies in a program or process,

I think it’s lost in those…
We have to do some much more…
we have to build relationships and earn trust…
we have to do the hard work and ask God to give us our young people in our city…

before it’s too late.

Okay pastor, youth pastor, parent, teacher, or youth… let’s put our heads together…

What do you think it’ll take to turn the young generation back on to the local church?

[For more about reaching millennials, see this post & my free ebook.]

Comments

  1. says

    Two word sum up this post Jonathan: Good one! As a member of the older generation (59 and no clue what generation that puts me in…besides old), I am alarmed at this trend. What to do is the real crux of the matter. Unless God has other plans, I want to stay alive and active in His church. I don’t want to become a dinosaur. Yes, don’t want to compromise. Lead us, my friend, to understanding/reaching your generation.

  2. says

    Great post! As church leaders I feel we need to continue to be on our knees about this. We constantly have to evaluate the programs and practices of the church for the “why” and allow God to move us. If the church doesn’t become relevant, and stay relevant, we will continue to loose generations.

  3. says

    What we have found is the younger generation needs a cause to fight for, they also need the room to have a go and make mistakes whilst being affirmed by father figures in the Church.
    By Gods grace we seem to be bucking the trend and attracting young people and especially young men too. Check out some of the stuff we are doing that our younger folk are throwing themselves into. Hope his inspires and answers some questions?

    Much grace to you from over the pond !

    • James David Walley says

      On the subject of having a cause and “the room to have a go” — part of that, IMHO, means opening up the ministry to young people who are called to make a difference for God.

      Unfortunately, in my denomination (Episcopal), we have been doing just the opposite for decades. Ever since the point in the ’60s and ’70s when we had a glut of seminarians (or, if I allow my cynical side to speak, since 1976 when women started being ordained), the hierarchy decided to make the process of being approved for seminary study and eventual ordination much tougher; in most cases, that was manifested in part by closing the discernment process to young people just out of college; no, instead, we told those people burning to serve others for Christ that they first had to go off and have a successful “secular” career in business or a professional field, then only start the discernment process after many years in that career. The result was that the average age of seminarians went from “twenty-somethings” to forty-somethings and above, with people finally becoming “new clergy” in their fifties. How would you feel if, as a young person feeling called to serve Christ and your neighbor in a pastoral position, you got told by a predominantly late-middle-aged, “professional” clergy to forget about it until you’d first spent a decade or two in a secular profession? If the message for young people is “just be good little parishioners until you’ve grown old…I mean up, because we know the way things are to be done, and need to protect the Church from the ways of irresponsible youngsters like you,” and the face of the Church is resolutely in its 50s to 70s, is it any wonder those young people want anything to do with it?

      • says

        I think you nailed it with your first sentence. I don’t think its just your denomination though… I think it’s a problem across denominational lines. Well thought out response, James. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. says

    I have been ministering to young adults for the last 10 years and there are some needed paradigm shifts we have to make in order to bridge the widening generational and cultural gap that is splitting our churches down the middle. Here are a few:

    1. Change from they must come to us (to the older) to we must go to them (to the younger)
    2. Change from thinking what we are doing is the complete mission of God to getting a broader view of the mission of God through the NT, especially Acts. I have a whole diatribe on this one but I will spare you. The gist is this. Make a list of the verses in Acts that are “in” the church and those that are “outside” the walls. Then look at the activities and ministries of the church you are a part of and figure out if the proportions are even close to similar? We are out of balance and spiritually obese because we consume everything in the corporate assembly rather than expending our resources outward.
    3. Change from Institutional to Relational
    4. Change from thinking the problem is with them to the problem is with us (older/leadership)
    5. Change from assuming we are relevant to actually being relevant to a dying world (worship and Bible study don’t cut it).

    There are more but you get the point. These shifts are not made easily. These shifts are not made by leadership if the leadership doesn’t know these guys or love these guys and spend time with them. We cannot continue to isolate ministries and ages and hope that they will spontaneously connect with the larger church on their own. We have to build the bridge to them within the church but we also have to go with them outside the walls to where the mission is and live it out with them. Otherwise, we are dying a slow and painful death.

  5. says

    One more thing is patience. When the older engage the younger in conversation they are going to feel defensive because these guys don’t mind challenging and asking questions about what we are doing and why and what we are not doing and why. The key is to not get defensive and drive them off. Validate their search and zeal for the truth. Be willing to have your core values questioned. If we can’t even take a few questions from people who are seeking we need to get out of the way.

    Bottom line is…we don’t know each other at all. Those relationships have to start and they are best started in the mission of God lived out together usually outside the walls, not inside. Instead, we program everything to be inside the institution rather than look outward.

    Sorry for the diatribe. Thanks for a great post and look forward to reading more of what others have to say.

