“Millennials are leaving the church!”

“Young adults don’t believe anything anymore!”

“The church has lost its voice in a wayward culture.”

These dire headlines describe the reality of faith and church for today’s young adults, often referred to as “millennials.” The hasty exit of millennials from the church is well documented, with Cascadia’s young adults often leading the way. The future of the church is literally disappearing right before our eyes.

But in many ways the church actually creates the problem of decreasing engagement. In particular, the church’s response to millennials is often overly reactionary and thus incomplete. Focusing too narrowly on retention, churches don’t foster mature faith, let alone actually retain millennials. Instead they risk encouraging ideals and practices centered more on selfish consumption than selfless discipleship. The result is unsustainable discipleship of millennials in Cascadian culture.

Consumerism Paradigm

A major factor on this topic is how millennials and the church are both impacted by a culture of consumerism. Millennials are embracing what Cascadia commentator Douglas Todd describes as a “secular but spiritual” worldview – low commitment to religious affiliation with a lingering desire for spirituality. And while their parents and previous generations transitioned into an increasingly secular culture, this “secular but spiritual” religious climate is all millennials know. Spirituality is a means towards personal fulfillment, with religious devotion left at the whims of a consuming generation. The result is the sharp decline in participation with a seemingly irrelevant church. Not surprisingly, churches are scrambling to respond to this reality.

Yet ironically, while trying to distance millennials from the secular influences of Cascadia, many responses perpetuate some form of consumerism that is ingrained in the very culture they are trying to reject.

Yet ironically, while trying to distance millennials from the secular influences of Cascadia, many responses perpetuate some form of consumerism that is ingrained in the very culture they are trying to reject. In the desire to retain millennials, these cultural shifts pressure churches into marketing Christianity in attempts to grab attention. Spirituality, however, becomes a product on the open market of religious experience – “religion à la carte” as Reginald Bibby has described. But in the hurried rush to retain millennials, this accommodation to consumerism results in an inadequate view of discipleship centered on short-term success. In many ways, not only do millennials consume spirituality, but churches end up consuming millennials as they attempt to preserve relevance. Skye Jethani’s lament needs hearing: “Consumer Christianity, while promising to strengthen our souls with an entertaining faith, has left us malnourished with an anemic view of God, faith, church, and mission.” When it comes to many well-meaning attempts to faithfully disciple millennials, unfortunately such consumerism is found in several ways.

Consuming Gospel Certainty

In Cascadia, facing worldviews defined by pluralism and relativism, many Cascadia churches express an urgency to equip millennials to remain faithful to orthodox Christianity in this context. For young adults mired in a culture of uncertainty, churches provide what I describe as “gospel certainty.” Where uncertainty can cause personal anxiety and backsliding, gospel certainty emphasizes specific beliefs and practices required to counter Cascadia’s values that are contrary to a Christian worldview. But while addressing pluralism and relativism is important for discipleship, gospel certainty doesn’t fully address cultural nuances of faith and spirituality for this region in a direct enough way.

To be clear, clarifying truth is a not the problem, but rather how such truth is clarified. Millennials can end up consuming gospel certainty.

To be clear, clarifying truth is a not the problem, but rather how such truth is clarified. Millennials can end up consuming gospel certainty. With a rhetoric of fear towards pluralistic culture, gospel certainty is presented as the antidote to such fear. Gospel certainty can provide temporary assurance to millennials, but faith development studies show that periods of uncertainty are inevitable and at times even necessary in the development of a life-long commitment to faith. Left to consume certainty, millennials may be left ill-equipped to translate theological truths into the reality of uncertainty in the culture around them.

Consuming Spiritual Experience

worshipIf theological certainty provides a natural, yet incomplete, intellectual alternative to Cascadia’s “secular but spiritual” approach to faith, other churches and ministries hone in on providing an experiential alternative for Millennials. Common here are age-specific young adult ministries that focus on high-energy, emotionally-driven worship events that can be found in most Cascadia communities. Providing an appealing alternative beyond regular church ministries can provide a point of connection to inspire faith, yet the extraordinary nature of these events does present a clear risk of consumerism – millennials end up consuming isolated spiritual experiences. Unintentionally, faithful discipleship gets equated with experiencing and even identifying with an event and the culture that it creates.

A similar problem is found in the growing trend to develop time-specific discipleship programs. Churches, camps, and colleges across Cascadia continue to develop discipleship-specific programs for millennials. Described as “gap year” programs, the emphasis is on an extraordinary experience of personal growth in faith and relationships during the ‘gap’ between secondary school and university or career. Characterized by adventurousness, social concern, and relationality, it’s no surprise these programs successfully draw millennials in Cascadia who already possess many of these same values.

Unfortunately, intense periods of spiritual transformation, while offering excitement and rapid personal growth, often leave millennials struggling to integrate a life of discipleship beyond the initial experience of these programs.

Unfortunately, intense periods of spiritual transformation, while offering excitement and rapid personal growth, often leave millennials struggling to integrate a life of discipleship beyond the initial experience of these programs. Directing such a program, I’ve have come to realize that short-term experiences of extraordinary transformation don’t easily translate into the long-term reality of faithfulness. Essentially, any approach to retain millennials that emphasizes a time-specific experience of faith risks becoming another form of therapeutic religion – addressing felt needs but neglecting a necessary depth to form a clear sense of self. The very thing millennials need as growing Christians – authentic discipleship – is merely a product for purchase with an expiry date alongside everything else.

Consuming Cultural Relevance

The experience of belonging typifies this approach and while there is great diversity in format across Cascadia, lifestyle inclusion is a common indicator of this approach, be it in terms of sexuality or on other issues.

Where the examples of certainty and experience tend to be responses arising from a negative reaction of the progressive culture of Cascadia, another reaction to retain millennials, while adopting a more positive view of culture, still risks feeding a consumeristic mindset. This is the response of cultural relevance in all areas of faith and practice. The experience of belonging typifies this approach and while there is great diversity in format across Cascadia, lifestyle inclusion is a common indicator of this approach, be it in terms of sexuality or on other issues. Tolerance is emphasized not just as a cultural norm, but as a primary form of engagement with faith as well. To a demographic that values relationships and in a region that embodies tolerance, the cultural relevance approach attempts to address key values for millennials.

Such a lens for millennial discipleship, however, risks creating a context in which relationships become rooted in like-mindedness without addressing some of the difficult issues of applying tolerance (i.e. inevitable conflict). As social researcher Andrew Grenville, describing Cascadia, writes,

“Acceptance without compassion and communication is just indifference – which is hardly a virtue.”

Millennials end up consuming the feeling of belonging, but lack a depth of relationship. Driven by the desire to fit in, such tolerance neglects a depth of relationships needed to sustain discipleship beyond the feeling of belonging.

Each of these common approaches to engaging millennials with Christianity in Cascadia risk further entrenching millennials in consumerism. In reaching out to consuming millennials, the church ends up consuming millennials.

Part 2 of “Consuming Millennials” explores an alternative.