By / Oct 11

Every pastor I’ve spoken with in 2021 has called this the hardest year of their ministry. We could point to political polarization, COVID-19, mask mandates, racial tension and more as the reasons why. But one theme that has been a personal discouragement for me has been the so-called deconversion of young adult believers who formerly seemed solid in their faith.

It would take at least two hands to count the number of friends and people I’ve done ministry alongside who have lost their faith in the last few years. Several patterns have emerged as I’ve witnessed these deconversions, but one in particular struck me recently. We spend all sorts of time and energy preparing high schoolers for college, afraid they’ll lose their faith when they get out of the house and into campus life. But I have seen far more people walk away from their faith in their 20s than in college. Why is this happening? And is there anything church leaders can do? I’d like to suggest four reasons we are seeing so many deconversion stories. 

4 reasons young adults are leaving the faith 

1. Leaving the discipleship pressure cooker 

For many, college is an intense discipleship environment. Some students get involved in college ministries that meet multiple times a week. Some spend all summer at the beach working by day and being trained in Bible literacy and evangelism by night. Others spend a month at camp being filled up by adult staff members and, in turn, pouring out what they’ve been taught to campers. These environments are life-changing. But what happens after college? 

Recent college graduates often move to a new city for a job or get married and start looking for a different church. Now, instead of spending five or six hours a week in concentrated Bible study with close friends and leaders, they might spend 90 minutes a week at a community group, half of which is devoted to fellowship and half to discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon, with people they don’t honestly know that well. And instead of raising their big questions or doubts to a Christian roommate, discipleship group leader, or college pastor, they might work up the courage to call up a pastor at their new church. But, more than likely — especially if they attend a large church and have little access to a pastor — they’re taking their questions to blogs, social media and podcasts. 

A few years go by, and these young adults have kids. Instead of spending 45 minutes or an hour a day reading Scripture and praying, they’re fighting for 15 minutes a few days a week in between night feedings and lunch packing, school drop-off and pick-up, work and house chores.

The loss of these three things — intense and regular communal discipleship, access to those more advanced and knowledgeable in the faith and extended devotional time with the Lord — amounts to a removal from the pressure cooker of college discipleship.

2. Looking for wisdom in the wrong places

One result of being removed from this pressure cooker is the pursuit of answers in new places. In the absence of the resources they once had, where do young adults go for wisdom? This challenge is only exacerbated by the ever-increasing amount of issues which demand their wisdom. The whirlwind of lightning-fast information exchange, ubiquitous social media and a polarized American culture demand not only our attention but also our “correct” opinion.

Many young adults — and older adults, too — turn to the 21st century’s solution for finding answers: our phones. Anyone with a social media account knows there are countless “influencers” offering their “expertise” on all kinds of cultural crises. Not sure who to vote for? Your favorite podcast can tell you. Don’t know what to think about vaccines? That Instagram model does. Not sure what to think about Afghanistan? Your favorite Twitter theologian has it figured out.

These influencers are ready to offer authoritative answers to all of these and a host of other complex issues, and we’re drawn to their certainty. We go to them for their opinions on sports or fitness or postpartum depression; we stay for their opinions on geopolitics, pandemics and racial justice. Before we know it, we’re so bought into their project that we’re listening not just about matters of temporal significance, but matters of eternal significance: issues related to human sexuality and gender, commentary on the trustworthiness of Scripture and (revisionist) history about the evangelicalism that taught us how to read the Bible, pray and share the gospel.

The unique challenges of 21st-century young adulthood tempt us to trade community, spiritual disciplines, theological expertise and pastoral wisdom for the sharp-tongued certainty of unqualified bloggers and podcasters who are quite literally profiting from our attention. 

3. Owning your faith

The first two reasons for young adult deconversions are related to the transition out of college. These next two stem from things often taught in our student ministries, one of which relates to the heavy emphasis placed on “owning your faith.” 

Both college and high school students are urged to let go of the coattails of Mom and Dad’s Christianity and make a personal decision for Christ. In college, this often takes the form of choosing your own church and beginning to engage in personal spiritual disciplines — good things. But two characteristics of our secular age make this a precarious value: expressive individualism and the “subtraction story.”

