The Coming American Millennial Church

Why the Church in America May Be Getting Smaller

History is one of my primary areas of interest. I loving reading and learning about history. As a historian, these are incredible times—interesting times—to be an observer and chronicler of events.

History, like the weather, runs in cycles, and like the weather, it is predictable enough to give us an idea what lies ahead, but it is also grossly unpredictable, and it’s in the area of unpredictability—the non-linear events that explode unexpectedly upon us—where the seismic shifts happen. But before these events, we often see a continuous stream of smaller, less significant events that set the stage.

The 9/11 attacks are one example of this kind of event. Yes, 9/11 changed everything about our world, and it is easy now to go back and trace the series of smaller events that set the stage for 9/11, from the Fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, these all played a part in setting the stage for 9/11. Yet, when September 11 dawned, and the planes flew into the World Trade Center, it seemed sudden and catastrophic, because it was. The trick is to try and connect the dots before the seismic events happen so we can be somewhat prepared when it strikes. Obviously, this is easier said than done.

I believe we are entering into a time when the world is rapidly changing, and when we emerge on the other side of the change, our world will look dramatically different. And, as in the past, I believe generational change is one of the chief driving forces behind the seismic change we are going to witness.

The Church Is Not Immune

We are seeing significant change in many areas of our culture and economy, and the church is not immune. Just like governments and business, the church is led by men who hold certain values and operate from a specific worldview. As one generation passes off the stage and a new generation begins to exert influence, the church is going to be changed.

The Megachurch Model is one area where we could see significant change. Over the last 30-plus years, we have witnessed the era of the consumer church, the church designed and modeled after the shopping mall. Successful churches today are large operations, with extensive programs or ministries that reach nearly every socio-economic group and demographic within our culture. A megachurch in America is now defined as a church with 2000 or more in weekly attendance. Some of America’s largest churches have 10,000 to 15,000 to 20,000 people who are a part of one single church. These churches have budgets that run into the hundreds of millions of dollars with 500 or more employees.

Cracks In the Foundation?

Mars Hill Church Can't Be ReachedYet, we are starting to see the signs of the cracks in the megachurch foundation. In the last three years, we’ve seen several prominent megachurch pastors fall, not because of sexual sin, but because of pride and arrogance. The most prominent without question is Mark Driscoll, who pastored Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area. Five years ago, Mars Hill Church was the most innovative, coolest church in America. Mark Driscoll was a rock star among pastors. Today, Mars Hill is gone. It imploded a couple of years ago as layer after layer of mismanagement and arrogance was uncovered within the Mars Hill leadership.

Time of Seismic Change

Here’s the point of all of this: I believe we are entering into a time of seismic change within the American Church, and I believe there are two factors that will be the driving force of this change:

  1. The lack of true transformation in the lives of American churchgoers
  2. The generational transition from Baby Boomers to Millennials

Let’s look at both of these in a little more detail.

The Lack of True Life Transformation

Like it or not, the church has enjoyed a lot of prosperity and success during the last 30 years because of the Baby Boomer generation. For the most part, Boomers are economically affluent, generous with their cash, and loyal to the institutions in their life. This combination is a win-win for the church. That’s the good.

At the same time, Boomers are very comfortably compartmentalized, especially when it comes to their beliefs. The result of this compartmentalization is what social historians recognize as the creation of “Cultural Christians.” That’s the bad.

Cultural Christians are people who identify as a Christian, attend church, give financially to a church, but are spiritually dead. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), Cultural Christianity has allowed many churches to become both large and affluent yet see little, if any, real spiritual fruit. In other words, there is no true life transformation. Many churches are filled with good people, but lost people, who are very content to compartmentalize their identity as a Christian to Sundays. This is why we can see large, prosperous churches on Sundays, but a culture continually sliding towards Gomorrah during the week. Cultural Christians do not impact the culture for the Kingdom of God. In the end, they reflect the culture instead of influencing the culture with the gospel.

The Generational Transition

The second driving force that is going to impact the church is generational change. Every 30 to 40 years we see our culture transition from the older generation to the next generation. In theory, we should see the Boomer generation transition to the next generation, which is the Gen X generation. But the Gen X generation is in many ways called “The Silent Generation.” That is because it is the smallest generation living today in terms of population, and because the Gen X generation does not show as many stark differences between the Boomers, the parents of the Gen X’ers and the Millennials, the children of the Gen X’ers.

The Millennial Generation are the folks born between 1981 and 2000. The oldest Millennial is in their mid-30s today, while the youngest is in their mid-teens. This is the generation that observers within both secular culture and the church believe will have the greatest impact during the next 30 years on the world in which we live.