    • says

      No problem. You outline some great points that go beyond the 3 that I outlined. It’s a matter of churches understanding these changes on a larger scale and how essential they are. You have some great thoughts! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Israel hogue says

    I loved this post. We need to be serious about what church is and what it is doing, no matter what generation we are looking at.

    Second, I’m not trying to be an ass, but I got w problem with Mr. Hill’s link to growing a church to 1000. It just seems really out of place for this conversation. And it seems that this a huge problem with the American church… “If I have numbers, it must be Godly” Anyways, just a thought.

    Israel

    • says

      Hey Israel, The commentluv button at the end automatically allows for posting of last written blog posts. That’s why it shows up there. As far as numbers, I think they’re really important… they represent people. I can’t answer for Charles, but I think that’s what he’s getting at.

      Really appreciate the comment. Thanks!

  7. SYBILJEAN says

    IN MY PRESENT OPINION?

    STOP ALL PROGRAMS.
    STOP ALL PRACTICES.
    STOP EVERYTHING.

    DON’T GATHER IN A BUILDING CALLED A CHURCH. GATHER SMALLER. AND BESEECH OUR FATHER GOD FOR HIS KINGDOM TO COME AND HIS WILL TO BE DONE – WHERE YOU ARE/TODAY.
    THE MILLENNIALISTS WILL COME.
    THEN LOVE THEM, CARE FOR THEM, BELIEVE IN THEM.
    AND FINALLY, ALLOW THE HOLY SPIRIT TO WORK IN EVERYONE, MAN/WOMAN/CHILD AND TO SHOW ALL HIS LIFE/HIS GIFTS THROUGH EACH ONE.
    OH YES, STOP USING THE WORD “LAITY”, FOR THERE IS NO SUCH WORD IN GOD’S VOCABULARY. WE ARE ALL PRIESTS OF GOD.
    THANKS FOR LISTENING.

  8. Dori says

    It is a blessing they are disengaged from ‘Christ’s chuch’ as it has been presented to them, because it hasn’t offered the engagement God has desired or bears fruit that lasts. God creates every generation in their time and place so that they may seek him and find him. When the church realizes again that Jesus wants to engage as Himself only, through people that have let go of their lives and thus bear the fruit of holy spirit only, then the generation of seekers can find Him.
    God has been shaking to ruins what man has built and it may look like ruins. Restore walls and streets to dwell in with the simplicity of love, mercy, and true justice of His grace thus offering the testimony of Jesus not organization, tradition ect. When people see the church as its been disengaged from their ways ( repented, changed) then there is opportunity for the New generation to engage . Let’s desire the new wine that each new generation or people groups desires, like it is the best for the last. Gods got a generation to marry and if we admit we don’t have the wine left, he will provide. Thank God our own wine has run out and it seems we don’t have anything for those coming so they can hear His best, not ours?

  9. says

    Good subject Jonathan. I am of an older generation (68 – ‘baby boomer’ I suppose), but am not of a stagnant mindset. This topic is one of the main necessities of the church. I have witnessed the complacent confusion present in several generations of churchgoers, but have had little success in changing the “going to church is sufficient” mindset. People seem to get excited when I present them with a vision of an empowered church population that can live in the book of Acts today, but then nothing changes; same mindset, same stagnation. You mentioned “real, organic relationship”; In your present situation, what does that relationship look like?

    • says

      Accepting, centered around common likes, and openness. I think we have forced relationships in the church for a long time rather than letting them happen. We have to be intentional outside of the church to build relationships with those that aren’t in the church yet. Hope that makes sense. Thanks for the comment, Woody.

  10. says

    Great post Jonathan! I’m with you!

    After serving in ministry for the past 14 years…it does come back to relationships. I look at how much current church how we are growing our young adults and college. They have been taking the initiative to care for one another and have more than your typical lesson and set time. I look back at my church growing up and when it was booming…it did the same thing that I see our two groups doing here. I know you can’t teach “old dogs” new tricks but you can get the idea into the younger generation classes and groups. I think it is possible, we just must rethink relational ministry. And each church will be different.

  11. says

    I think you did point to the answer when you highlighted the things Millennials want:

    “We’re interested in ‘spiritual’ matters,
    we’re interested in working together,
    we’re interested in relationships,
    we’re interested in making an impact,
    we’re interested in helping others”

    How many churches do these things or work this way?

    I’d also recommend taking a look at a recent posting from the Calvin Worship Symposium that can be found here: http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/symposium-2012-emerging-adults-emerging-worship/

    One of the best talks I’ve ever heard on Emerging Adults and the Church.