Robert Bellah coined the term “expressive individualism,” but it has been popularized by the Catholic Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The basic idea is that we live in a context that locates one’s identity in one’s desires. We are told to look into ourselves — our hearts — to discover who we truly are, and then to express that self to the world — often in a way that rejects some important inheritance from authority figures in our lives. The danger here should be obvious. As teenagers are sent out of the home and into the world for college, “making their faith their own” usually includes not only additions (spiritual disciplines, etc.) but also rejections of something from their religious upbringing. In my case, I came home from my first semester at college ready and willing to lecture my parents about their financial decisions and to mock my Christian school for its legalism.

But something happens when we start down that road. The quest for individuality can prove insatiable. Once having rejected financial decadence and religious legalism, we often move onto political alliances, political positions and then to moral and theological positions. By their late 20s, many hold a “Christian” faith that looks different than their culturally Christian upbringing and than anything identifiable in 2,000 years of church history (by, for example, embracing the cultural orthodoxy on sexuality).

4. Defending your faith

Many youth ministries are rightly devoted to teaching high schoolers to defend their faith. We want students to know their faith is reasonable and that it can be defended by reason. We want, for example, them to be prepared for the progressive freshman literature professor who thinks Christianity is fundamentally about misogyny and white supremacy, or the freshman biology professor who mocks Christians for their belief in a six-day creation. 

But sometimes in the process of teaching them to do so, we end up teaching students, however subtly or implicitly, that the reasonableness of the Christian faith lies in their ability to explain or defend it. In the pressure-cooker discipleship environment of college, this doesn’t usually start to pose a problem because students can rely on community and well-educated leaders to help them wrestle with those Christian beliefs that prove intellectually or emotionally challenging. But when those challenges arise in young adulthood, it can prove to be a disorienting and confusing experience. 

Prepare students for life, not just college

So, how can pastors and ministry leaders prepare young people for life beyond college? Is there a way to prevent some of the young adult deconversions that are happening to those who made it through college without a significant challenge to their faith? While offering thorough strategies is beyond the scope of this article, I would offer four brief encouragements for student ministry leaders.

(1) Get students out of the pressure cooker and into the slow cooker. Many of us have had incredible moments at the “mountaintops” of Christian experience. But the peaks-and-valleys approach to discipleship is not sustainable. Feeding students a diet of this sets them up for starvation in young adulthood, when the peaks are out of reach and the valleys become faithful friends. 

Young adults often lose their faith because they haven’t been shaped in the sustainable rhythms of personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. They haven’t been given a vision of “a long obedience in the same direction,” to use Eugene Peterson’s words. They’re not prepared for the disappointment, depression and difficulties of Christian life as an adult — summer camp didn’t have a breakout session on that. We give young people a gift by training them in these sustainable rhythms long before they realize they need them.

(2) Teach students to value theological expertise. I have had the privilege to spend the last decade in formal theological education. The process of theological education has come at the expense of short nights of sleep, sacrificed time with my wife and daughter, neglected friendships and literal tears. I am in the company of many others who have studied theology so that we can build up the church. But, in our society, the opinions of the podcaster or Instagram influencer with no theological training are valued above scholars. 

There is a real crisis of authority and expertise in American society. Evangelicals are suffering from the death of theological expertise. Our young people need to be taught — before they become young adults — that neither they nor their favorite TikTok theologian is going to ask a question that hasn’t already been asked and answered by someone in church history. The Bible and the Christian theological heritage have the resources to deal adequately with modern challenges to the faith, and theologians spend countless hours and energy mining those resources for this very purpose. Teach your students how to identify expertise, to respect and appreciate it and to take advantage of it when challenges inevitably come.

(3) Don’t teach students to make their faith their own; teach them to receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This sounds counterintuitive. Don’t we want students to have a personal faith? Of course we do. But we need to make sure they understand that it’s a personal appropriation of a faith that was there before them and will continue to be there after them. Coming into a personal faith is a lot less like finding a hidden waterfall in the forest and a lot more like jumping into a well-known rushing river that has carried faithful travelers through the starts and stops and storms of life for millennia. We need to emphasize this with young people.

