Millennials and the Church

An Important Lesson for the Urantia Movement

Bruce Jackson

The internet is full of articles, research, and advice concerning the serious loss of the millennial generation to the Christian church rosters around the world and in North America and Europe in particular.  The exodus of young adults from churches is nothing new, but it has become increasingly acute in the past decade and is a major concern of many churches and denominations.  The Urantia movement is confronting much the same situation in our study groups and institutions.

First, I must make the following disclaimer.  I have shared information with Jesusonians concerning what is happening within Christendom in recent years.  I have often been met with the response that what happens in Christian churches is not relevant to our Urantia movement.  I have found that for some readers, there is little understanding of what is going on in modern Christian churches due to an over reliance on the analysis of Christianity found in Paper 195 (and in other sections). 

With the knowledge that the writing of The Urantia Book was completed in 1934, and when we apply an understanding of the history of Christianity during the early 20th Century, it becomes clear that The Urantia Book’s perspective was skewed by the events in Christendom at that time.  Throughout the early 20th century, the Christian church was struggling with the emergence of extreme strains of fundamentalism resulting from such theories as atonement doctrine, prosperity theology, and claims of biblical inerrancy. The modern Christian church has undergone significant changes in the intervening 80+ years as they advance enlightened theologies and vigorous social consciousness movements that are not reflected in the text of The Urantia Book.

What the research tells us about millennials leaving the church

There are so many resources attempting to characterize millennials it is difficult to pick and choose a particular study that is representative of the issue.  While I may have not selected the best research, please allow me to share a few published observations for your review.  I apologize in advance for my use of extensive quotations.  I would not allow my students to do that in an academic paper, but fully quoting the citations using their own words presents the best perspective of their research.

David Kinnaman in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith suggests that the modern church is facing a generation that exhibits the following characteristics:

Isolationism.  One-fourth of 18 to 29 year-olds say church demonizes everything outside church, including the music, movies, culture, and technology that define their generation.

Shallowness.  One-third call church boring, about one-fourth say faith is irrelevant, and Bible teaching is unclear.  One-fifth say God is absent from their church experience.

Anti-science.  Up to one-third say the church is out of step on scientific developments and debate.

Sex. The church is perceived as simplistic and judgmental.  For a fifth or more, a “just say no” philosophy is insufficient in a techno-porno world.  Young Christian singles are as sexually active as their non-churched friends, and many say they feel judged.

Exclusivity.  Three in 10 young people feel the church is too exclusive in this pluralistic and multi-cultural age.  And the same number feel forced to choose between their faith and their friends.

Doubters.  The church is not a safe place to express doubts say over one-third of young people, and one-fourth have serious doubts they’d like to discuss.

The Barna Group, a highly respected Christian research organization, has recently published an extensive research project concerning what the 16 – 29 age group actually think of the Christian church and their members.  Here is a basic summary:

  • Millennials see many Christians as hypocritical, saying one thing, but living something entirely different. Their perceptions are that many Christians aren’t transparent about their own failures and flaws. Christians appear to be more known for what they are “against” than what they are “for.”
  • People in this new generation say many Christians seemed insensitive and insincere, concerned with “converting” others rather than cultivating relationships and environments where all people can be deeply transformed by God.
  • Millennials believe many Christians are sheltered, and enjoy being in their own community.  The more they seclude themselves, the less they can function in the real world.  Essentially, they believe that many Christians are caught in a protective Christian “bubble.”
  • This new generation believes that the church has become too political, having given up real moral authority by aligning themselves too much with one political party or the other.  That truly turns them off.  
  • The perception of those in this generation is that many Christians are overly judgmental.  The perception is that, rather than showing grace by finding the good in others and seeing their potential to be followers of Jesus, they are prideful and quick to find faults in others.

Barna Group’s research acknowledges that young people are voting with their feet and leaving the church in droves.  When you compare the present generation of 16-29 year-olds with the Baby Boomer generation, twice as many say they neither have nor want any meaningful association with the church. The study also observes that when asked about Jesus, those same young people offer a much different response.  They like Jesus and identify with his message and his ministry.  However, they simply think that the Christian church no longer represents what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity, as expressed by those professing the faith today, is not what it was meant to be.  All this has happened in the space of a single generation.

In Ten Reasons Millennials Are Backing Away from God and Christianity, Dr. Alex McFarland observed the following in the opinion pages of the conservative Fox News (4/30/17):

“For evangelical youth mentored by many a hip and zany “Minister to Students,” commitment to Jesus lasts about as long as the time it takes to wash the stains out of T-shirts worn at the senior-year paintball retreat.  It is true that our culture has grown visibly antithetical to God and Christian commitment.  But in addressing the spiritual attrition rate of young America, it must be admitted that a prayerless, powerless church peddling versions of “Christianity Lite” share in the blame.  God only knows the degree of our complicity, and also the time when we’ll be concerned enough to change direction.”

The Pew Research Religious Landscape Study offers some significant statistics on millennial attitudes towards church and religion.  Check it out and think seriously about the relevance of this information to the UM. When Jesusonians become aware of our situation with this younger generation, perhaps then we might see a significant change in the generational membership of our Urantia Book movement.