  12. Steve says

    Check out what these guys are doing:

    http://truefaced.com/

    If you want to get people of any age excited about church, you need to get them excited about God. The only thing that can get people excited about God is to help them understand how much He loves them, no matter what crap they bring to the table, and that they can’t “good behavior” themselves into His love (He actually loves them in spite of their flaws).

    Focusing on behavior modification (which is what our generation was raised in) only pushes people away from God’s love. It leads to a thinking that says I need to get my stuff together before I am good enough to approach God. Read Galatians if you want to see what Paul has to say about that logic.

    This message changed my view of God, changed my life, and finally freed me to understand what it means to love God and love others. The funny thing is, the more I focus on God’s unconditional love and the less I focus on behavior modification, the more the behavior just falls in line with God’s plan for me.

    It’s Grace. Everything is about Grace.

    Nothing else will solve this issue.

  13. says

    Great post. Huge topic. And recognizing the problem is the first step. Last year our church met with a group of young adults (18-29) and had a very open discussion about this with them. Basically listened to their needs, hand-selected 2-3 of them to be point people, and empowered them to work out the ministry details on their own. From a staff point of view, we’re simply supporting them, not micromanaging them. We don’t have all the answers, but we are seeing real signs of healthy growth.

  14. Tobie says

    Perhaps it’s a repetition of the form vs. content/essence issue that has played out time and again throughout the generations of the church. Reformations and revivals don’t take place in a vacuum, but usually contain a healthy dose of common-sense resistance against the way in which a previous generation has chosen to capture the glory associated with the last visitation from above. Younger people (and some wise old ones) see the clutter. The rest struggle to do so.

  15. says

    Speaking of grace, here’s a thought: http://wp.me/p2b6MU-28

    I can’t help but think, Christ is all, the hope of glory. I’m not sure if the readers of this blog need that, but it may be that simple…maybe?

    Sometimes it is difficult to wait on the Lord. We need traction and momentum. He will wait for us to try whatever we think might need to happen.

    When we are at our end, that is when He can be glorified. So, I would like to encourage you all in one of two ways if you will receive it.

    1. Keep trying as many ways as possible to do His will, the great commission, programming, whatever. The ideas are numerous and are all a good way of connecting people to what God is doing through His Son. Collaboration will help come up with new ways of trying to show Christ to the world.

    2. Once you have reached your end, or sooner, die. Don’t try anything, any programs, or any worship planning. Behold the Lord in the Body of Christ. See His wonderful face, Him as the Cornerstone of His Building. When that happens, He will resurrect Life in and through your corporate gatherings.

    If you can wait for Him alone, He is all. He is worthy. He is worth it.

  16. says

    I have noticed at 63 years old that one fundamental problem of churches (the congregation) is that it is a “good ole boys and gals” club. People must conform to their club. Rather than living by the sign outside that says “all Are Welcome” they live as if the sign read : “All Those We Like Are Welcome” Rather than being the spot where we offer a hand to lift up, a shoulder to cry on, a prayer meeting, bible study, church has become the place where we can show you how much better we are than you and how you will conform to what I want. We have the WORD but we turned it into Babel, I feel better now. Thanks +Joseph

  17. Goh says

    I am from Malaysia. I am involved with undergraduate Christian fellowship as a leader. I have been in this ministry for more than 10 years. I observed that Malaysia is losing our next generation as well. It seems like this is a global issue.
    In 10 years time, our church and neighbor churches have lost approximately 70% of the memberships or total attendance numbers.
    I do not have a solution and have been trying different approaches to gain their interest. It seems like conventional approach of “lecturing” or “seminar” styles are no longer suitable. They don’t like to listen and think, I guess. Since last year, I have been using “experiencing learning” approach in my cell group (fellowship). At least from my experience, learning by playing approach can gain some interest from young generation. From there, I tried to introduce the Word.
    Just to share, from Goh.

  18. says

    My large forever church split and because I didn’t want to damage friendships on either side of the fence, it was best to leave. For over a year and a half my husband and I visited different churches, denominations and non-denominations. We called ourselves free agents for God and enjoyed a variety of faith experiences. We found that the mainline church seem to be just hanging on or near death.

    The inability to meet the younger generation where they are at today is one of the reasons they have stopped going. It is time to do church differently Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater…..the message remains but ways of expressing and teaching them must change.It is not necessary to give everything up. Seems to me that it is more important to save a soul then to save an empty church building because we only do church one way. The younger generation wants more……a relationship that is seen everyday, in every experience to be lived out more then Sundays. Their needs are for deep and meaningful relationships, beyond what we have experienced. Join them instead of thinking they must conform to the old ways…..Just so you know, we are 67 and 71..life is about change and growth!

    • says

      Wow, Sandra. I think you’re really on to something good. We must start moving in that direction. Thanks for being more concerned for lost souls than lost traditions. Thanks for stopping by.