(4) Teach students the importance of Christian presuppositions. The more I see my friends deconvert in their 20s, the more convinced I am of the importance of presuppositions. Many of us grew up being taught to remove presuppositions so we can see with objectivity and clarity. Some of us got to college and heard professors — from the other side of the religious aisle — doubling down. Both were convinced that an objective, reasonable approach would prove their point. But one of the surprising gifts of postmodernism has been the exposure of the myth of objectivity. We all have presuppositions. I am increasingly convinced of this. And if we all have presuppositions, we might as well have the right ones — or, at least, Christian ones. 

Here are three Christian presuppositions every Christian should fight to maintain: (1) The Bible is God’s Word; (2) God is our Creator, so he knows what’s best for us; (3) God is good, so he wants what’s best for us. With these presuppositions firmly fixed, we will assume the right things as we face discontinuities between the Bible’s teachings and our culture’s ideologies. We will assume, for example, that if we don’t like something God has said in his Word, the problem isn’t with God or his Word; it’s with us. That leads to a second assumption — and a humbling one: if we don’t immediately see the answer to some question or problem that arises from God’s Word, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. That’s where the pursuit of understanding comes in. But the pursuit of understanding, as Anselm taught us a millennium ago, comes after faith, not before.

The 21st century has not proved easy for ministry. Disappointment after disappointment has come in the form of beloved friends and family members walking away from the faith they once held dear. Our sadness in the face of this reality should be accompanied by prayer, believing that God’s arm is not too short to save or draw back those who are wandering. And while we recognize and hope in the role of the Spirit in drawing people to Christ and giving them saving faith, we also want to consider how to effectively change methods or practices that may unintentionally lend to this trend of deconversion. My hope and prayer is that a more careful, historical, biblical approach to student ministry can help prevent a similar exodus of young adults from Christianity in the years to come.

By / Nov 24

COVID-19 has changed life and family dynamics in ways some people never expected. Recent Pew Research reveals that young adults are now living with their parents in the greatest numbers we’ve seen since the Great Depression. Since February, more than 2.6 million people have moved back home due to job loss or college campus closure.

Given massive layoffs and business closures nationwide, younger adults at the bottom of the ladder and pay scale were often first to lose jobs when COVID shut down the nation in early March. The Department of Labor announced in October that 2.4 million people have now been out of work for over four months, and 5 million were on track for long-term joblessness, many of them young adults

Another survey found increasing rates of depression among the same group, those ages 18-24 reporting 10 times higher rates of thoughts of self-harm and 47% seeing symptoms of depression, a number that rises to 60% among those who have lost jobs or been evicted. It’s a blow to the ego and the Western myth of invincibility. 

A newfound reliance on family 

In the United States, where individuality and personal ambition are practically national virtues, reliance on family has often filtered to the bottom of the priority list. Unlike in other cultures, like in African countries where as many as 10 members of an extended family may live together for a lifetime, Americans have tended to go in the opposite direction. Indeed, white young adults in the U.S. were the least likely to live with parents before family prior to the pandemic, and that group has seen the highest rates of returning to parental housing, according to the research. 

COVID changed the game, forcing people into living situations they never intended to enter again, and reminding us of vulnerability to forces greater than personal prosperity. Thinking critically about the long-term results of this shift is helpful in making distinct decisions that will guide them moving forward. 

 A safety net of connectedness in one’s life is a healthy resource that has been undervalued and underutilized in recent years, as Americans have shifted toward more isolative tendencies.

Philosophically speaking, the forced change in living arrangements is a stark reminder of the importance of maintaining strong family ties. A safety net of connectedness in one’s life is a healthy resource that has been undervalued and underutilized in recent years, as Americans have shifted toward more isolative tendencies. For single young adults, family has too often become a weighted obligation, rather than an appreciated harbor of support. Recognizing the value in having reassuring options in times of need may bring a helpful change in perspective. 

As Christians so often like to say, we were not meant to walk through life alone. In 1 Timothy 5:8, God says “anyone who does not provide for their relatives . . . has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” so our directive for family members in need is pretty clear. The family unit and church community are divine details that God created from the beginning, fixtures to enhance our lives and draw us closer to him. In times of struggle, these are tools to carry us through and see his work displayed through others in our lives. One’s parents, in this case, are surely performing that duty as they open their homes to struggling adult children. Like God our Father, good parents are happy to help their children in times of genuine struggle and will always welcome them back. 