A personal example

In a progressive church where I recently served as Music Director, a beautiful, charismatic, highly organized young millennial working on a masters in counseling was hired to develop a group of her compatriots into a ministry specifically designed for them.  This project was organized with great care.  Attention was given to the latest research and a plan incorporating many published suggestions for finding solutions to reaching out to millennials were thoughtfully designed and cultivated.  While initially successful and full of exciting potential, within a year the initiative died and she left her post.  Why?

The modern Christian church is seriously confronted by a situation where the self-important grey-hair who has been warming the pew for forty years has a sense of ownership and entitlement that results in a knee-jerk reaction that runs off new folks who may be different, offer new ideas, or bring a new freshness to the church.  Many contemporary church pastors are deeply confronted with the dilemma of biting the hand that feeds him/her.  The result is that church staff watch their church suffer as the revolving door witnesses much needed new blood with new ideas to come and go.  Many a sermon has been preached on this subject.

In all sermons I have heard on this topic the challenge always comes back to the church itself.  Is the church willing and able to change to accommodate the expectations of millennials?  Is the lay leadership of the church capable of releasing their perceived reins of power to younger, less experienced folks?  In the case of my very progressive Disciples of Christ church the answer clearly was “YES, BUT….”  “But” because more than once when giving opportunities to the younger generation, the church got burned.  “But” because our 40-year pew warmers simply would not change and trust others to share their power and control.  “But” because our staff was stuck in the organizational dilemma of our church.  

Please believe me, this same situation applies to the Urantia movement.  Change that would invite millennials into the UM must come from the inside first.

Some proposed solutions for reaching millennials

Scattered throughout the internet are literally hundreds of proposals, sermons, books, and research papers proposing solutions to reverse the abandonment of millennials from churches.  In a paper titled Twelve Reasons Why Millennials Are All-Over Church, a group called “Recklessly Alive” outlines millennial attitudes from a more personal perspective and suggests a series of interesting solutions that tend to be typical of other church research projects found on the net. 

  1. Nobody’s listening to us.
    • Create regular outlets (forums, surveys, meetings) to discover the needs of young adults both inside AND outside the church.
    • Invite millennials to serve on leadership teams or advisory boards where they can make a difference.
    • Hire a young adults pastor who has the desire and skill-set to connect with millennials.
  2. We’re sick of hearing about values and mission statements.
    • Stop wasting time on the religious mumbo jumbo and get back to the heart of the gospel.  If you have to explain your mission and values to the church, it’s overly religious and much too complicated.
    • We’re not impressed with the hours you brag about spending behind closed doors wrestling with Christianese words on a paper.  We’re impressed with actions and service.
  3. Helping the poor isn’t a priority.
    • Stop creating more bible studies and Christian activities.  Community happens best in service with a shared purpose.
    • Survey your members asking them what injustice or cause that God has placed on their hearts.  Then connect people who share similar passions.  Create space for them to meet and brainstorm and then sit back and watch what God brings to life.
    • Create group service dates once a month where anyone can show up and make a difference (and, oh yeah, they’ll also meet new people).
  4. We’re tired of you blaming the culture.
    • Put the end times rhetoric to rest and focus on real solutions and real impact in our immediate community.
    • Explicitly teach us how our lives should differ from the culture. (If this teaching isn’t happening in your life, check out the book Weird: Because Normal Isn’t Working by Craig Groeschel)
  5. The “you can’t sit with us” affect.
    • Create authentic communities with a shared purpose centered around service.
    • Create and train a team of CONNECT people whose purpose is to seek out the outliers on Sunday mornings or during other events.  Explicitly teach people these skills as they do not come naturally to most of the population.
    • Stop placing blame on individuals who struggle to get connected.  For some people, especially those that are shy or struggle with anxiety, putting yourself out there even just once might be an overwhelming task.  We have to find ways to bridge that gap.
  6. Distrust and misallocation of resources.
    • Go out of your way to make all financial records readily accessible.  Earn our trust so we can give with confidence.
    • Create an environment of frugality.
    • Move to zero-based budgeting where departments aren’t allocated certain dollar amounts but are asked to justify each purchase.
    • Challenge church staff to think about the opportunity cost.  Could these dollars be used to better serve the kingdom?
  7. We want to be mentored, not preached at.
    • Create a database of adult mentors and young adults looking for someone to walk with them.
    • Ask the older generation to be intentional with the millennials in your church.
  8. We want to feel valued.
    • Return to point #1: listening.
    • Go out of your way to thank the people who are giving so much of their life to the church.
  9. We want you to talk to us about controversial issues (because no one is).
    • Create real and relevant space for young adults to learn, grow, and be vulnerable.
    • Create an opportunity for young adults to find and connect with mentors.
    • Create a young adults program that transitions high school youth through early adulthood rather than abandoning them in their time of greatest need.
    • Intentionally train young adults in how to live a Godly life instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.
  10. The public perception of church within the community is changing.
    • Call the local government and schools to ask what their needs are. (See: Service Day from #3).
    • Find ways to connect with neighbors within the community.
    • Make your presence known and felt at city events.
  11. Stop talking about us (unless you’re actually going to do something).
    • Stop speaking in abstract sound bites and make a tangible plan for how to reach millennials.
    • If you want the respect of our generation, under promise and over-deliver.
  12. You are failing to adapt.
    • Look at the data and take a risk for goodness sake.  We can’t keep trying the same things and just wish that millennials magically wander through the door.
    • Admit that you’re out of your element with this generation and talk to the millennials you already have before they ask themselves, what I am still doing here?

