How NOT to Reach Millennials

Diluted versions of Christianity that risk no riots will reap no revivals.

If our ministries offer people nothing that cannot already be found elsewhere in the surrounding culture, they offer little motivation for people to drag themselves out of bed on Sunday morning. But most importantly, the false Gospel of Cultural Pandering is ultimately profoundly unloving to both God and the people to whom the Christian church must minister.


Lately, the question that has been all the rage in the U.S. church world has been “how can we better reach Millennials?,” in reference to the name given to those of us who were born in the 1980s or 1990s.

Many have been eager to exploit this anxiety for various agendas.  I vividly remember a large United Methodist denominational gathering a few years back at which a liberal, college-age delegate passionately urged support for a controversial denominational restructuring plan.  He did not offer any arguments on the proposal’s merits but rather simply declared “I’m the future!,” thereby suggesting that the church was somehow obligated to pander to whatever he demanded.

Such cynical attempts to exploit my generation has been nowhere more prominent than with those seeking to shift Christian churches away from traditional biblical standards for sexual self-control, including not limited to the prohibitions of homosexual practice.

Let’s be clear.  My generation is NOT a monolith, ideological or otherwise.  No one speaks for all of us or most of us.  Not me.  Not the solipsistic young Methodist delegate.  Not self-righteously truth-twisting, anti-evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans (who happens to be exactly the same age as me).  And certainly not post-evangelical church-world celebrities clumsily trying to sound hip by treating us as a talking point for their agendas (you know who you are).

Nevertheless, we are repeatedly exhorted that in order to reach today’s young adults, the church must follow the recipe of blessing secular twenty-first-century secular Western sexual mores, avoiding “exclusivity,” touting “relevant causes of social justice,” and otherwise not being “too conservative.”  And we are told that the church is failing to reach more young adults because of its failure to do these things.

I recently visited a long-running Saturday evening service of a large, famously liberal United Methodist congregation in Chicago.  Its prime downtown location is very convenient for many nearby young professionals.  By the time I found my way to the service, I came across several signs and symbols touting the church’s GLBTQI-friendliness.  Lest there be any doubt, I also saw ads for some intersex-themed show being held in the church building.  They had available copies of the social-justice Religious Left magazine, Sojourners, and are apparently very big on interfaith cooperation.  Furthermore, this congregation is flush with financial resources it could use to reach young adults for Jesus Christ.

If any church in America is well-positioned to test the recipe for liberal pandering to Millennials, it is this one.

At the service, I counted a grand total of 18 people there, apparently aged from their 20s to their 60s.  This included myself, those running the service, and those who had come to hear the guest preacher.

To be fair, Saturday evening services are not the most representative services of most congregations.  But it is a wonder that this one has not been able to attract more people after running for years.

The hymns sung were surprisingly orthodox and cross-centered.  But I could not help but notice the lack of Bibles provided in the chairs or brought in congregants’ hands, or how the sermon barely made a pretense of connecting to its supposed Scripture.  It raised valid concerns about environmental degradation and income inequality and stressed the importance of human action on such problems.  But the purely secular focus and stress on how much the world allegedly needs our good deeds left me wondering what need there was for God in the sermon’s worldview.

And if God is not necessary, then why is the church?

Such liberal oldline churches have been remarkably successful in convincing people that there is, indeed, no need for church.

On a larger scale, whenever denominations have moved to embrace interfaith universalism, sexual liberation, offering-plate-funded lefty partisan politics, and otherwise sought to define themselves as “Not Like Those Bad Conservative Christians,” the result has been a dramatic collapse of membership.  There is no rush of flattered unchurched Millennials joining such churches out of appreciation for being pandered to.  While much of the membership loss is due to orthodox defections, much is also driven by secularized versions of Christianity generally lacking much power to attract and maintain people.

Not that long ago, I recall an Episcopalian friend observing that every other young-adult Episcopalian she knew was either ordained, getting ordained, or considering ordination.  Without a much larger number of Millennial laity, this is hardly sustainable.  (Unless the Episcopal Church has some plot afoot to take the “priesthood of all believers” to a whole new level.)