Fighting against idleness

It is good to relish the help available from family, as young adults seek a pathway back to employment, but also important to be alert to the pitfalls of long-term financial reliance. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7, Paul warns against idleness, so being cognizant of doing so when possible matters, even now. 

When the pandemic first hit, we heard hopeful things like “15 Days to Stop the Spread.” In March, things were assumed to dissipate by “July or August.” Looking back, that was a quaint assessment, as we currently endure the ninth month of COVID, with cases still on the rise nationwide. For much of 2020, it was acceptable to cast excuses toward daily disciplines. Exercise and nutrition were abandoned, alcohol sales increased, and some parents even gave up virtual schooling efforts. But such lethargy cannot continue. 

Long-term habit creation can have detrimental effects for a lifetime, and it’s important to recognize these downfalls before a darker path emerges. Taking action to combat the darkness of depression, anxiety, and despair is vital. Prayer, therapy, medication (if needed), intentional community, and continuing to look for job opportunities are actions steps toward thriving again. 

Gratitude for the families that welcome young adults home is necessary, as is appreciation for how the pandemic forced us to pause and reassess certain aspects of our lives. It’s been a tragic wake-up call for too many who have lost loved ones and been forced to risk their lives in dangerous conditions. But creating action plans for personal and professional independence in the future is vital to cultivating hope, and important for squashing negative extended effects of this crisis. It is also stewarding well the resources God has given us, in mind, body, and spirit. 

Regardless of job status or living environment, Christians always have a promise of sustenance over our lives in the reliable promises of our God. As Hebrews 10:23 reads: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” 

By / Feb 12

When I was a kid, I loved looking at optical illusions. One of my favorites was the kind with a 3D hidden image, where you look at a busy, colorful pattern and try to spot the hidden picture. To do this, you’d hold the picture close to your face and slowly pull away (or, if you were a cheater like me, you’d just cross your eyes). As you zoomed out, another image would take shape, and you’d see an animal or a flower, or some other form that seemed to stand off the page.

I’d go through books of these illusions until my head hurt and my parents threatened that my eyes were going to stay crossed if I wasn’t careful. If you didn’t know how to approach these hidden images, you would wonder what’s so fun about staring at a hodge-podge pattern for so long. However, if you knew what to look for, all you had to do was hold your gaze and wait patiently for the hidden to become clear.

The disillusionment of millennials

I don’t spend much time looking at these pictures anymore, but they remind me a little bit of what life is like now. As I lead and minister to young adults, I realize that the millennial generation finds itself increasingly disillusioned by what’s in front of us. In a time where truth is said to be relative, and individualism is the standard of living, many are staring into a world that seems chaotic, struggling to find clarity.

The world tells us that what we need to figure out is ourselves—what we’re meant for and who we are. This has escalated from a pressure to find meaning in vocational calling. Now the world preaches that our identity is found in what we feel and what we want, and that to deny ourselves of certain desires is to deny truth and the very essence of our beings.

I read an article recently that declared millennials to be the generation of self-help. Considering what’s available to us at our fingertips, from the Internet to the billion-dollar industry of self-help books, I couldn’t agree more. We have the ability to purchase or obtain information that tells us who we are, what we lack, and how to fix ourselves in order to live our best lives. Yet the more conversations I have, the more I see how so much of this “helpful” information is really driving us further away from a sense of reality and an accurate understanding of our place in the world.

As Christians, we know that the purpose of life is not self-realization or self-glorification.

The self-help generation and the church

As Christians, we know that the purpose of life is not self-realization or self-glorification. We can easily affirm the truth that it’s not about us, and yet Christian culture is not immune from the influence of the self-help generation. I’ve come across resources meant for discipleship and spiritual growth that are laced with or written blatantly in self-help language. It is frighteningly easy, especially with great branding, to lead someone into believing a false gospel by asserting that God wants us to fulfill amazing, personal destinies, if only we would have enough faith and dream big.

The majority of encounters I have with young adults who feel dismayed by the unknown of the future are because they have access to so many opportunities and feel the pressure of living up to the world’s standards of a perfect life. For others, it may be that they are trying to figure out who they are apart from their family heritage or their associations with school and work.