Pew Research Poll

For the church, these changes could be stark. Here’s just one example: according to a recent poll published by the Pew Research Center, 7 out of 10 Boomers who are in their mid-50s or older identify a religious preference and are part of a local church. That same poll observed that only 3 out of 10 Millennials identify a religious preference and are part of a local church. The fastest identified religious identifying in 2015 was not Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist, or even Christian, it was “none.”

Ankeny Is A Good Example

My home town of Ankeny, Iowa is a good example of what is happening in our culture. I can remember in 1995 talking about the need for church plants in Ankeny. I grew up in Ankeny, and I am very familiar with the town. I knew Ankeny was growing, but in 1995 I could only point to one or two new churches in Ankeny since I graduated from Ankeny High School in 1982. Of these, the new LDS Ward Building on E. First was the “fastest growing church plant in Ankeny!”

Over the last 20 years, many churches have responded to the need for church plants in Ankeny. This is just an estimate, and I’ll try to be generous, but I think it we could estimate that if we took all of the new church plants in Ankeny since 1995 and totaled their attendance, it might reach 10,000 people. Again, I think that’s generous. During that same 20 year period, Ankeny has grown by over 30,000 people! In 1995, we had approximately 22,000 residents, and in 2015, the official census was 54,598. That means that at best the churches in Ankeny are reaching approximately 1 in 3 of the people who are moving into our city.

Why is this? Is it because the churches in Ankeny are not trying to reach people? No. Is it because the churches in Ankeny are jam packed and there’s no more room for people? No. I think, and I want to underline the word think, it has something to do with the fact that Ankeny’s fastest growing population is not the Boomer or Gen X generation, it is the Millennials, and, if the Pew Research Center’s poll is correct, then Ankeny is right on target and the churches are only reaching 3 of 10 Millennials within our city.

Generational Differences

To understand what is happening, we need to look more closely at the characteristics of the Millennial Generation. The West Midland Family Center published a valuable chart that highlights the Generational Differences between the generations that have lived during the last 100 years. If you study this chart, you can see America, and the church, where we’ve been, and where we are possibly going.

Look at a sampling of these descriptions and see if this doesn’t describe your Millennial neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Millennials:

  • are influenced most by media and technology
  • grew up in divorced or blended homes
  • were kept busy as children and have learned to multitask in all areas of life
  • were sheltered from many of the evils of the world, yet at the same time–
  • came of age during the era of gross, televised violence, from school shootings to terrorist attacks to YouTube suicides
  • have known nothing but prosperity and affluence
  • are extremely wary of people who are “paid” to be something (not authentic)
  • highly educated
  • highly individualistic
  • repulsed by fake Christians or “cultural Christianity”

If there is a word that defines the Millennials, it is the word “skepticism.” Millennials are skeptical of everything. This skepticism is displayed in the way Millennials view authority and relationships.

What Does This Mean for the Church?

So, what does this mean for the church?

Two things:

  1. It means that Millennials will still participate in church, but in much smaller numbers than what we have seen, and that when it comes to their family, church is just one of many, many options that are available for their kids. This means that over the next 10 years, churches will get smaller, not bigger.
  2. It means that we may be entering a time when the school teachers, office workers, and team leaders who work at Wells Fargo and Nationwide—and are Christian—will have greater influence on the spiritual life of Millennials than the pastor or church employee who is “paid” to be a Christian leader.

Millennials Are Lonely

There is one other identifier within the Millennial generation that is critical for us to pick up on and address: Millennials are on target to be the loneliest people our country has ever seen. While they may have hundreds of Facebook “friends” and constant communication through social media and texting with their “friends,” Millennials are starving for real, deep, meaningful relationships.

The thing is, and we know this, but deeper relationships do not happen in 140 character sentences and through our smart phones, relationships develop in small, intimate settings that foster trust, closeness, and unity. This is what our small groups must become.

The church must begin to intentionally focus on creating deeper relationships within our congregations and among our members. Unfortunately, there’s only one clear pathway to developing truly deeper relationships, and it’s a costly one for all of us.

Time.

The dreaded “T” word. It is something that is becoming an increasingly rare resource in our homes and churches. Everyone is busy. Too busy, in fact. So, how do we develop deeper relationships that require significant time to develop, when time is the one resource most of us do not have?

The answer is to simplify. We need to narrow the focus to a smaller group of people. How small? The experts tell us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to have more than 3-4 close friends. That means that if you have 12 men and women in a small group, you need to regularly divide up into even smaller groups—men with men, women with women, and then divide those groups into even small groups, until you have 3-4 people meeting in a circle. It’s doable. It won’t happen over night, but it is doable.

As leaders we need to intentionally lead our churches into smaller circles. We need to help our church family understand why we are doing this and the importance this will play in the overall health of our church and community. Generational change is coming, and it’s time to get smaller.

    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.