Meanwhile, Matt Marino, a regional leader for Episcopal Church youth and young adult ministry has recently noticed his denomination struggling to maintain the loyalties of even the sub-demographic to which it has most famously pandered: unrepentantly homosexually active Millennial churchgoers.  In a recent article (with which I have some disagreements), he reports that church affirmations of homosexuality are no longer seen as meeting as much of a great need.  The “fuzzy Christology, hermeneutic of suspicion, and denials of the bodily resurrection of Jesus” found in the Episcopal Church offer nothing.  He mentions a lesbian friend who, with her partner, regularly drives 40 minutes to attend a “not Gay-friendly” mega-church rather than a nearby Episcopal congregation.

Congregationally, I can best speak about my own experiences.  Since graduating from high school, I have lived only in culturally liberal, solidly Democratic urban environments (DC, Chicago, and the Boston-Cambridge area), where the alleged need to pander to secular liberal values should be the most pronounced.  In each area, the thriving, dynamic churches I saw packed with large numbers young adults were strongly evangelical congregations whose leaders were committed to a high view of Scriptural authority, including biblical standards for sexual self-control.  Yes, I knew of fledgling oldline liberal campus ministries and some more theologically liberal congregations with small “twenties and thirties” groups, but these were nowhere on the scale of their local evangelical counterparts.

In the Boston area, regional United Church of Christ (UCC) officials would not ordain a supremely qualified young Harvard Divinity School graduate because he was even a centrist evangelical.  So he went on to pastor a non-denominational congregation (now affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church).  While the intolerantly liberal UCC may not have wanted him, he was used by God to grow this congregation into being the friendliest church I have ever visited, active in the community, amazingly multi-ethnic, and filled to the brim with people in their 20s and 30s who the UCC has ensured are not and will likely never be a part of their dying, “inclusive” denomination.

So the empirical record is abundantly clear that pathetic attempts to pander to secular liberal social values simply do not work for wooing my generation into churches.

If our ministries offer people nothing that cannot already be found elsewhere in the surrounding culture, they offer little motivation for people to drag themselves out of bed on Sunday morning.

But most importantly, the false Gospel of Cultural Pandering is ultimately profoundly unloving to both God and the people to whom the Christian church must minister.

Through Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition, the triune God has clearly taught His church certain boundaries for how we are to steward His gift of sexuality.  Yes, these boundaries pose more challenges for some individuals, such as those experiencing same-sex attractions, or hormone-filled young adults unable to find a suitable spouse.  But they are ultimately no more offensive in twenty-first-century America than they were in first-century Corinth.  (Incidentally, that city was home of the first church to take a “reconciling” or “open and affirming” stance towards sexual sin.)

Contrary to some of the rhetoric I hear from pandering proponents, the biggest missional problem facing the church in America today is NOT the alleged need to get more people into our doors to help pay for our crumbling roofs and our even-more-crumbling denominational bureaucracies.

Rather, the biggest missional problem the church faces is that all around us, millions of our neighbors are dead in their sins, are not enjoying the wonderful salvation that is uniquely available through Jesus Christ, and so are at grave risk of spending eternity in Hell.  For those of us who suffer from the terminal disease of original sin (and  that’s all of us), it is worse than useless to give us a placebo deceptively mislabeled “Christianity” that actually lacks the essential ingredients of repentance and personal transformation into a new life of holiness.  1 John does not give much wiggle room for divorcing love for God from obedience to His commandments.

It is true that polling shows my generation of Americans is more sexually permissive than those who came of age in the 60s (who themselves were hardly known for puritanism in their own younger days).  But calls for church cultural pandering are rather revealing.  Do we really believe that whether or not someone has become a Christian makes a profound difference in her life and values?  That Christian churches should redefine their beliefs to conform to those of non-Christians?  That church outreach is a purely godless matter of selling whatever the market seems to want?  That the Holy Spirit plays no powerful, supernatural role in drawing people to Christ and His church – at least not in our ministries?  And if we really believe such things, what is the point of having a church, again?

We must carefully, prayerfully face the challenges of cultural resistance to Christian values and the spread of the true Gospel.  We must not think we can do it on our own.

But if Paul had listened to today’s apostles of cultural pandering, he would have preached to the Ephesians about how he, too, thought their goddess, Artemis, was great.  Acts 19 records how what actually happened was that his counter-cultural evangelism provoked a city-wide uproar as “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul” and many were brought into the Kingdom.

Diluted versions of Christianity that risk no riots will reap no revivals.

John Lomperis is the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s United Methodist Director. This article is used with permission.