We can say that these stresses are privileges; that someone living in true hardship has no time to worry about self-discovery. That may be true, but in the Western world, there are hundreds of thousands of young people who do live in a privileged reality, and the church has a great opportunity to minister to a generation of people who are at risk of missing the great glories of God in the world because they’re staring too closely at their own lives.

The opportunity to mentor

I remember a day about seven years ago when, sitting across from a mentor, I lamented about feeling confused and disoriented in my life. Nothing traumatic had happened, I was simply feeling the impending pressures of a new phase of life as I had graduated college. As we ate our salads at a local restaurant, I went on and on about how stressful it was to make decisions about graduate school and whether or not to move to a new city. I asserted time and again how desperate I was to know God’s will for my life and to choose the “right” path for my future. I remember that day, and the many others before and after it, when my mentor listened patiently, nodding and asking questions and never once interrupting to tell me to get over myself.

That can be our tendency, sometimes, in situations like this. We might offer some light encouragement in the vein of “you’ll figure it out,” like a parent assuring a child she’ll spot the hidden picture eventually. To ourselves we think, “This isn’t that big of a deal. Life isn’t that complicated.” Or worse, we say, “Just wait until you get married and have kids,” or, “Wait until you’ve got a mortgage and a full-time job, then you’ll really have to worry.” We might go back to our friends and laugh at the days when we were carefree with no responsibility and plenty of youthfulness. Sound familiar?

The reality is that when we do this, we are missing a huge opportunity for discipleship. In a world where we know the enemy prowls around looking to destroy, we must help those younger than us to know and recognize what is truth and what is not. When the world shouts, “Do what makes you happy,” we must reply, “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding.” When Satan threatens to twist a shaken faith with lies or multiply fears and doubts to become all-consuming, we must remind those we influence that the Creator of the universe loves order and directs our steps, as he organized the universe when he laid out the foundation of the world.

My mentor gave me a lifeline when, in grace, she helped me realize that I was searching for answers about myself and my purpose rather than returning to the truth of the Bible, which did more than simply tell me about me. I needed to know what it said about God, to be reminded that I am very small in the world, but Jesus has already overcome the world.

Rather than dismissing me and telling me to follow my heart and figure it out, she walked with me through confusion and uncertainty. We studied the Bible together for weeks, trying less to strangle a personal application out of what we read, and more so to hear God speak the story of sending his son to save and redeem not just a generation, but a world that could not save itself.

As the weeks passed and our study time ended, nothing radical seemed to happen in my life, but as the months and years passed, something significant did happen. I began to trust the Bible in a new way, returning over and over to the words I had read, underlined, wrestled against, and finally let take root in my soul. I was grounded in a way I hadn’t been before. I know now it was only because this dear person in my life had spoken truth to me and turned my eyes upward and away from myself, pointing me to the Word and ultimately to Christ, the Word made flesh.

This is the opportunity we have to minister to a generation lost in its own reflection. It is a responsibility and a gift to speak into the lives of those younger than us and remind them that God is in control, and his glory is our utmost purpose. So what does this look like in a practical sense? Here are four ways we can encourage and edify young adults in Christ:

  1. Listen: Be patient with people and hear their stories. Frederick Buechner said, “To see is to love, and to love is to see.” When we seek to understand people, to really see them for all their fears and limitations along with their gifts and blessings, we find it difficult to dismiss them. Instead, we can meet people where they are and let them know they are not alone.
  2. Ask questions: You know what’s really easy? Telling someone they can do anything if they follow their heart. That’s not empowerment; it’s a lie and neglect. It is difficult to ask the tough questions, to help people think about what’s really in their hearts and discern what God may be leading them to surrender in order to fully obey him.
  3. Encourage appropriately: In all my naiveté, I needed to be reminded about grace. I also needed to be reminded that the world is not about me. One of my favorite quotes is from Karen Swallow Prior, and says (paraphrased), “Existential crisis is code for ‘I take myself too seriously.’” We can speak life and grace in ways that build up but do not puff up.
  4. Implant wisdom: Most importantly, we should pass along what we know about the gospel and about the world to those who have not yet learned. Titus 2 calls us to make good examples of ourselves in our works and teaching, and to encourage and rebuke as needed, knowing we too are in submission to God and his authority.