What has all this to do with the Urantia movement?

I suspect that if Jesusonians would be honest with themselves, all of the above applies to our current situation in North America and Europe in relation to millennials.  While extraordinary work with younger folks is being done in the Philippines, Africa, and parts of Latin America, interfacing with the highly connected millennial generation through modern technologies and youth conscious methods relevant to their generation must become a high priority of our groups, institutions, and schools if our mission of sharing the revelation with the world is to develop and grow during this current renaissance age.  While below is not necessarily a complete list (I am sure that there are other important points that will be developed in this conversation), here are seven basic tasks that need the Urantia movement’s focus and attention.

  1. We must strengthen the Urantia movement:  We used to have over a thousand Jesusonians attend our international meetings—where are they?  Printing of The Urantia Book is said to be nearing one million, so why does that not translate to more than the few thousand active participants we now have on our Urantia movement rosters?  This movement needs to organize its membership lists, reach out to the many isolated readers, and develop effective institutional and movement-wide relationships.  In this new technological world, we do not need to have groups on the ground to do this.  Our schools are already demonstrating new online instructional methods that appeal to the tech-savvy millennials across the earth.  We need to continue to develop that trend.
  2. We must become more inclusive:  Any reader patient enough to tackle The Urantia Book is not your average “Joe Schmo.”  Every reader who comes to our door is precious.  It is time to get over the dominance of our 40-year pew warmers.  We need to open up our movement to all around us—especially to millennials who will respond to our spiritual message and opportunities to serve. 
  3. We must embrace diversity:  The world we live in is diverse and ours is an international mission.  The Urantia Book is for the entire planet and that will mean many levels of comprehension, expression, and interpretation.  That simply is the way of the modern spiritual renaissance.
  4. We must worship and pray together:  We have the technologies to establish international forums for worship and prayer.  We truly need to experience that as a united movement. 
  5. We must provide opportunities for real spiritual service:  Many of the suggestions above talk about the importance of service to millennials.  The service of any earnest seeker should not to be wasted. Our institutions, and especially our schools, need to eagerly open their arms to anyone expressing a willingness to serve. In fact, the primary mission of our schools, groups, and institutions should be to help sincere seekers find a place for real spiritual service.
  6. We must get serious about developing real ministries:  Do we seriously believe that the “study group” format will appeal to millennials?  Young and old alike are looking for a place to minister and be ministered to.  We need to develop cradle to the grave ministries and stop arguing if that is some form of a “church” or not. Parents need a place for childcare as they study. Education for all age groups needs to be developed and put in place.  We truly need to cultivate a sense of spiritual community and loving support for all age groups; especially our millennials.
  7. We must practice what The Urantia Book preaches:  In our past, the UM had largely been an intellectual endeavor as opposed to a spiritual community. Many of our best scholars clearly recognize this. It is time to focus on and become a living demonstration of the morontian level of human living that is deeply engaged in a union of souls.

In a recent sermon Rev. Fred Leist, my current Methodist pastor, reviewed this latest research on millennials leaving the church with the following observation:

“Two comments: 1) The church obviously has an image problem.  2) Sometimes I also wonder if we don’t also have an identity problem.  I look at various expressions of the Christian faith that I see in the world, and I wonder if we haven’t forgotten that we are to be the face of Jesus in the world.  As the “Body of Christ” (think about what that description implies) we are to be an extension of Jesus’ hands and an expression of Jesus’ heart in this world. That is a huge responsibility, and it is our single mission in the world.”

I would suggest that these words preached from a main-line pulpit on an ordinary Sunday morning should truly resonate within our Jesusonian community.  It is important for our movement to take seriously these warnings being heard throughout Christendom.  Should we ignore these words of wisdom, we will likely have the same problems that so many churches are experiencing today. 

It is predicted that a significant percentage of Christian churches will close their doors in the next decade.  This should offer extraordinary opportunities for the Urantia movement.  It is time to take seriously the call to step up and really do the work to introduce this new revelation of God, Jesus, and eternal life within the Family of God.  It is time for the Urantia movement to evolve, grow, and change by paying attention to the millennial generation and introduce them to the life changing message of spiritual truth; even The Urantia Book if they are ready to hear, embrace, and live it.  It is time for the Urantia movement to develop the mentors, leaders, teachers, and groups needed to support the next generation before us old folks die off. 

It is indeed time!  The fields are ripe, but the workers are so few.  Who will respond to the call of God?  Who will say: “Send me!”