  19. says

    As an Episcopal Church parish priest, one of the things I am certain of is that so-called “contemporary worship” (which is usually anything but contemporary, it’s more like 1970s folk-rock) is not going to attract droves of young people. At a recent youth event geared to raising awareness of the plight of the homeless in our community (we had a good turnout out of teens and young adults), the worship was designed and lead by the participants. The Compline service offered late at night before they retired (to sleep outside in cardboard shelters they had built) was authored and led by four teens (one 14 y.o., two 15 y.o., and one 16 y.o.) It was a very traditional service and included ONLY traditional hymnody – every one of those present took part, joined in all the prayers, and sang all the music with gusto. Tradition works when it’s meaningful and combined with social justice ministry.

    • says

      I’m sure it does. Tradition is fine, but not as a goal or something that takes precedence over what we should really be striving for. In fact, I’d say some my age will ONLY be impacted by liturgical church, but I think it still takes so much more than contemporary/traditional methods. It takes constant check of methodology and intentional relationship above all. Good point to bring out. I’d never dismiss tradition as a whole. Thanks for the comment!!

  20. Bryan Martin says

    Wow!

    Can I simply offer an AMEN? Thanks for the question – as it is one that we’ve been vigorously wrestling with (and continue to do so). In recent church history (last 400 years at least), every great work of God has started among the young adults/college students. Maybe God is beginning to till the soil and prepare the way for the coming of the “new wine” mentioned above. It is my prayer along with many of those responding.

    Parallel question – are we not living among the generation that we’re losing? By this, I mean to ask, is the at least sometimes artificial, program-focused, campus-centered charade of Christianity actually reaching this generation? My prayer is that God would lead us to reach younger and, maybe by doing so, also reach out and up to impact others before it is too late!

    Thanks for your efforts – press on my brother! (Just FYI – I’m almost 49 myself!!!)

  21. Sophie says

    I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written here. Excellent post. The one thing I would add is that I think our generation wants church to be a place where asking tough questions is safe and engaging in deep conversations encouraged. I think this is implied in the three thoughts you listed, but personally, I think it’s so important that it should have it’s own category.

    Sometimes I feel like my questions and my desire to go deeper in my relationships with God and others are viewed by some of the older people in my church as threatening or intimidating in some way. I may need to work on the way I come across, of course…but I don’t think it’s just me that’s the problem.

    I attend a well-known secular university. We have deeper and more passionate conversations in my philosophy and history and literature classes than I’ve ever had in my church. Oh how I long for that to exist in my church!!! Is it just me?

  22. says

    What you are saying is very true, in fact obvious. Indeed, I heard, that the church is on the way out, meaning believers would meet in small groups. The leader of our mission group, Crossworld, is on to something. In fact our new motto is, “There is a better way.” Note the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 says “go and make disciples of all nations”, but it doesn’t say “go and plant churches in every village”. Yes a church is a group of believers in Christ. Yes each believer is a disciple-maker wherever that person is, in all the market places of the world. So please connect to Crossworld, There is a better way. Try to connect to Dale Losch for good open helpful discussions on this subject. Sincerely, Suzanne Doriot in Manado Indonesia en route to Papua Indonesia.

  23. Michael M. says

    Jonathan, this was a really powerful post. Thank for sharing your heart. As a youth pastor for the last 14 years I’ve experienced first hand the decline in this generation slowly walking out the church doors and it really breaks my heart. The American church has lost its ability to connect with this generation because, in my opinion, it has been unable and even unwilling to meet them wear they really are… outside the four walls of a church building. This amazing generation wants to “redefine” what church looks like and if the church doesn’t pay attention we will become totally obsolete. I’m 35 years old and feel everyday like I am having to try harder to just understand and relate to their world… but it’s worth the effort and time to hear their heart… and I’m just coming to the realization that those conversations and “God moments” are probably going to take place in a cafe or a restaurant several miles from the church parking lot!

  24. Hal Baird says

    Jonathan: I am a 65 year old member of the United Methodist Church. I am seeing the same problem in my local church. Looking across the congregation from the choir loft I see mostly gray haired people with a smattering of young adults and their young children. What is missing is a group consisting of 30-45 year olds. Like you, I don’t have a concrete answer, but I do know the outcome, closed church buildings. I am sensing three problems: (1) Those people see no relevence to what is going on in the church to what is going on in the outside world; (2) Many of those people who are working hard to climb the corporate ladder feel Sunday morning is the one day to “sleep in” (If there was a feeling of relevence they would force themselves out of bed and into the church); (3) We don’t make them feel a part of the body. The United Methodist Church’s slogan “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” is perceived as nothing more than a slogan. Please, if you have an aha moment and find “the answer” share it with the rest of us.

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