The other night I sat across the table from a younger friend, listening to her share from her heart the ways God was working in her life through both joy and sorrow. I offered some insight from my own slow journey of sanctification, but mostly I listened and marveled at how the Holy Spirit does the work that cannot be done by even the best self-help.

For those of us who know this, who find hope not in personal liberty but in the person of Christ, we have a responsibility to those who come after us. As the world tells us to make our own way and believe our own truth, we must remember the words of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” On Jesus we hold our gaze, leading others to do the same, as we wait patiently for the hidden to become clear.

By / Nov 11

It seems that everywhere we look in the pop Christian blogosphere, someone is talking about Millennials. The conversation is usually focused on what these Millennials want and how the local church can reach them.

For example, in a September article on their website, Barna Research Group offered new survey findings to produce “5 Ways to Connect with Millennials.” As a pastor of a church that reaches over 1,000 Millennials each Sunday, I personally believe the vast conversation focused on Millennials is a little overblown. It has become more of a content-generating selling point than actually helping us come any closer to reaching Millennials.

Two issues we’re facing

My suggestion is that we not make this generation so complicated. There are some simple truths we need to understand about the Church and Millennials, but once we know them, we should not overcomplicate how Millennials are reached and connected to the local Church.

There are two glaring issues the Church is facing with Millennials:

1. We need to keep those Millennials who are in the Church.

2. We need to reach the ones who are not.

Worldview is key to keeping Millennials

The Great Commission calls us to both of these important aspects of Christian mission: evangelism and discipleship. Figuring out how to answer this call for Millennials should not be any different, and I do not think we need yet another study, book, or conference. Starting with Sundays, the simple fact is that many churches have services and programs that people don't want to attend, especially a generation with ever-decreasing loyalties. It isn't worth people’s time or energy to come to a Sunday morning service that is, in their eyes, lame, cheesy and awkward. Millennials are also obsessed with an “experience,” and they aren't getting that at most churches. While I'm not suggesting we create consumer cultures or even more “attractional” models, I am claiming we need to make Sundays worth the drive and time.

There is another reason why many churches are not able to keep Millennials in their gatherings, and it has everything to do with worldview. The Barna article states,

“Millennials need help learning how to apply their hearts and minds to today's cultural realities. Millennials need guidance on engaging culture meaningfully, and from a distinctly Christian perspective.”

Barna concludes from research that Millennial Christians are more than twice as likely to say their church helped them learn “about how Christians can positively contribute to society” compared to those who drop out of church (46 percent versus 20 percent). The conclusion of that research is obviously important, but that is far from the biggest issue. As this generation grows increasingly progressive, we are seeing a decline in their confidence in the Scriptures, beginning with the exclusive belief that Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation, along with other essential Biblical truths. The Church must teach convictional confidence in the Scriptures in order to keep Millennial Christians and help them develop a Biblical worldview.

So while many want to point to steps and essentials to recapture this generation, I'm not sure we ever had them in the first place. For many Millennials, views on faith and church were shaped by or inherited from their parents and grandparents. When you’ve been part of a church for years out of family obligation, image, or tradition, that shelf life will eventually expire. Keeping Millennials in the Church might begin with actually helping them move from a cultural faith of heritage to a convictional belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must create environments, reason from the Scriptures, and help this generation see why the local church matters.

Reaching Millennials requires non-Christian relationships

We must also understand the different challenges between keeping Millennials in the Church, and reaching those who have yet to come. Changing your service style and increasing confidence in the Scriptures can help you keep Millennials, but it won't help you reach them.

  • You have a band? So does the local bar in town.
  • You serve coffee? So does the place they frequent with their Mac laptop and their friends.
  • Your pastor wears jeans? You might think that's cool. They don't care.
  • Your church uses Facebook? Okay, so do their grandmothers now.

The truth is that people of all generations come to church on the arm of a trusted friend. So why isn’t the Church reaching Millennials? I think the answer is actually simple, but rarely discussed. Christian Millennials largely do not have relationships with non-believers.

If one asked what the greatest hindrance to the Great Commission in America is today, likely answers would be militant secularism, religious liberty, rapidly vanishing Christian influence in the public square, and the rise of the “nones.” These would all qualify as urgent matters the Church is facing and must be addressing. However, I believe the biggest hindrance to the advancement of the Church, especially within this Millennial generation, is the bubble of the Christian subculture.

The hindrance of two Christian subcultures

Today, the subculture is represented by two types of Millennial Christians. One group I am going to call the “Savvy Millennials” (SMs). They use buzzwords, such as “authentic” and “transparent,” while modeling what it looks like to be a hip and cool Christian. They dress in the latest trends, love bands that haven't been discovered by the mainstream and have no problem spending their Friday evening sipping wine at the local hot spot. “Cultural engagement” is the name of their game, and this generation of Christians plays it with pride. Putting on the latest threads from Urban Outfitters, these SMs head out to a concert or a bar for the night, posting pictures later that display newfound freedom from their separatist forefathers. To SMs, this lifestyle is sometimes even considered being on mission as they take part in the culture around them.

Yet, I continue to find myself asking this perplexing question: If a generation of Christians is so missional, authentic, and culturally engaged, then why do we face the dilemma of a missing generation in the Church? While only God can open the eyes of one’s heart to the gospel, something still doesn't add up. Yes, there is a major absence of Christians who simply are not sharing the gospel, in all circles. But, I believe there is a larger issue in this missing generation being unreached. Many Christians who profess to be culturally engaged and missional are really not either of those.

The Savvy Millennials love a good social justice cause but are often indifferent to the Great Commission. They love to be as cool as the world and join in on some the fun, but the dirty little secret is that they are doing this with their Christian friends and not the lost. Without even realizing it or admitting it, the SMs are in the center of Christian bubble they love to hate. In reality this cool crew has no more interaction with non-Christians than their culturally removed ancestors they are trying so hard to distance themselves from.

There is another group within the Christian subculture bubble that isn't as hip or trendy, but they are very engaged . . . online . . . with each other. We will call these folks the “Gospel Centered Millennials” (GCMs). They critique books, listen to sermon podcasts, debate theology and work at refining the definitions of “missional” and “cultural engagement.” Social media is big within this camp. It allows them to link articles and quote the gospel definitions of their heroes. They talk and write about evangelism and will share their faith as a cold call next to the person on an airplane. While any evangelism is better than no evangelism, you won't find this group actually building relationships with non-Christians. In other words, you won’t find them being missional, you’ll just find them talking about it.

Theologically, this camp is orthodox and, thankfully, unashamed of the gospel. Unfortunately, the gospel message they possess does not reach being on mission frequently enough in the day-to-day of their lives. They will go preach to hundreds in unreached countries but have never engaged with the lost through relationships in their own city. They are separatists without even realizing it because they aren’t aware that the conversations they are having about gospel and mission are actually not linking gospel with mission. GCMs are very aware of every church controversy taking place in the Christian sub-culture and seem to know more about their favorite blogger than their own neighbor. It seems this group never gets questioned, due to appreciation for their gospel convictions. While I do affirm those convictions strongly, any conversation about effectively reaching Millennials has to critique this tribe and their practice of commenting on culture without engaging in relationships.

The solution is in merging subcultures

What is the solution for Christians to move beyond the subculture bubble and reach lost people? I believe it is a full blending of the best practices of each of these types of Millennial Christians. If the culturally aware practices of the Savvy Millennials could be merged with the theological convictions of the Gospel Centered Millennials, I believe it would inevitably lead to a localized fulfillment of the Great Commission. If an everlasting truth was taken to an ever-changing culture, if cultural engagement accompanied a proper gospel proclamation, then Millennials would be reached for Christ and connected to local churches.

Eating with tax collectors and sinners still works. Those coffee shop conversations must lead to truth telling. Cultural engagement only works if the culture is actually, well, engaged. This is difficult to accomplish when the SM thinks the mission of the Church is to make it “cooler” and uphold social justice, while the GCM makes theological dialogue and gospel policing the mission.

Christianity will never be made cool in a society that thinks we are nuts. We need theological vigor that leads to relational urgency with those who do not know Christ. We must be able to explain, reason, apply and model the message of Christ. I've never met someone who came to Christ because they thought a Christian had great taste in skinny jeans and obscure folk rock bands. I've also never met someone who came to Christ because a friend can make the case for elder rule in Church government. I am not trying to set up false dichotomies but rather stating that if a generation is going be reached, we must actually try to reach them and actually reach them to something. The SM must be challenged to ask whether they truly are engaging or just trying to be like the culture. The GCM must put feet to their tweets and blog posts about being gospel centered and on mission.

I've learned that people who are actually gospel centered and “on mission” don't really talk and tweet about it. They just do it. It is an intentional and purposeful lifestyle. They are unashamed of the message of Christ and live life along those who need Christ. It’s that simple: have friends, and open your mouth about the gospel—that's how you reach Millennials.  

By / Oct 22

Reaching the world with the gospel requires us to understand the world around us, doesn’t it? We study statistics, chat with our colleagues and watch the world work. Understanding the cultural makeup and behavioral tendencies of those around us helps us better live on mission and share the love of Christ with others.

One of the most popular people groups to study today in Christian and non-Christian circles is “Generation Y,” more commonly known as “the millennials.” All sorts of studies are published on millennials regularly. As less and less Millennials (or maybe just white millennials) attend a local church with regularity, pastors frantically read books and blogs about how to keep young people in the pews (or chairs, perhaps).

The organization blazing the trail on millennial analysis is Pew Research Center. Over the last few years, they have published a significant amount of data on generational analysis in general, but they’ve given special attention to millennials. In March of this year, they released a significant study on millennials titled, “Millennials in Adulthood,” which has served as a sort of gold standard of millennial data since. While Pew is leading the charge on millennial research overall, Barna Group has done the most significant amount of research as it relates to millennials and the church.

Turns out it’s a bunch of bunk.

At least that’s what Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard says. And he just might be right.

The problem with studying millennials

In his appropriately-snarky article on the crackpot social science of generational analysis, Ferguson explains how, basically, millennials can be whoever you want them to be to fit your situation. He writes of millennials,

They are nature’s gift to “generational analysts,” those big thinkers who are able to grasp entire national cohorts in their meaty arms, lift them up, turn them upside down, and shake them till every last cultural insight falls from their pockets. Generational analysts can make any assertion they want about the 80 million people they identify as millennials and then dare somebody to disprove it, though hardly anyone ever tries.

He’s right.

This summer I started a blog called Millennial Evangelical in an effort to help the church better understand, reach and serve millennials. As I’ve studied and written about millennials somewhat consistently for about three months now, I’ve realized exactly what Ferguson is saying: pick a stat and make it dance however you’d like.

Pastors and church leaders are desperate for more data, more stats, more analysis on the millennial generation and how they can get them in the church. There seems to be a sort of insatiable hunger for millennial resources.

In addition to my own blog, I help manage a couple blogs of other leaders in the evangelical community, and just about any blog post about millennials is guaranteed to draw more traffic than other run-of-the-mill blog posts.

Millennials are a hot topic in the blogosphere and in our churches, and in some respects, deservedly so.

But pastors and church leaders, we’ve got to be careful, and we’ve got to use discernment. Here’s why:

The “millennials” are made up of 80 million of the most diverse people this country has ever seen.

If you aren’t careful, millennial statistics can become missiological tea leaves from which you can read whatever conclusions you’d like.

Millennial data can be a Magic 8 Ball—it can really mean whatever you’d like it to mean—because if there’s one thing we are sure about when it comes to Millennials, it’s that they’re so diverse, we can’t be sure about much at all.

Perhaps we need to spend less time traipsing down the path of “crackpot social science,” as Andrew Ferguson writes, and more time doing our best shepherding Millennials like they’re any other people group: in Christ-like humility and love.

The way to reach millennials

Spending too much time wading through the muck and the weeds of generational analysis can leave one weary, discouraged and none-the-smarter. Sure, without a doubt, certain steps can be taken to better minister to millennials, boomers and everyone in between. But, when it really comes down to it, the way you reach the unbelieving millennial and the way you serve the believing millennial is the same: love them as unconditionally as Christ has loved you.

Praise God that his love transcends racial, cultural and generational boundaries. The sacrificial love of Jesus, though able to be expressed in a myriad of generation-specific ways, is the love of Christ regardless.

As I said before, we can be sure of only one thing when it comes to millennials—they’re diverse in almost every way. Thankfully, the way we reach millennials is no different than how Christ reached those around him: with unconditional, sacrificial love which can only be found in him.